Nabokov’s Lolita is a book that deals with obsessive lust and bloody violence, the real horrors of which are often masked by the beautiful, clever language of the novel. Indeed, Humbert’s early job as a perfume salesman mimics and evokes this masking and sweetening aspect of language. Sudden, horrible death occurs frequently in Lolita, but the book is better served if we study it as an experiment in language and the way words are used to treat the book’s horrific subjects.
Identifying the sudden deaths of the work is not difficult. Beginning with Humbert’s mother, whose famous death by “(picnic, lightning)” is mentioned in Part One, we learn of the sudden if not unexpected deaths of Annabel, Charlotte, and Quilty, and even those of Humbert and Lolita. We also see lots of sudden loss in the novel, with Valeria’s surprising announcement that she is having an affair and Lolita’s sudden disappearance on the second road trip. Usually, the deaths are treated casually, as seen most poignantly in the parenthetical mention of his mother’s death. Humbert seems emotionally dissociated from many events in his life.
The sudden moments of great interest in the novel all indicate the strong presence of fate and random chance. Charlotte is struck by pure accident when a car swerves to avoid hitting a dog that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Humbert’s loss of his mother to lightning is nothing more than a random act of bad luck. The general tendency of the novel is to indicate that, as Humbert himself points out, chance is a major factor in life and in death; in some ways, this truth diminishes the tragedy that accompanies loss, because we know that nature is fickle and random.
Lolita can be viewed as a novel about sex and murder, but better as a novel about the liberation of desire. Humbert is a man who essentially gets what he wants in this book. He wants to get married at the beginning, so he marries Valeria. He wants to make love to Lolita, so he marries Charlotte to get near her and eventually succeeds. He wants revenge on Quilty, so he murders him.
In each part of the book, we see what Humbert wants and how he goes about getting it. We learn in exquisite detail his inner drives and motivations. He has a clear vision of what his body craves and will do virtually anything to get it, short of physically raping Lolita. The book takes us through all his inner desires, both echoing and manipulating Freudian theories regarding psychological exploration. But it is also a narrative written by a frustrated murderer in his jail cell, reflecting back on how he found freedom in satisfying his urges, be they to have sex or to do harm to others, two of the most basic human instincts.
Lolita is divided into two parts. The first deals with Humbert’s growing lust for his stepdaughter and ends with the beginning of their affair; its fundamental action is the sex between Humbert and Lolita. The second deals with the loss of Lolita and the hunt for Quilty; its fundamental action is his murder. Thus, we have the act of creation in part one juxtaposed with the ultimate act of destruction in part two. Between these two great and intensely personal acts lies a flowery narrative studded with some of the best puns, word plays, allusions, and some of the most beautiful writing to be found in any English novel.
In these middle sections the book’s fun, clever tone overshadows the more distressing events, and reveals perhaps the most fundamental theme of Lolita: language, and the ability of language to reveal and conceal simultaneously, to be beautiful and hide the truth within the folds of its beauty. Humbert, the first-person narrator, presents the action of the novel, bloody or lovely, through a glowing, magnificent prose that allows him to talk his way out of almost any situation. At times, he can even convince the reader that his lust for Lolita, a young girl, should not be abhorred.
Humbert drops all sorts of ideas and clues (including false clues) everywhere, some of which have meaning and some of which just cannot be understood in any definite way. His language is designed to tell his story while presenting himself in the best possible light. Any reader will do best not to ask what every incident in Lolita means, but rather how those images, characters, and situations are created. As much as it is a story about the events that make up its plot, Lolita is also a story about how that plot is related through language.