Advanced Creepology: Re-Reading “Lolita”

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita.”

Creeps are big in the news these days and it is a truth universally acknowledged that all American creepiness is a Russian plot the notorious KGB agent, Vladimir Nabokov, hatched with his novel, Lolita. Humbert Humbert, it’s pseudonymous narrator, everyone agrees, is a creep. But he is not a run-of-the-mill creep. Humbert is not a creep because women find him disgusting and he tries to touch them, water-cooler style. On the contrary, he is quite “attractive” to women, that is women he finds, well… creepy. No, Humbert is a creep because he desires prepubescent “nymphets” and he is a 42-year-old man.

The novel, Lolita, with a couple of additions, is Humbert’s “confession”, the story of how he met the Hazes, mother and daughter, discovered that the girl, Dolores, was the nymphet, Lolita, then violated, imprisoned and lost her. Only through Humbert do we know anything about Lolita. Only Humbert can see Lolita. So without Humbert, Lolita would not exist. She would have remained Dolores Haze with the fate John Ray Jr. PhD., another Nabokov nom de plume reveals in his forward to Humbert’s confession. According to Ray, she dies as Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, in childbirth in Alaska. Even Mrs Richard F. Schiller would never have been mentioned without Humbert, for Ray would not have written his forward without Humbert’s confession.

Humbert writes his confession while awaiting trial for the murder of Clare Quilty, his vile doppelganger and a playwright, who took Lolita away from him. But he is not trying to sway the jury. He murders Quilty years after Lolita escaped with Quilty’s help. In the Law’s eyes, Humbert’s violation of Lolita has nothing to do with his murder of Quilty. The confession is irrelevant to the trial. They don’t even know about Lolita, and Humbert has no desire to mitigate his punishment. He drove away from the crime on the wrong side of the road, begging to be caught. In any case he stipulates that the confession not be revealed until after both he and Lolita are dead, which, he would assume, would be long after the end of his trial. He confesses not to mitigate his punishment for having murdered Quilty, but to immortalize Lolita in the only way he can. Lolita preferred Quilty, he of the twenty-four seven orgy, to Humbert the refined, European intellectual pervert. But this made no difference to Humbert’s love of Lolita.

Lolita is, according to Humbert, a nymphet, a creature from somewhere else disguised as a prepubescent girl. She is the daughter of Charlotte Haze, a lower middle class American who is a sucker for the trappings of European sophistication. Charlotte Haze illustrates American vulgarity more than any other character. She is a climber and a terrible mother. She wants nothing more than to get rid of her daughter and get close to Humbert. She and Dolores are rivals for Humbert’s attentions and Charlotte tries to prevent Dolores from being Lolita by forcing her to become a replica of herself.

There is nothing particularly nymphetish about Lolita that an ordinary guy would notice. What Humbert sees another, without Humbert’s passions, would not see. Here is Humbert’s first description of Lolita:

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

The beautiful in the ordinary. Such love in simple description. “Four feet ten in one sock.” The reader has the right, I suppose, to see her in one sock and nothing else, but it is his own dirty mind that undresses her, not Humbert’s. Humbert does not engage in pornographic imaginings. “Lo, plain Lo” is getting ready for school or being charming and grown up filling out forms. She is in one sock trying to remember what she did with the other one. Seeing her, whatever she is doing, is all Humbert dreams of. Only in the last sentence does erotic feeling rush ahead, like an uncontrollable orgasm. Except for being in Humbert’s arms she might be any young girl. How easy to not see her, to miss what is beautiful in what is oh so ordinary. Or to see her as her mother sees her:

On Lo’s twelfth, January 1, 1947, Charlotte Haze, née Becker, had underlined the following epithets, ten out of forty, under “Your Child’s Personality”: aggressive, boisterous, critical, distrustful, impatient, irritable, inquisitive, listless, negativistic (underlined twice) and obstinate.

Humbert’s description reveals the voyeur’s passion in seeing without being seen. The voyeur wants to see the unobserved. So voyeurism is, by its nature, an aggression, since it makes false the world the voyeur sees, and Humbert wonders if he has damaged earlier nymphets simply by observing them. He imagines himself as a spider, his web extending to all the corners of the house. Any slight tug on a strand tells him of Lolita activity, however trivial, anywhere within range. Talk about creepy. He seeks experience of her actual doings, not pornographic imaginings. Here is a moment he describes about an earlier nymphet:

Around the quiet scholar, nymphets played freely, as if he were a familiar statue or part of an old tree’s shadow and sheen. Once a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me and tighten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for fig leaf as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameloenic cheek.

Nabokov supplies Humbert with the hallucinatory awareness which creates memories of the experience of living. He identifies this in “Speak Memory” his autobiography, as the essential talent of the real poet as opposed to that of “blocks of plaster” like Thomas Mann. Here is Humbert’s version:

There are two kinds of visual memory:one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Annabel in such general terms as: “honey-colored skin,” “thick arms,” “brown bobbed hair,” “long lashes,” “big bright mouth”); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark inner side of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).

Real poetry, Nabokov and Humbert agree, is in a memory that is a monument to a radiant moment in the tiny gap between eternal darkness and eternal darkness called “life”. Like approaching death or the ultimate orgasm, such moments are tremendous, immediate, and unique. They involve a joining of seer with seen. Those who make up tepid “general terms” that have no location in time he calls “blocks of plaster” because they await being pulverized with a hammer. Blocks-of-plaster artists cannot see such moments, for they assign categories to their experiences, extracting what they “mean”. Nymphets reveal themselves to “certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they”. They, and no others, can see nymphets because they are erotically drawn to them. Eros the desire to possess the beautiful is what transforms these moments into these blazing memories. These travelers capture their desires with language. This makes them the recipients of Eros’s messages received unexpectedly in an instant, the innocent heart-breaking gesture that characterizes a nymphet. Eros, as Socrates describes him in the Symposium, recounting the teachings of Diotima the Mantinean, is a messenger from the divine to the mortal, a child of Need and Resource, a beggar, a traveler, unscrupulous, who is neither good nor beautiful. These moments are Eros’s messages from the divine.

Who are these nymphets? It is an inevitable trick of language that “nymphet” means a girl like the public’s image of Lolita, a precocious tart, but of course Nabokov couldn’t have thought so. The word “nymphet” is a diminutive for “nymph” a beautiful female semi-divinity associated with nature. Nymphs inhabit mountain glades fed by pure springs and are elusive. A nymphet is not at all the gorgeous little queen of the ball.

Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.

That “intangible island of entranced time” is the Humbertian experience of life in the bright gap between two darknesses that requires both the reality, the nymphet, and the one who can see her and transmute her into language, Humbert. The time becomes entranced because the moment has become a bit of amber, that is, language. And that unity seems to be as good a definition of love as any. Humbert’s confession is an homage to Lolita, who has taken his heart completely. As far as he is concerned these experiences of life are all his experiences of life– they are his life. He does not write to justify himself, but to produce a work for publication that will give Lolita and himself a beggar’s version of immortality.

The ordinary man, for example John Ray Jr. PhD., certainly a block of plaster, will see Lolita as a drab ordinary girl married to, not a brute, but a nobody, nearly deaf and oblivious of her charms who takes her to Alaska, the cold dark end of the world, where she dies in obscurity.

But Humbert, and only Humbert, will see a divine being because of his erotic obsession.

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy,with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh,how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate — the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

Humbert would deny that he created Lolita, for she is made of memories of real particular moments that reveal a real being, “a little deadly demon”. They are not of Humbert’s invention, but require him as observer. His descriptions of her in terms of the ordinary, and not in the slightest implausible, images, proves it. Only flashes of unbidden memory reveal the elusive nymphet. Only he could have these memories, because his desire gave him these experiences. What he records of Lolita’s existence is not imagination, but his own experience of her existence and its erotic intensity transmuted into a madman’s art.

