Summary of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The foreword of the novel Lolita, written by Russian-American literary great, Vladimir Nabokov, follows a fictional character, John Ray, Jr., Ph.D, as he prefaces the peculiar tale that is set to come. According to Ray, he came to have in his possession a manuscript, entitled the Confession of a White Widowed Male, or Lolita. This manuscript was delivered to him by the lawyer representing the author, known under the pen name Humbert Humbert. While incarcerated, and awaiting trial, Humbert succumbed to the fatal effect of coronary thrombosis.
Ray has stated that, while he believes the crimes committed by the author to be reprehensible, his written works are nothing short of beautiful. He further goes on to state that he feels the novel will quickly come to be regarded as a masterpiece in those in the psychiatric field and will undoubtedly encourage parents to raise their offspring in a better world.
In the manuscript for Lolita, Humbert tells of his peaceable upbringing, on the Riviera, where he comes to meet the girl who will be regarded as his first love. The twelve year old Annabel Leigh and the thirteen year old Humbert never have a chance to experience their love blossoming, Annabel falls ill with typhus and passes away shortly after meeting Humbert. The death of his young love haunts him in later years.
Despite pursuing a career as an English literature teacher, Humbert spends time in a mental institution and falls into a path of menial jobs. Humbert attempts to find love again, and even marries. However, his marriage eventually crumbles and Humbert expresses his obsession with sexually charged young girls. He refers to these girls as ‘nymphets’ and insists that they remind him of Annabel. Even still, he is never able to find one who is capable of replacing her.
Soon, Humbert relocates to America and rents a room from the Widow Charlotte Haze, in her home in a small, close nit New England town. Almost instantly he develops a strong infatuation with Dolores, the twelve year old daughter of Charlotte. Dolores goes by the nickname, Lolita. Humbert has taken to following Lolita around, he flirts with the young girl, and confides his true thoughts in his journal.
Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, has fallen in love with Humbert. And, despite loathing the woman, Humbert agrees to marry her so that he will always be close to Lolita. Yearning to be alone with the girl, Humbert contemplates the idea of killing his bride, but finds himself incapable of following through with the plan. One day Charlotte finds Humbert’s journal and confronts him. Humbert denies everything, but that does not stop Charlotte from leaving. She storms out of the house and is struck by a passing car. She dies instantly.
Humbert goes to retrieve Lolita, who had been away at summer camp. After the pair arrive at a motel, he tells the girl that her mother has died. Humbert insists that, at that moment, Lolita had seduced him. The pair spend the next year driving around the country, and Humbert’s obsession for the girl continues to grow. Lolita has learned how to manipulate the man. However, when she attempts to use fits or tries to town down his advances, he threatens to leave her in an orphanage. While on their travels, an unknown man takes an interest in Lolita and Humbert and begins to follow them.
Soon, Humbert takes a job at Beardsley College, in the North East, and Lolita enrolls in school. Like girls her age, she begins to take an interest in boys and this causes turmoil between herself and Humbert. Humbert becomes increasingly more possessive. Regardless, he permits her to take part in a school play. The girl begins to act secretively, which enrages Humbert who, after accusing her of being unfaithful, takes her on another road trip. While driving, Humbert comes to the conclusion that they are being followed. When Lolita questions this, she is accused of working with their stalker.
Lolita falls ill, prompting Humbert to take her to the hospital to receive medical attention. When Humbert returns to get the girl, he is told that she left with her uncle. This causes Humber to fly into a fit of rage.
He spends the next two years searching for Lolita, seeking out clues about her kidnapper and contemplating how he would get his revenge. He develops a small interest in a woman named Rita, but soon receives a note from his beloved Lolita, She states that she has married and is now pregnant. She asks Humbert for money. Humbert believes that the man who had been following them was the one who kidnapped Lolita and is determined to murder him.
However, when he finds Lolita, she is seventeen, pregnant and destitute. As it turns out, the man she married is not the man who had kidnapped her. But, rather, Clare Quilty, a playwright. Lolita admits that she had loved Clare once, but he had thrown her out when she refused to participate in child pornography. Still obsessed with Lolita, Humbert begs for her to leave with him. Gently, she refuses.
Humbert leaves the girl with four thousand dollars and then goes off to find and murder Clare. After the killing, Humbert is arrested and locked away, where he continues to add to his memoir, stating that it must only be published after the death of Lolita. Lolita passes away during childbirth, and Humbert dies of heart failure. After which, the manuscript makes its way to John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.
The Foreword Summary
The foreword, penned by fictional character John Ray Jr., Ph.D, informs readers about the author of Lolita or the Confession of a White Widowed Male. It goes on to explain that he passed away from heart failure in 1952, while incarcerated and awaiting trial. It delivers no suggestion of what the author might have been imprisoned for. C.C. Clark, the lawyer representing the author, reached out to Ray in hopes of having him edit and publish the manuscript, but only did so after the deaths of the main characters.
Ray, who has previous experience editing works on the subject matter of abnormal psychology, makes some minor edits in order to ensure the complete anonymity of the characters. He indicates, however, that very minimal editing was done, and that the novel is wholly the creation of its late author. It is Ray’s belief that altering the manuscript would take away from the true intent of the author and also distract from the richness of the topic.
Ray stresses that, while the information contained in the manuscript is true, nearly all of the character names have been changed due to the taboo nature. The only exception to this is the name Lolita, which is the nickname that the main character went by. Lolita’s surname had been changed to Haze, even the author chose a pseudonym – Humbert Humbert. Ray cautions that a reader capable of due diligence would be able conclude the events simply by searching news events in the fall of 1952.
He then goes on to state the fates of the book’s characters, including that of Mrs. Richard Schiller. Ray had received confirmation of details by at least one individual, Mr. Windmuller, who requests that his family not be connected with the author or his crimes.
Ray admits, that despite not being outwardly brass, the nature of the book might be considered to be highly offensive to some readers. None the less, he feels strongly that altering the language or changing the wording of the manuscript would only dilute the message. Ray stresses that he finds the action of author to be highly inexcusable but still finds the man to be persuasive, articulate and sincere in his love for Lolita.
Ray offers a brief psychological insight into the author, and suggests that roughly twelve percent of the adult male population share Humbert’s affliction and further goes on to say that, with the help of psychiatric care, the tragedies mentioned in the novel could have been prevented. The book provides a cautionary tale to parents, warning them to be vigilant in how they raise their children.
As the title states, the manuscript is clearly a confession. Given that the author passed away while incarcerated, it is likely to believe that he was confessing to his crimes. Ray never discloses what crimes the author was arrested for, but he does state that Humbert is a pedophile. Later, readers will learn that the author is being tried for murder and not pedophilia. Still, the confession pertains almost entirely to the pedophiliac affair between Humbert and Lolita.
The fact that the manuscript has two titles indicates that multiple stories will be told. The work details not only Humbert’s confession, but also the peculiar life of Lolita. Lastly, the use of a double title also mimics the doubling of the author’s pseudonym, Humbert Humbert. Vladimir Nabokov relies on linguistic patterns of doubled characters and words to suggest the overlap of opposites.
Ray’s indication that the story contained in the novel is true speaks of the popular obsession with true crime stories. Without fail, Ray accounts for the fates of most of the characters, while Nabokov continues to play games in order to keep readers on their toes. Ray admits that the Lolita character is real, however, he does not yet disclose the details of her fate. He does, though, outline the fall of Mrs. Richard Schiller, a plot twist that will only become obvious towards the end of the novel.
Nabokov invites readers to research newspaper articles in order to investigate factual events, however, cautions that those archives will not offer the entire story. Throughout the course of the book, many of the characters mentioned claim to have ulterior motives, or to be honest, this is thought to be to trick the readers and manipulate other characters. The truth is likely less interesting than the way in which is it retold.
Ray creates a vantage point separate from Nabokov and Humbert. He is symbolic of the first reader of the manuscript, and similar to him, additional readers might have contradictory views. Despite being clearly disgusted by the heinous crimes committed by Humbert, Ray expresses admiration from his literary capabilities and his honest love for the young subject. Ray believes firmly in psychology and does not represent Nabokov’s own views towards psychology.
In real life, Nabokov was a firm critic of psychoanalysis, and Ray’s desire to rely on psychological explanation for the things that Humbert did will seem laughable as the story continues. In Nabokov’s eyes, psychology was a simple and rudimentary explanation for human behaviour. And, despite several of the characters having psychological ties, psychological explanations quickly prove to be inadequate. Specifically, Ray’s point that Lolita is a cautionary tale – on the outside, this looks like an attempt to justify his admiration for such a questionable and reprehensible subject.