Ah, Lolita, the young and sweet nymphet that stole Humbert Humbert’s heart. Doesn’t sound too promising if you put it this way, but trust me, there’s much more to it. After I finish a novel, I tend to meditate on one aspect of the story that I find most intriguing, so here I will focus on the psychology of the characters, of course. Nabokov told me that he never agreed with symbol interpretation and complicated analyses of one’s work and that he meant exactly what he wrote. He also told me he didn’t like Jane Austen, but I pretended not to hear that part. So this is not going to be a profound investigation on pedophilia, but rather just some thoughts on Lolita’s main theme.
The easiest question I can start with is: do we like Humbert Humbert? No, we do not. The reasons are obvious. Do we understand him? Mostly not, but we could if we tried, because he explains himself pretty clearly. Do we hate him? Yes, but not as much as we should. This leads to my last apparently nonsensical question – why don’t we truly hate Humbert, the pedophile, the murderer, the rapist?
Humbert is an intelligent person who received a prestigious education, has a career and developed his own way of perceiving and talking about life. Oh, and he loves little girls. Things are obvious in his mind – he only looks after nymphets, as he calls the perfect feminine combination of innocence and lust embodied in a child. He never dared to touch one of these girls, he just observed them and found pleasure in looking at them while keeping his distance. He even mentions that in his youth, he thought something was wrong with him, which demonstrates that his morality is not entirely absent. As he appears in the first part of the book, you can only blame him for dirty thoughts, as he almost seems harmless. No worries, Lolita is about to change that. The encounter between the two of them was just bad luck. Lolita was a naive child and she had no idea what she was doing, goofing around, playing seduction games, but her behavior wasn’t completely innocent. After all, she was the first to kiss Humbert and wake something inside of him.
And now it’s Humbert’s turn to be the bad guy. He basically carried Lolita around, on never-ending trips, to tens of hotels developing some kind of relationship with her. He was her father, he was her lover (mostly lover). Even if he truly fell in love with her and venerated her, bought her everything she wanted and offered her an education, he was only capable of approaching her physically. This is one of the terrifying things about this book – we never get to see what Lolita thinks or feels, but we certainly know she is not doing as okay as Humbert thinks, because even he admits that she used to cry at night – “her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.”
The climax of the novel and the ending are frustrating, terrible, but mostly really sad. After Lolita tries to escape from Humbert through Quilty, the one who turns little girls into prostitutes, her life gets even worse and she ends up a premature adult with a ruined future, incapable of sensing the great trauma that she faced, for she doesn’t hold any grudges against the ones who caused her so much harm. This last image of her is shocking, because only now we realize how badly her mental development was damaged, as she can’t even see herself as the victim. Humbert’s life is also destroyed after he revenges himself and his lost lover in an act of pure violence and evil. Here we see that between him and Quilty (his darker alternative), Humbert is the lesser evil. He realizes the mistakes that he’s made and he is deeply in pain, heartbroken because of seeing how Lolita ended up and knowing he will never be with the love of his life again. So he promises an eternal life for him and his Lola inside the story he writes, in order to keep the good bits of the dreadful romance.
The question I ask in the end is: do we empathize with Humbert after all, only a little? Ok, forget it, what does it mean to empathize only a little with somebody, anyway? But we do comprehend that his love for the little girl was genuine, we also see him as a victim of his ill mind and incapability to resist temptations and we do feel sorry for him, for her, for everything, after all.