Lolita’s twelve-year-old body with it’s twelve-year-old nature reveal her as a nymphet, but Humbert remains in love with her long after it is gone. When he finds her again at the squalid home of Mr. Richard F. Schiller, he continues to love, without wavering, the woman she has become. Whatever else Humbert is, he passes Shakespeare’s test of love, namely, that love is not love that alters when it alteration finds. And since Humbert loves nymphets, she must still be a nymphet, for she is still Lolita. Humbert offers to take her away and live with her forever. Dolores declines the offer.

… and there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D. — and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.

Just as the nymphet need not be conventionally beautiful, she also need not be prepubescent.

He sells everything and gives her the money. His days of being transfixed by nymphets are over. He still looks at them, but there is no Erotic connection. Lolita is his one and only love. He heads out to kill Quilty. She, that is Mrs. Richard Schiller, goes to Alaska to die in childbirth.

Nabokov had tried to write Lolita several times while still in Europe. What he had been missing came to him suddenly soon after he came to America, and he wrote the novel while he and his wife Vera were on a butterfly hunting trip. To write the whole novel while spending days out chasing butterflies and driving from place to place makes it sound like the novel must have come to him in a rush. Nabokov could write Lolita soon after coming to the United States because Lolita had to be an American girl, and Humbert had to come to America. Nabokov needed Lolita to have an innocence contending with vulgarity that he discovered here. Humbert needed to be a European discovering this in America. Europe, after the second world war, is too exhausted, too jaded, too sophisticated to support a Lolita.

Lolita, a spirit who inhabits Dolores, is visible only to one who can see her lace-like existence, one led by Eros, a desire for possession of the beautiful. But when the opportunity comes, Humbert defiles her with her willing collaboration. Until the fateful moment Humbert had been more than satisfied with possession of his furtive experiences. Humbert’s physical possession of Lolita destroys her and leaves Dolores with a deep indifference. As with butterflies that Nabokov killed so as to possess their beauty, Humbert killed Lolita spiritually when he possesses her. Lolita’s existence and her destruction have the same cause, Eros unrestrained by a sufficient respect for the divine.

However, it is Lolita who initiates the actual sex with Humbert. Before that her proximity was all he dared to hope for. It was more than enough to sense the vibrations on the strands of his web. His timidity was paralyzing. To be sure she had been seductive, but it had been playful. He would not have dared to violate her. Humbert describes Lolita’s initiation of him into sex as, for her, no big deal. The head-counselor’s son had already deflowered her in camp and she thought of sex as another camp activity. It was just a thing, like tennis or canoeing. The refined Humbert sees Lolita’s diaphanous charm within her undeniable vulgarity revealed in a matter-of-fact attitude to this monstrous sin.

Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved. She saw the stark act merely as part of a youngster’s furtive world, unknown to adults. What adults did for purposes of procreation was no business of hers. My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget unconnected with me.

Humbert claims that “modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth”, that is ordinary American life, “had utterly and hopelessly depraved” Lolita. But he also blames himself for her depravity revealed as matter-of-factness, a lack of will, even though the attitude was there before this consummation.

Lolita’s mechanical seduction of him plunges Humbert into vile and uncontrollable lust. Most readers blame him entirely for the ensuing debauch in spite of the evidence for his prior extravagant timidity. That Lolita thought sex should be just another amusing pastime should not be strange to Americans, but that her matter-of-factness could be called depravity ought to give us pause. However, that is only Humbert’s opinion.

They embark upon the famous road trip, expanding the area of the debauch state by state, on the way they have “general terms” experiences, experiences of types of things, rather than special illuminated experiences. The blinding moments between dark eternities cease, and Lolita becomes his “pubescent concubine” who has to be kept in submission. Humbert is a changed man. Gone is the timid spider in his web, every strand a raw nerve. He becomes scheming and shameless, ready to bribe, blackmail and deceive Lolita to get what he wants from her. He makes her into a whore and their sex becomes a transaction. All is done in a spirit of self-loathing. He is out of control. It was as if the sexual consummation lanced a boil and the poison poured out. They proceed to tour America, polluting its banalities while he debauches Lolita.

