60 pages 2 hours read

Vladimir Nabokov


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


Lolita, a novel by Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov, was published in 1955 in Paris. American publishing companies refused to publish the novel due to its scandalous plot, but the book was considered a classic almost instantly. In 1967, the novel was finally published in America and, since then, Lolita has appeared on several lists of the greatest English-language and American novels of all time. The novel blends genres, offering readers elements of romance, erotica, and mystery, and offers an unreliable first-person narrator in Humbert Humbert. Lolita has been made into two films, one directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 and another by Adrian Lyne in 1997. Additionally, several stage plays, ballets, and operas have also been based on the work. The novel’s reach even extends to the English language itself. Today, the term “lolita” is widely used to refer to a sexually precocious girl who is not a victim but a seductress, and it also is used to refer to a style of dress that emphasizes doll-like clothing that romanticizes girlhood. This guide uses the 50th anniversary edition of Lolita by Vintage.

Plot Summary

Lolita is prefaced by the fictional John Ray, Jr., who is an editor of books about psychology. He states that the manuscript of Lolita is an almost completely unedited confession, penned by the pseudonymous Humbert Humbert, who has died in prison awaiting trial. The titular Lolita has died while giving birth. After the preface, Humbert narrates the rest of the work in a distinct voice that utilizes florid prose, abundant word play, ample allusions, and various foreign phrases.

He opens the novel by providing details of his childhood in France: He was born in 1910 and, as a child, falls in love with a girl named Annabel Leigh while living in the French Riviera. She dies before they can consummate their affair, and Humbert spends the rest of his life attracted to what he calls “nymphets,” girls between the ages of 9 and fourteen who are not necessarily the most attractive girls but who have the ability to sexually entice men like himself. Humbert justifies his attractions by noting historical and literary examples of men who have young lovers. As an adult, he lives in Paris, trying to avoid his own perversion through other relationships including a brief marriage to a woman named Valeria who leaves him just before he moves to the United States on the eve of World War II.

There, he takes a job writing textbooks and settles in a small college town called Ramsdale. He is the tenant of the widow Charlotte Haze, whose daughter, Dolores, is a nymphet who looks strikingly similar to Annabel. Humbert becomes obsessed with the child, nicknaming her Lolita. Though Humbert dislikes Charlotte, he marries her to stay close to Lolita, whom he thinks has been flirting with him and whom he plans to molest while she sleeps. While Lolita is at summer camp, Charlotte finds a diary in which Humbert has written of his desire for Lolita and his true feelings about Charlotte. She runs out in the road and is killed by a motorist.

Humbert picks up Lolita from camp. He tells her Charlotte is ill and takes Lolita to a hotel, the Enchanted Hunters, where he attempts to drug her. While wandering the hotel, he meets a man who seems to understand Humbert’s intentions. Back in the room, Lolita is awake, but Humbert feels too guilty to take advantage of her. The next morning, she tells Humbert she is not a virgin, and they have sex. Humbert later tells her Charlotte is dead, and, in a town called Lepingville, she willingly enters his room to sleep with him.

In the second part of the book, Humbert pretends to be Lolita’s father while they travel across the United States visiting roadside attractions and hundreds of hotels and motels. He tries to keep her interested in him and their life together, but she grows bored. When Humbert runs low on money, he takes a job teaching in an eastern town called Beardsley. There, Lolita adjusts to life with the girls at her school, while Humbert continues to have sex with her; Lolita starts to demand payment for the acts. Humbert grows controlling as Lolita grows apart from him. He reluctantly lets her participate in the school play, The Enchanted Hunters, written by Clare Quilty, whom Humbert believes is a woman.

After an argument one night, Lolita demands to leave Beardsley and return to the road with Humbert but on the condition that she chooses the route and hotel rooms. He agrees, and they begin another trip westward. On the journey, Humbert notices a man trailing them and sees Lolita flirting with a stranger he calls Gustave Trapp. After she gets sick and must stay in a hospital, she flees with the stranger, but Humbert assumes she has been kidnapped. Humbert attempts to retrace their steps, looking for clues as to the man’s identity. He learns that the man had been following them for some time and traces a series of puns and literary names the man used at various hotels. Worse, he learns Lolita had betrayed him when he sees names referencing Gustave Trapp and Lolita’s late father.

Humbert returns east and attaches himself to a woman named Rita while swearing revenge on Lolita’s captor. Eventually, he gets a letter from Lolita saying she is now pregnant and married and in need of money. Humbert finds her and her husband in a town north of New York, and he learns that her husband is not the man with whom she ran away. That man was Clare Quilty, the love of her life and the man who saw Humbert at the Enchanted Hunters and whom Humbert called Gustave Trapp. Quilty had taken Lolita to his ranch but kicked her out when she refused to appear in a pornographic film. Humbert recognizes that Lolita never loved him and gives her $4000 even though she will not run away with him. He finds Quilty in his mansion, and Quilty accuses Humbert of being the one who wronged Lolita. Humbert kills him.

In jail, Humbert writes that he thinks he has chosen a good pseudonym for himself and vows to immortalize Lolita through his art.