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Themes and Colors
Perversity, Obsession, and Art Theme Icon
Suburbia and American Consumer Culture Theme Icon
Exile, Homelessness and Road Narratives Theme Icon
Life and Literary Representation Theme Icon
Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy Theme Icon
Patterns, Memory and Fate Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Lolita, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy Theme Icon

The flip side of Humbert Humbert’s obsession with nymphets is his hatred of sexually mature women. Humbert Humbert treats the adult women of Lolita with almost infinite pity and contempt. Often, when angry, he thinks about killing them: he considers or at least imagines murdering Valeria, Charlotte, and Headmistress Pratt at the Beardsley School. Humbert’s misogyny reaches its pinnacle in his marriage with Charlotte. Humbert hates Charlotte’s body, and is disgusted by her sexual desire for him. He hates everything he perceives as feminine and domestic in his Ramsdale life, and associates women with stupidity, middle-class snobbery, and bad taste. Humbert Humbert’s hatred of sexually mature women is related to his complex obsession with innocence. He hates older women because they lack the imagined purity and innocent devilishness of nymphets. He doesn’t like women with mature sexual desires, even when those desires are for him.

Instead, he obsesses over the fantastical innocence of nymphets. Even when he learns that Lolita has had sexual experiences before, he continues to think of her as innocent, unconnected with the world of adult sexuality: “She saw the stark act [of sex] merely as part of a youngster’s furtive world, unknown to adults.” This obsession with Lolita’s innocence and naïveté causes Humbert to miss the more complex aspects of her budding personality, something for which he—and just as or more importantly, she—will pay dearly. It allows him to convince himself, for example, that she doesn’t notice him molesting her when she is very young. For the plot of Lolita, Humbert’s belief in his nymphet’s innocence causes him not to believe in his suspicions when she plans her escape with Clare Quilty. By the end of the novel, though, Humbert Humbert has realized that he himself was the greatest threat to Lolita’s innocence, and that he in fact destroyed her innocence in ways that could never be undone.

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Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy appears in each chapter of Lolita. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy Quotes in Lolita

Below you will find the important quotes in Lolita related to the theme of Women, Innocence, and Male Fantasy.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the first lines of the novel proper, in which Humbert Humbert offers an opening remark on his attraction for Lolita. The passage immediately immerses the reader in the narrator’s both twisted and seductive psychology.

Rather than offering background information on him or Lolita, Humbert jumps straight into a bizarre mix of love expression and self-admonition. That Lolita is a “light” and “fire” presents her in a traditionally positive imagery of illumination and vigor, yet the tone immediately changes with the observation that that same light is a “sin.” Even this line has a third turn, however, when Humbert appends the term “soul.” Lolita thus may epitomize his evil actions, but she remains integrated into his deepest identity: Lolita, Nabokov implies, is a sin Humbert will be unwilling to renounce.

It’s worth spending some time on the word-level choices Nabokov has made. The heavy alliteration in the lines gives the language a luscious quality: First come the five “l” sounds, subdivided into an “lo,” three “li”s, and a final “lo.” Then comes the two “s” sounds of “sin” and “soul” again, divided between the vowels of “i” and “o.” Nabokov is a true master of such linguistic play. He uses it throughout his work to craft compelling prose, but this sentence seems a bit overdone—and purposefully so. As a parody of his own style, it indicates that Humbert’s language may at times become overwrought.

Notice also the incessant repetition of the possession “my”: Humbert may start the novel by discussing Lolita, but she is only ever seen in relation to himself. When read closely, these lines teach the reader to be cautious of any description the narrator will offer on Lolita—for his perceptions will always be warped through a similarly possessive viewpoint. She will be seen through the lens of his sin and his soul rather than on her own representative terms.


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Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory...

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Freudian Symbols
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert has begun to give a brief summary of his personal background. Here, he offers a glancing remark on his mother’s death and absence from his life.

The passage’s immediate—and presumably intended—effect is to garner the reader’s sympathy for Humbert. He presents himself as a lonesome, even traumatized child, who lacked a maternal figure throughout his development. Humbert's mother's extremely early death, in particular, has removed her not only from his life, but also from his “memory,” so she cannot even play a moral or inspirational role. That distance is also stressed by the lack of detail available on her death, which is only conveyed in two vague nouns in the parentheses: “(picnic, lighting).” Here we see Humbert’s prose winning over the reader’s emotional sensibilities in addition to our aesthetic ones.

Yet even in a line intended to garner sympathy, there are disturbing moments. The reference to his mother’s “photogenic” nature applies an erotic eye to the woman, and considering that Lolita was described as a fire, the reference to “warmth” should invite similar caution. One need not commit to a fully Freudian reading of the passage in order to observe that there is a perversion to the way Humbert speaks of his mother. Nabokov places us, then, in an ethically compromised position in which we must assess whether a dead mother is indeed a good justification to treat Humbert with more compassion.

Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nymphets
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert breaks off while recounting his studies and travels to suddenly give this definition of “nymphets.” He will use the term repeatedly throughout the book to refer to the young girls he finds sexually arousing. (It's also worth noting that the word "nymphet" has entered the English language thanks to Nabokov's invention here.)

The language here becomes suddenly distanced and scientific, as if Humbert is presenting an animal species or natural phenomenon. In particular, the use of specific “age limits” and the phrase “propose to designate” grant Humbert a false scholarly authority. As a result, the nymphet seems like an objective fact, when in fact this "type" is a perverted creation of one single narrator.

And it takes a good deal of careful reading to observe the insidious nature of the nymphet. The reference to “bewitched travelers” implies that these men are attracted partially due to an enchantment rather than out of rational choice—thus reducing their moral culpability. That the nymphets are likened in a subtle parenthetical to demons and have a “true nature” implies that their young age obscures a hidden coercive maturity. The term, then, reveals less about the actual “maidens” and more about the psychology of Humbert: He projects onto these girls a precocious sentience in which they are conniving and aware of their seductive power.

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future?

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nymphets
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert Humbert chronicles, here, his early experiences encountering and resisting the allure of nymphets. He wonders, in particular, whether his gaze and thoughts may have had some unintended effect on their futures.

To evidence this rather bizarre question, Humbert gives a provocative image of how interconnected the world is: “wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect.” Literary metaphors describing interlocked lives are generally poetic, but “wrought-iron” gives this one a harsher sense of imprisonment. “Criss-cross” similarly turns what would be normally a linear “cause and effect” instead into an entangling morass. Humbert implies that the world’s logic does not necessarily conform to rational rules, but rather often entraps one in an uncertain series of links. It recalls an earlier reference the “tangle of thorns” from the novel’s opening, and also introduces the concept of paranoia and recurring patterns that will prove central to Humbert’s character.

One must ask, after all, what the motivation would be for such a paranoid philosophical musing: Why would he desire for the nymphets to have been affected? Nabokov likely means to stress Humbert’s egoistic complex, in which he wants to be seen as an all-important determiner of others’ lives. If he did have some effect on the nymphets, it would demonstrate that his life is not simply constituted of passive perception, but can also inform the actions of those around him. Similarly, it would grant him an important role in the nymphet’s lives, so this rumination becomes a way for him to be psychologically closer to them.

Part 1, Chapter 13 Quotes

Lolita had been safely solipsized.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert delivers this pithy pronouncement during his first sexual experience with Lolita. He describes the encounter with highly abstract language that distracts the reader from visualizing the scene, while also pronouncing with pleasure his victory.

The line employs a shocking, albeit brilliant, pun: Solipsism is the philosophical belief that nothing exists, or can be proved to exist, outside of the self. So to solipsize someone would mean to view them as only a fictional projection of your own mind. It is a way to deny the external reality of other people and to bestow on them the significance that you so desire. Indeed, this is characteristic of how Humbert interacts with Lolita, always veiling her in metaphors and romantic tales. To do so “safely” implies less the actual security of Lolita herself and more the way Humbert has insulated himself from his own and the reader’s judgmental eyes.