We inspected the world’s largest stalagmite in a cave where three southeastern states have a family reunion; admission by age; adults one dollar, pubescents sixty cents. A granite obelisk commemorating the Battle of Blue Licks, with old bones and Indian pottery in the museum nearby, Lo a dime, very reasonable. The present log cabin boldly simulating the past log cabin where Lincoln was born.

The banal in the ordinary. Humbert’s mind shrinks to the single thought of how to get laid without anybody knowing what is going on. He is inventive, insatiable, and monstrous. He sees Lolita’s possible polio as depriving him of sex. The trip is a misery. Nevertheless he is happy, indeed he is “beyond happiness”. His being able to “fondle a nymphet” turns every misery into bliss. It is within his deepest depravity and greatest misery that Humbert achieves transcendence. Ecstasy and suffering become one and ubiquitous, both intense blinding moments of existence, none of it memorable. Only the voyeur can translate these moments into bits of amber. Crime, like love, makes you “feel yourself living”. And at the same time he realizes that he has destroyed Lolita. He has “confiscated” her life. She is completely passive, accepting and indifferent to anything. The nymphet in captivity droops.

The road trips spreads this “slime” all over the whole country:

And I catch myself thinking that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.

When Humbert defiled Lolita he defiled the whole country– lovely, trustful, and dreamy like Lolita herself– and it became her sobs in the night and a bunch of banal junk. The whole country is sobbing through the night! And then the most monstrous thought of all– why didn’t she cry in front of him? Or did she perhaps know that he wasn’t really asleep? In any case the image of the child crying bitterly all alone in the middle of the night, night after night, with Humbert listening and no one to comfort her is the unendurable image for the whole trip, perhaps the whole novel and the whole country. Lolita’s suffering is gigantic and unredeemable, and it is this horrible vision of her suffering that condemns Humbert even as a crack of suspicion as to its authenticity remains.

For it doesn’t really fit with the matter-of-fact Lolita. What is she crying about if not that Humbert is raping her? Was it that his sex practices became vile but weren’t at first? Or was it simply that she did not like living on the road? Though we find out later that Lolita is interested in theater, might she not already be interested in it? From this girl, play acting, especially with such a beginning, seems possible. Is this the germ of Lolita’s love of theater? The very thought condemns the reader, but how else to interpret her earlier insouciance?

When the road trip becomes wearing and expensive, Humbert tries to set up as a typical father / daughter combo. He finds a school, Beardsly, and rents a house which has a view of a playground where nymphets cavort only to have workmen come and build a wall blocking his view. Humbert hears the patter of Fate’s little plaster feet. The school is more a finishing school for girls than a place where they actually read books. Humbert’s description of his interview with the Headmistress is a piece of brilliant satire. But in any case this life is only a simulacrum of ordinary life Humbert erects to conceal his real life with his concubine. Lolita becomes a live-in whore, getting paid to do particular acts while pretending to be or really being an ordinary average American girl.

And as an ordinary American girl Lolita becomes interested in boys. Consumed by paranoid jealousy, Humbert acts to limit Lolita’s contact with them, and thus seals his fate.

Lo was enraged by all this — called me a lousy crook and worse — and I would probably have lost my temper had I not soon discovered, to my sweetest relief, that what really angered her was my depriving her not of a specific satisfaction but of a general right. I was impinging, you see, on the conventional program, the stock pastimes, the “things that are done,” the routine of youth; for there is nothing more conservative than a child, especially a girl-child, be she the most auburn and russet, the most mythopoeic nymphet in October’s orchard-haze.

There is much to admire about that brilliant “lousy crook”, so inadequate to what she has gone through and so revealing of Lolita’s emotional flatness and charming innocence. Shockingly, Lolita seems quite able to slip back into being a normal teenager. Apparently psychically untouched by Humbert’s violation, she desires only to fit into the patterns already laid out for her. He is too strict a dad. Lolita’s lifelessness, interpreted as such by Humbert, manifests in a desire to be normal. This desire is what stirs Lolita to rebel and ally herself with Quilty. Whatever Humbert can force Lolita to do, he cannot force her to read good books.

This is where she gets interested in theater. The play is The Enchanted Hunters. Humbert notices that its name is the same as that of the hotel where he brought Lolita, but does not realize that the play is a theatrical rendering of his own road trip which Quilty, its author, had shadowed. At the center of the play is a young poet, one of the hunters, who insists Diana (Lolita) and her enchantment of the hunters is all his invention.

The play is thus an argument between the two kinds of poet over Diana’s nature. If Quilty wins then Lolita is or becomes a product of his imagination. She will be an actor in his play. The Lolita Humbert sees, whose power of enchantment is her own, will be gone or eternally submerged.

For Quilty to imagine another Lolita he must change Humbert’s Lolita into her. His idea for the play comes from Humbert’s road trip, for only to a man like Humbert inflamed by Eros, do nymphets reveal themselves. Blocks-of-plaster artists are parasitic upon Humbert-like erotic monsters. The experiences of the one become types of thing for the other. When Quilty concocts a plan for Lolita’s escape he makes an elaborate, well-plotted recapitulation of Humbert’s road trip.

Quilty’s plan begins with Lolita’s missed piano lesson which reveals that Lolita has been sneaking out. Humbert, his jealousy going super-nova, confronts her, and she runs away. He thinks she is gone for good. His world disintegrates. When he catches her at last in a phone booth, she says she wants to leave school and take another road trip, this time to where she wants to go. His relief is extreme and he dissolves in tears. The trip is a plot Lolita and Quilty cooked up to get her away from Humbert. Humbert, in complete ignorance carries out the plan.

Lolita has the essential quality of a femme fatale: she kills simply by leaving. Humbert’s fear of losing Lolita is so intense that she can lead him by the nose, torturing him with near disappearances. Ferocious passion heightens his awareness of both her absence and presence both now spiced up with the hot sauce of terror. Life is the risk of death, her absence, or the presence of love. Lolita gives both, united, to Humbert.

They set out. Suddenly they are being followed, Humbert turns out to have a gun and we are in a melodrama, the stock in trade of the genre-writing, bad poet. Humbert begins to hear more loudly the patter of Fate’s or McFate’s little plaster feet. They are being trailed; other people seem to be the as yet unknown Quilty’s confederates. Along the way Lolita tortures Humbert by nearly disappearing or withholding her charms. From a P.O. Box they pick up a letter to Lolita that purports to be from one of her school chums, but is in fact from Quilty whose secret message is hidden in a bit of French that also reveals Quilty as a French partial sentence:

Ne manque pas de dire à ton amant, Chimène, comme le lac est beau car il faut qu’il t’y mène.

il faut qu’il t’y mène. “It is necessary that he lead you there.” “He”, il, in this  qu’il t’y being Humbert. “There” is where she will make off with Quilty. Chimène is a character in Le Cid also pulled between two lovers. Lolita has chosen Quilty over Humbert because… because of theater. He is an exciting big-time guy. She leads Humbert to his doom as per Quilty’s instructions because Quilty has promised to introduce her to Hollywood.

Just before the end Humbert sees something else. He sees Lolita playing tennis and knows who and what she is in herself –a tennis player. This is what she should be! This is her nature, the being Lolita was born for. This is what he will help her be, and thus he will not have distorted her nature with his lust. And yet… all her strokes are beautiful, but she makes no effort to win and Humbert blames himself.

She preferred acting to swimming, and swimming to tennis; yet I insist that had not something within her been broken by me — not that I realized it then! — she would have had on the top of her perfect form the will to win, and would have be­come a real girl champion… She who was so cruel and crafty in everyday life, revealed an innocence, a frankness, a kindness of ball-placing, that permitted a second-rate but determined player, no matter how uncouth and incompetent, to poke and cut his way to victory.

Humbert sees Lolita’s true talent for tennis, but that she has turned it into acting. It’s all just going through the motions like a tennis game in a stage play, and he blames himself.

