Lolita is a narrative delivered in such a way that it not only allows for, but essentially demands speculation about its reliability. Nabokov, in keeping with his style, constructs a narrator whose accounts of events are given an obvious slant. For the reader, it becomes clear that we can generally rely on the factual details of the story, but we should not give much credence to the assessments or interpretations provided by the narrator. Nabokov’s ability to so effectively create a convincingly deluded character is among the stronger points of this novel. Throughout the novel, Humbert pays lip-service to traditional analyses of his situation, unconvincingly pretending to agree with socially acceptable moral assessments of his behavior. In the same breath, he lays out explanations for himself. Humbert makes a concerted effort to thoroughly describe the intricate details of the situations that provide him with irresistible opportunities to indulge in his unusual fantasies. This level of detail and his rather transparent efforts to seem repentant or remorseful, or at least as though he can even comprehend the idea that his behavior is inexcusable, would perhaps indicate that the opposite is true: that he does not regret his behavior at all, that the must unsettling thing about the entire affair, for him, was that it was not able to last forever. But while it might seem that way, that Humbert was a sociopath with no remorse and no conscience, I suspect that he is being deceptive. In this case, he is not deceiving the readers, but himself.
Nabokov’s narrative style is very misleading in its straightforwardness. His narrator, Humbert, seems at first glance to simply tell us the story with nothing to hide. He seems nearly credible in the way that he discloses apprehension about telling certain things, relating certain details of his story. Yet he continues, pushes forward anyway so that the reader will have the full benefit of the whole truth of the story. In certain places in the text, he makes a special point of calling the readers attention to the level of detail, explaining that recalling that level of detail is difficult work, but if the readers hope to properly understand his dilemma and the drama the story, then we must engage in those very details which are capable of making some people quite uncomfortable. On this surface level, Humbert seems vaguely repentant. He expresses his agreement with notions of common decency and social acceptability when he refers to his own cunning as insanity and to his own acts as being depraved and disturbing.
It should not take long for any reader to realize that Nabokov’s narrative should not be taken at face value. Humbert’s tone varies in significant places in the text, his frighteningly attentive detail clearly quite serious in places, while in other places he includes obligatory stock-phrasing to indicate that the remorse he expresses is not entirely sincere. We soon come to realize through this transparency that Humbert knows that his relationship with Lolita is unacceptable. He is sure to point out his awareness that his conduct, by any reasonable social conventions, would be considered disturbing, if not outright disgusting. While he refers to his desires and impulses as insanity, he also describes in detail the ways that he premeditates situations so that he might fully take advantage of them.
This is where the final layer of deception lies. Humbert is a man who has, from a very young age, had a particular hang-up. He doubtlessly recognized very early in life that his desires and fantasies were different than those of most people, and that he derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from dealing with women much younger than would be socially permissible for him. While his mock shame at being so afflicted is easily seen through as a sham, on closer inspection he would seem to harbor a certain level of genuine shame about the matter. His construction of the narrative is deliberately deceptive, an effort to convince the reader that he feels guilty for behaving in such a way, but beneath the cold calculation that permits him to take advantage of the forbidden fruits, there lies a genuine remorse at what he has become. The existence of the nymphet becomes his only saving grace, the very thing that gives him an opportunity to escape his loneliness and disconnection from the world. Lolita is quite different from anyone else in that she is among the only people who can relate to Humbert. He may be able to get avoid sincere belief that his desires are wrong in any way, but he can never escape the fact that his desires set him apart from mainstream society. In that respect, he will remain painfully aware of the fact that he is different and separate from the people around him, and the people who could potentially accept him for those flaws would certainly be quite limited. To make matters worse, those very few people who might be willing to accept Humbert, knowing about his illicit desires, could never condone the fact that he expresses no intention to refrain from acting on those impulses. The nymphet, however, is unique in her ability not only to accept Humbert for his desires, but also to accept him even when, or especially because, he is willing to seek satisfaction, or not refuse it should it be delivered.
Quilty, or others who share Humbert’s affliction, could arguably be people who are capable of relating to Humbert. Contrarily, men who share such an affliction would likely be quite helpless to each other, particularly because of the fact that they would in competition with one another for a decidedly limited resource, just as Quilty and Humbert are for Lolita’s affections. Humbert might have been able to hold on to a modicum of denial about the impropriety of his desires because he was able to pin their origin on something in his childhood, something that had been done to him through no fault of his own that he had no power to undo. It would be impossible to commiserate with Quilty because it would tear the very thin fabric of Humbert’s denial, a denial so weak that it is barely convincing to the reader. And yet he is forced into the same category as Quilty; they are trapped by the same desperate need: Lolita. Humbert’s fatal mistake with respect to that competition was simply that he had Lolita first. Of all the things that Humbert’s nymphets might be, devoted would never be one of them.
Losing Lolita to Quilty also demonstrated another important distinction between the two men. Humbert’s pedophile-nymphet relationship with Lolita marked her initiation into that world, or an end to her childhood. Her relationship with Quilty, even if he had been the only man that she had ever been crazy about, could still only be a follow-up to the time that she spent with Humbert. But when Humbert visits her, in her new life after Quilty, he realizes that no sentimental ties to the time that she spent with him remain. She had been crazy about Quilty, shameless as he was, and Humbert had only been a substitute. While Lolita herself had only worked her way into Humbert’s heart as a stand-in for his Annabel Leigh, she had quickly become more than that to him. Where losing her did not put an end to his illicit attractions, it did put an end to his pitiful hope that a relationship with someone to whom he was so attracted would have any favorable outcome.
Finally, seeing Lolita in her new domestic life, a mother-to-be, Humbert is subject to a resurgence of his irrational dreams of possessing her and spending his life with her. Such a relationship could have never worked out. Beyond the fact that she was simply not interested in Humbert, through the course of their affair she had come to view him as pitiful. He took interest in her originally because she fit the model that he had for perfection—his Annabel Lee—so well that she recreated it. His fixation on her evolved from superficial sexual attraction to a deep emotional dependence. Initially hooked on the fleeting crush that brought her close to him, he eventually developed an addiction to the cruel indifference with which she treated him. Her indifference, though, was more special to him than affection could have been from others, such as the woman Rita whom he connects with temporarily. Lolita remains indifferent to Humbert in spite of knowing what he is. Humbert, unrepentant and insincere as he might seem, would be a fool to not desperately fear the reactions that people would have to him knowing what he truly is. To find acceptance from Lolita, even if it is by way of her indifference, is a deeper connection than he could hope to have with anyone. So when he has no remaining hope of having her in his life, Humbert has little left to hope for at all.
The murder of Quilty is necessary because Humbert cannot possibly suffer such a loss without some sort of retaliation. Quilty makes a perfect scapegoat for Humbert’s suffering. For starters, he possesses the same affliction that has made Humbert so miserable. Killing Quilty can serve, for Humbert, as a symbolic gesture representing killing that part of himself that he most hates. Even worse than being a symbol for Humbert’s affliction, Quilty is the one Humbert blames for the loss of Lolita. No matter that she wanted to go, wanted to leave him, Quilty was the one who took her, and for that he would have to pay. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Humbert had to kill Quilty because he was the only one that Lolita had been crazy about. Quilty would be able to have the only thing that Humbert suspected could make him happy, and he was not interested. He had let her go.
Humbert’s deception throughout this book runs deep; he misleads the readers and misinterprets himself. Nabokov carefully constructed the narrative to capture this deception, touching on themes of Americanism versus Europeanism, sexuality and psychology, and love and fixation. Somehow, in all of the lies, Humbert’s tragic love story rings very true.