The pun holds a darker side, however, for the way it rhymes and recalls “sodomized,” a term that comes from the Biblical tale of Sodom and that has since been applied generally to sexual actions deemed perverse or culturally inappropriate. Nabokov’s linkage of sodomy and solipsism thus shows the high ethical stakes of accepting Humbert’s language and theoretical pronouncements. To his eyes, Lolita may well be just a confluence of his internal desires, but the reader is being taught to note how this may obscure the actual human stakes of his sexual perversities.

…and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

At the climax of his sexual encounter, Humbert makes this striking appeal to the reader. He both incriminates himself and believes that the splendor of his language and sentiment will somehow serve to exonerate his actions.

In a sense, this is not an unexpected choice. Humbert began the section by explicitly calling attention to the readers as similar “gentlemen of the jury,” and he often uses the phrase to cast us as arbiters on the morality of the narrative. Yet whereas his tone during such appeals is generally cautious and controlled, here he seems to have lost himself in the erotic energy of the events being described. Presumably, the “jury” will not find his pedophiliac descriptions redeeming. And, indeed, Humbert proves to be conscious of how horrific his action are: His “ecstasy” belongs to “man or monster,” which obscures which one of the two he is. Yet Humbert’s candid tone seems to imply that he does not particularly care, for it is not the moral designation of being a man over a monster that he seeks, but rather the superlative of “longest ecstasy.” This description implies that he believes the aesthetic uniqueness of the experience will triumph over any judicial or moral system.

Part 1, Chapter 14 Quotes

I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done. The conjurer had poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white purse; and lo, the purse was intact.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

After finishing describing his perverse sexual encounter, Humbert reflects on how his action did not in fact maltreat Lolita. To justify this belief, he argues that the experience took place primarily within his own mind and with an aesthetic image of Lolita—and adds that she maintains her virginity.

As usual for Humbert, however, the main point is hidden beneath a thick layer of fancy images. Here, they are all luxurious foods: his orgasm is “honey,” while his sex becomes “milk, molasses, and foaming champagne.” He thus presents perversion in metaphors that, if literal foods, would be desired by a young girl (and also echo the physical results of his masturbation)—thus implying that Lolita has enjoyed, or at least been untroubled by, the experience. This, presumably, is why he feels that her “morals” have not been impaired and “no harm” has been done.

Yet Humbert’s point is predicated on the idea that a purse that is “intact” has not experienced any negative consequences. That is to say, he believes that if Lolita has not changed externally or physiologically, that his actions had no adverse effect. In doing so, Humbert explicitly ignores her psychology and denies her interior experience—something that is particularly noticeable since he constantly describes the richness of his own psychology. Nabokov cautions the reader from developing such harsh divisions of what is internally and externally valid for others, asking us to be skeptical of how much Humbert values his aesthetic life while denying how others may experience the world.

Part 1, Chapter 20 Quotes

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down on them.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker)
Page Number: 87-88
Explanation and Analysis:

While swimming at hourglass lake, Humbert contemplates drowning Charlotte in order to have freer access to Lolita. When he decides against the action, he uses it in an appeal to the reader-jury. He asks that we consider sex offenders not to be diabolical murderers or radical sinners but rather simple, timid people.

Humbert steps out of his poetic language, here, to adopt a scientific register of speech. His reference to “the majority of sex offenders” presents him as a well-read expert who has amassed quantities of data that can shed light on his specific case. Next, he minimizes the intensity of the pedophilia, noting that it does not necessarily require a “coital” relation. Just as he interpreted his first sexual experience with Lolita to have had no real effect on her, he contends that a “throbbing, sweet-moaning” experience can be personal and solipsistic. As a result, these sexual deviants are deemed “innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid”: all adjectives that downplay their social power and thus their presumed effect on the object of their desire.

The main point of the passage is cleverly hidden beneath the tower of adjectives, but it essentially calls for his case to be considered a private and personal matter rather than something that is attended to by “the police and society”—who of course are represented by the reader as jury (and the actual jury who will soon be judging Humbert's case). This passage reiterates the way Humbert has constructed his reality as sealed off from social forces, and, indeed, that he has used this separation as a way to theorize and justify the actions of sexual deviants as innocuous.

Part 1, Chapter 33 Quotes

In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set, a travel clock with a luminous dial, a ring with a real topaz, a tennis racket, roller skates with high white shoes, a portable radio set, chewing gum, a transparent raincoat, sunglasses, some more garments—swooners, shorts, all kinds of summer frocks. At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Related Symbols: Motels and Rented Houses
Page Number: 141-142
Explanation and Analysis:

Humbert describes the events that transpire just after he informs Lolita of her mothers’ death. To compensate, he buys Lolita a litany of presents and then later observes how their mutual exile has brought them closer together—just as he had wished.

Nabokov is riffing, here, on a specific type of American consumerism. As a European, Humbert would have not grown up with such an obsessive relationship with purchasing objects, but he sees them as a way to seduce and sedate Lolita. He presumes she can be placated with toys and sweets—and especially by clothing. We can read this as both a personal strategy of Humbert’s and also a critique of the American belief that owning things provides a source of emotional significance and meaning. Lolita has just lost her mother, and yet the only response Humbert offers are purchased products and sexual manipulation. As an immigrant, Nabokov held an excellent critical eye for many such American practices, and this novel, in particular, takes aim at the magazine and film consumer industries Nabokov found distasteful.

The final lines in this passage shift the tone, however, from superficial to emotional and predatory. Humbert reflects with delight how entrapped Lolita has become in his game, for, without a mother, she can turn to no one except him. These lines should be recalled at other moments when Lolita seems complicit or even empowered in Humbert’s games, for her actions only ever exist on top of this fundamental state of desperation—even if the desperation is covered by a consumerist veneer.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

As Humbert continues to recount his and Lolita’s travels across America, he oscillates between a loving and disparaging tone. Here, he switches into the former to reiterate his obsession with Lolita and to describe a passion so consuming that he wishes to connect with her full person—both inside and out.

This fascination with Lolita’s interior seems at odds with Humbert’s earlier obsession with her external appearance. Previously, he was frustrated with her “mentally” and preferred to see her as a projection of his own fantasies rather than an actual human. Here he wants to understand and come into contact with that interior—yet he never makes a reference to her mind or emotions. Rather, he seeks organs that regulate breathing and bodily functions, thus shifting the imagery to consumption. After all, “voracious lips” implies not a careful touch, but rather the act of greedily eating. And the organs are coated in his usual batch of aestheticizing adjectives. Nabokov thus displays how Humbert’s attempts to express interest in other parts of Lolita eventually undermine themselves: Even when he presumes to be more caring, his actual language only reiterates sexual greed and twisted violence.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.

Related Characters: Humbert Humbert (speaker), Lolita (Dolores Haze)
Related Symbols: Motels and Rented Houses
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

As he continues to recount his travels with Lolita, Humbert becomes increasingly desperate. He lapses more and more out of a poetic tone, or even a critical one, and instead reflects on the actual horror of what is transpiring.

This moment of seeming honesty begins with an expression of exhaustion and despondency. Though they have traveled all over America, they “had really seen nothing,” which points to how Humbert has focused solely on Lolita and his own paranoia above all else. They have followed the narrative conventions of an American road trip, in which one goes in search of new experiences with different people and cultures, but instead Humbert’s gaze has remained fixedly solipsistic and inward, only moving to a new place to best position his relationship with Lolita. As a result, the journey seems suddenly drained of meaning. What was before a fantasy land is instead just the detritus of “dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires”—all physical reminders of the sad, desperate road-trip.

He contrasts these desolate images with “the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country”—a remarkably positive take on America considering how harsh the European Humbert has been on the nation before. That their journey has “defiled” America implies that the country was pristine to begin with, and casts their crimes as having a significant negative effect on the space. This is a notable shift from his earlier contention that pedophiles do no public harm, for here the very geography of America has been marked by their sinful travels. Nabokov positions Humbert, then, as increasingly aware of his moral complicity, not because he has necessarily come to a full self-accusation, but simply because the glamor of the travel has faded. In a sense, he can no longer seduce himself.

Furthermore, Humbert's brief admission that Lolita sobs every night when he himself is asleep is especially tragic and horrifying. It hints at other kinds of trauma that Humbert may have glossed over or repressed in his "confession," and is a stark reminder of the very real psychological horror Lolita is enduring at this time—something not even Humbert himself can deny any longer.