Lolita falls ill, Humbert takes her to the hospital, and that is where she gives him the slip. Lolita hooks up with Quilty, slips out, and ceases to be Lolita, for she has to be seen in order to exist. Quilty tries to make her into an actor in his play, a body in his orgy. When Humbert discovers her gone he sets out to track them down and we are in a detective story. As he tries to find her he can’t help admiring the foresight, the planning, of his adversary.

In one thing he succeeded: he succeeded in thoroughly enmeshing me and my thrashing anguish in his demoniacal game. With infinite skill,he swayed and staggered, and regained an impossible balance, always leaving me with the sportive hope — if I may use such a term in speaking of betrayal, fury, desolation, horror and hate — that he might give himself away next time. He never did…

Life becomes a game of hide and seek in “the spatial world of synchronous phenomena”. Humbert tries to find her, but his detecting talents prove inadequate, his adversary too clever. In despair, he takes solace in Rita, whom he picks up in a bar. He describes her in “block of plaster” terms.

She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, and angular, rapidly sketched profile,and a most appealing ensellure to her supple back.

Three years go by. Suddenly he gets a letter from Lolita that allows him to track her down. She needs money. With utter astonishment he discovers that he never meant much to her one way or another. Lolita confesses that Quilty was the only man she “had ever been crazy about”. The choice was a no-brainer– Humbert barely showed up on the radar. She seemed unconcerned with what he had done. Dolores choose Quilty, the famous decadent playwright, but not really over Humbert, the passionate civilized creep. She was just crazy about Quilty. What’s that got to do with dad? In effect she chose Dolores over Lolita when she chose the block of plaster over the abominable artist. Quilty’s choreographed orgies are much more sordid than Humbert’s insatiable lust but they don’t deter Lolita who finds him “a great guy in many respects”. In the end she calls Humbert “honey” for the first time, thus showing that there are no hard feelings, or much of any feelings whatsoever. She thinks he is an okay guy, especially when he gives her a lot of money.

Quilty changes the ending of the road trip turned theater when he invites her to join the orgy. Lolita declines the invitation and he kicks her out. She moves on. She is free of both of them, and lives the life it seems she wanted as Mrs. Richard Schiller. Vera Nabokov comments somewhere that Lolita achieves a certain quiet dignity. When Humbert offers to take Mrs. Richard Schiller away she does not decline because she finds him horrible and Richard Schiller a lamentable but still better choice than Humbert. She wants to be Mrs. Richard Schiller. He is the father of her unborn child and, in Humbert’s estimation, more finely made than himself. . She seems solid. She sees Humbert as a really nice dad. She really likes him. Eros is absent. So is hatred, horror, or disgust. He is in the “you’re just a friend” category. The absolute oblivion she is heading for, Gray Star, seems somehow to have been where she was going from the beginning.

In all likelihood she would have ended up with Richard Schiller with or without Humbert and Quilty. Lolita is the story of a more or less average American girl in whom a man sees a semi-divinity because he is filled with “foul lust” or Eros. His lust, he thinks, causes her a fall into a passivity, and eventually to exile in Gray Star. Humbert writhes in self-loathing:

Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me — to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction — that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet:

The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.

But it is a mistake to see Lolita as a victim. She used Quilty to engineer her escape from Humbert, refused demands that Quilty’s slaves obeyed, and, when just a 14-year-old girl with nothing, managed, when Quilty threw her out, to land on her feet. She chooses to stay with Richard Schiller and go with him to Gray Star. And Richard Schiller, Dick, is a pretty hot guy with his ice blue eyes and hand, though with broken dirty nails, made of far finer stuff than Humbert’s. Dick and his friend even have a native délicatesse, disdaining voyeurism, that puts Humbert to shame. He and Lolita are like young animals together, Humbert imagines. Nabokov also makes Dick deaf, maybe so he can’t hear the crying. Humbert’s crimes have flowed like water off the back of a creature who inhabits mountain glades.  Humbert may writhe with his guilt, but Lolita. Mrs. Richard Schiller, has no scars. For what could a poor insignificant Humbert Humbert do to harm a divinity? Her life is her own.

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: