A fictional psychologist named John Ray Jr., Ph.D. introduces the rest of the novel, presenting it as a case study in abnormal psychology. He explains that it was written by a murderer and sexual pervert, who refers to himself in the manuscript as Humbert Humbert. The author, as well as the girl he abducted—Lolita—are now dead. The former died of a heart attack while awaiting trial in prison, and the latter died in childbirth on Christmas Day. Both died in the year 1952. Ray closes his foreword by praising the genius of the writer, condemning his actions, and recommending the book as a warning, a case study, and a guide to building a more ethical society. The foreword is dated August 5th, 1955.
Humbert Humbert’s narrative begins with the story of Lolita’s predecessor, his childhood love. Young Humbert meets Annabel Leigh at the Hotel Mirana on the French Riviera. His father owns the hotel, and Annabel’s parents are family friends. The two children fall in love, and try desperately to find some way of having sex without being discovered. They almost succeed, but are discovered at the last moment by two swimmers. Humbert never sees Annabel again, and she dies of typhoid a short time after. Annabel defines Humbert’s ideal of nymphetry until he meets Lolita.
As a young adult, Humbert moves to Paris. There and in London, he receives a literary education, and begins publishing articles in journals. He represses his urge for the young girls he finds attractive, whom he calls “nymphets.” Nevertheless, he takes every chance he can to be near them. He visits prostitutes to deal with his erotic urges. One of these prostitutes, Monique, is so nymphet-like that it makes a striking impression on him. He tries to find a little girl prostitute in the Paris underworld, but gives up after being scammed by a Madame.
Humbert Humbert hopes that the sexual and domestic routines of marriage will help him deal with his perverse desires. In 1935, he marries Valeria, the daughter of his doctor. It goes passably well for four years, at the end of which Valeria leaves him for a Russian taxi driver named Maximovich. Humbert Humbert leaves for the United States, where an uncle has left him a yearly stipend on the condition that he immigrates and shows an interest in business.
Humbert Humbert immigrates to New York, where he works for a University writing a book on French Literature. His mental health deteriorates, and he ends up staying in sanatoriums for several years. In between stays, he accompanies a scientific expedition to the arctic, where he acts as a “psychological recorder.” The report he drafts is entirely fictional. Soon after, he has to return to the sanatorium, where he revels in his ability to deceive his psychotherapists.
Released from the sanatorium in 1947, Humbert Humbert moves to New England. He arranges to lodge in the town of Ramsdale with a family called the McCoos. He is excited to learn the McCoos have a little daughter. When he arrives, Mr. McCoo informs him that their house has burnt down. He refers Humbert instead to the Hazes, a mother and daughter living at 342 Lawn Avenue. Charlotte Haze, the homeowner, gives Humbert Humbert a tour of the house. He is unimpressed with the décor, and has the unpleasant impression that Charlotte is flirting with him. He’s all but decided not to take the offer, when all of a sudden he sees Charlotte’s daughter Dolores sunbathing on the piazza. He falls in love at once, feeling that this twelve-year-old nymphet is the reincarnation of Annabel, his childhood love. He takes Charlotte’s offer and moves in.
Humbert Humbert begins keeping a diary. He writes about Lolita, detailing his fantasies and schemes to possess her. He is as discreet as possible, but manages to nuzzle her or touch her several times. Lolita fights constantly with her mother, who views her as a little brat. Charlotte is always trying to get Lolita out of the picture so that she can have time alone with Humbert Humbert, with whom its clear she wants to begin an affair. Meanwhile, Lolita takes a liking to Humbert.
One day, Humbert is left alone in the house with Lolita. While they sit together singing on the davenport, he uses her legs to masturbate through his dressing gown, later groping at her thigh. Having finally “enjoyed,” a nymphet—without her noticing, he claims—Humbert is overjoyed.
Charlotte drives Lolita to summer camp, which he calls Camp Q. Before she leaves—Humbert claims—Lolita runs up the stairs to kiss him. Once mother and daughter have left, the maid, Louise, brings Humbert a note. It’s a love letter from Charlotte, begging him to either marry her as soon as she returns, or to leave at once. Determined to stay near Lolita, Humbert decides to go through with it. Upon her return, Charlotte becomes Mrs. Humbert.
During a swim at the Hourglass Lake, Charlotte announces to Humbert that she’s planning to send Lolita to boarding school as soon as she’s back from camp. Humbert is furious. He considers drowning Charlotte, but thinks better of it. He desperately looks for ways to assert himself in the marriage, so that he’ll be able to ensure that Lolita stays near him.
One day while he’s out getting sleeping pills to drug Charlotte and her daughter to make it possible for him to molest Lolita undetected, Charlotte discovers Humbert Humbert’s diary. When he returns home she screams at him, calling him a monster, and runs out into the street with incriminating letters in her hand. There, while Humbert is distracted by a telephone call, she is run over by a car and killed. Thinking quickly, Humbert Humbert arranges things so that he can become Lolita’s guardian. He convinces John and Jean Farlow, close family friends, that he’s Lolita’s real father from a long ago affair with Charlotte.
Humbert picks up Lolita at Camp Q. He tells her that her mother is ill and takes her to The Enchanted Hunters, a motel in Briceland. There, he drugs her with sleeping pills and tries to molest her in the bed. He is surprised when she wakes up, and he gives up his molestation attempt. In the morning, Lolita initiates sex with Humbert—according to Humbert, at least. He believes that she was “corrupted,” at summer camp. When the two get back on the highway, Lolita begins threatening to call her mother, or the police, and tell them everything. Humbert then reveals her that her mother is dead; orphaned Lolita has nowhere else to go.
Humbert Humbert and Lolita spend the next two years on the road, staying in motels and visiting tourist attractions throughout the United States. He creates a frantic, “fun” filled schedule to distract Lolita from any desire she might have to escape. He also threatens her: if she turns him in, she’ll end up in some awful foster home. Throughout their journey, Humbert buys Lolita whatever she wants. In California, she starts taking tennis lessons. In the summer of 1948, Humbert Humbert begins having financial and legal worries about staying on the road. He decides to settle with Lolita in Beardsley, an eastern college town where a French friend named Gaston Godin is able to help him secure a job as a lecturer. He enrolls Lolita at the local girls school.
Lolita makes friends and adapts to her new environment. But the Headmistress of the school, a woman named Pratt, begins to worry that something might be wrong with her home environment. She urges Humbert Humbert to let Lolita go on dates and socialize, as well as participate in the school play: a production of The Enchanted Hunters by Clare Quilty. As play rehearsals begin, Humbert’s relationship with Lolita deteriorates. He mistrusts her, and worries she has told everything to a friend named Mona Dahl. When Humbert learns Lolita has been missing piano lessons, the two have a screaming fight, and Lolita runs out of the house. He catches up with her at a telephone booth, and her attitude has totally changed: she asks Humbert if they can go on the road again, but requires that she be the one to choose the route.
In May of 1949, Humbert and Lolita set out on another cross-country trip. As they travel, Humbert Humbert becomes concerned: someone who looks like his uncle is following them in a red car, and Lolita seems to be communicating with this man when Humbert isn’t paying attention. Humbert becomes more and more anxious, feeling that Lolita is trying to escape from him with their pursuer. Eventually, he convinces himself that he’s being too paranoid. In a town called Elphinstone, Lolita falls ill. Humbert Humbert takes her to the local hospital, where she stays for several days. When the time comes to pick her up, Humbert is horrified—the hospital staff informs him that Lolita’s uncle picked her up. Humbert realizes that Lolita has escaped with the man who was pursuing them.
Humbert Humbert spends the rest of the summer looking for traces of Lolita and her lover. The man seems to have anticipated his investigation, and has left mocking false names in each of the motel registers. Humbert Humbert is impressed with the man’s cleverness, and is ultimately unable to track him down. He falls into despair, ultimately starting a two-year relationship with a woman named Rita, who is something of an alcoholic and bum.
In the September of 1952, Humbert Humbert receives a letter from Lolita. She is married to an engineer named Dick, and needs money so the two of them can move to Alaska for Dick’s new job. She doesn’t give her exact address, but Humbert Humbert manages to track her down anyway. He brings a gun, meaning to kill her husband, whom he assumes is the man who stole her away from him.
Lolita greets Humbert Humbert at the door to her house. She is older, pregnant, and no longer a nymphet, but he still loves her. When Humbert sees that her husband isn’t the same man as her kidnapper, he decides not to kill him. Humbert presses Lolita to reveal the identity of the lover with whom she escaped from him. Reluctantly, she tells him: it was Clare Quilty, a playwright her mother had known, and with whom she’d reconnected at rehearsals for the Beardsley school’s production of his play. Lolita fell in love with Quilty and ran off with him, but left him after he wanted her to be in his child pornography films.
Humbert Humbert gives Lolita the money she’s asked for, and begs her to run away with him. For the first time, Lolita sees that her molester and “father,” really did love her; she’s surprised, maybe even touched, but firmly refuses. Heartbroken, Humbert Humbert drives away in tears.
Humbert Humbert returns to Ramsdale to meet with Jack Windmuller, so that he can transfer Humbert’s property (formerly Charlotte’s) to Lolita. While he’s there, he walks by the old house at 342. He tries to shock and offend everyone in town that he runs in to: Mrs. Chatfield, and the dentist, Ivor Quilty (Clare’s uncle).
Humbert leaves Ramsdale in search of Clare Quilty. On his journey, he begins to have a moral awakening: he realizes how terribly he hurt Lolita. He tracks Quilty to a huge, rickety house called Pavor Manor. The door is open in the morning, and he heads inside, with his gun, to look for Quilty. When he finds and threatens him, Quilty is unimpressed: he alternately mocks, ignores, and negotiates with Humbert. The two pedophiles—who turn out to be very similar people—have a long, slow fight involving lots of wrestling and missed shots, a parody of combat in contemporary Westerns and other Hollywood films. Finally, Humbert manages to shoot Quilty several times. The playwright reacts theatrically to every wound: he plays the piano, delivers dramatic lines similar to those in a play, and hops up and down. Finally, he dies. Humbert leaves the house, announcing the murder to Quilty’s drunk young friends on the bottom floor—they don’t believe him or don’t care.
Leaving Pavor Manor, Humbert drives on the wrong side of the highway until he is stopped by the police. He swerves the car to the top of the hill, then waits for arrest.