Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

October 5, 2010

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The narrator of this story is Humbert Humbert, a former literary scholar who, as the novel opens, is in jail awaiting trial for murder. While there, he composes the story of Lolita, the “nymphet” he has been in love with for six years. After briefly describing his own childhood and youth in Europe, that included an unconsummated affair with the 13-year-old Annabelle Leigh when Humbert was also 13, as well as a failed marriage, Humbert starts talking about the time when, at the age of 37, he first met Lolita.

Humbert had decided to take a job as a tutor in New England, but complications with his proposed accommodation forced him to take a room at a boarding house run by Charlotte Haze. Lolita, more formally known as Dolores Haze, is Charlotte’s 12-year-old daughter, and though Lolita is somewhat plain looking and vulgar in her tastes and habits, Humbert is instantly in love. After all, she fits his description of a nymphet and, more importantly, he has access to her.

Humbert ends up marrying Charlotte just in order to remain close to Lolita. Things work out well for a while, but then Charlotte discovers Humbert’s diary–in which he writes of his lust for the young girl–and decides to throw him out. Fortunately for Humbert, Charlotte is killed by an out-of-control car as she goes to mail some letters. This opens the door for Humbert to take Lolita on a cross-country trip, posing as father and daughter, so he can finally have his way with her.

Lolita surprises Humbert by seducing him before he can seduce her, and by admitting that he wasn’t her first. From there, their “relationship” develops to the point where Humbert is hopelessly under Lolita’s spell, is jealous of any kind of interaction she might have with other males, and pays her for any sexual favors she provides. Lolita, meanwhile, alternates between being quite calculating in manipulating Humbert and being the frail, 14-year-old child that she is.

The rest of the novel continues to chronicle what happens to Humbert and Lolita as they drive across the country staying in various hotels so Humbert can satisfy his desires. As the plot develops, Humbert’s worst fear comes true when Lolita runs off with another man (Clare Quilty). He is devastated, and ends up killing the guy once he finally tracks him down a few years later. We had already learned that Humbert dies in jail of a heart attack, while Lolita dies in childbirth on Christmas day in 1952, so the end holds no surprises.

Liked:

  • Nabokov is a tremendous writer, so the prose in this book was a joy to read and experience. Nabokov is so good, in fact, that he makes Humbert Humbert, an admitted pedophile and child rapist, seem practically sympathetic and almost (but not quite) likable.
  • There was actually a lot of humor in this book despite the subject matter. I read this way back in high school, but don’t think I was able to appreciate the humor — or understand the subtlety of some of the scenes — as a teenager.
  • I liked being able to reread this book while paying better attention to detail. For example, I didn’t remember Lolita being so plain and vulgar. I guess she kind of lived on in my memory as the temptress that the name now evokes in modern times.

Disliked:

  • Well, the subject matter in general was kind of disgusting. Nabokov did a good job of hiding it under the spectacular prose for the most part, but at the end of the day, this book was about a 37-year-old man who repeatedly had sex with a 12-year-old.

Rating:

Overall, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is deserving of its place among the classics of modern literature. If you enjoy good prose and won’t get too offended by the subject matter, then you’ll likely find this book worthwhile. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply