Conversation surrounding Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita often entails the controversial discussion of whether Lolita, the young girl involved with the novel’s forty-year-old narrator, has some agency in the relationship, or whether Humbert Humbert forces her into the circumstances and keeps her trapped. Some argue that, because Lolita is only twelve years old at the start of the novel, Humbert takes advantage of the girl and she has no say in what happens to her after her mother dies. On the other hand, as we learn from Humbert, Lolita initiates many of the first sexual encounters between the pair, and Humbert is not Lolita’s first sexual partner. Also, as seen by the comments and gestures made by Lolita, the young girl plays tormenting mind games with Humbert from the very start. However, while taking into consideration that Lolita does have a significant amount of agency in the controversial relationship as she does initiate the sexual engagements and acts as if the relationship is a thrilling game, I still maintain that Lolita is trapped by Humbert and deprived of the childhood she wants until she finds the opportunity to get away. Lolita’s threatening comments, bitter attitudes, and asking for more and more money from Humbert display that she plans on running away from the man from the early stages of the relationship, a factor which implies that she is never happy or comfortable with Humbert.
Many argue that Humbert forces Lolita into the controversial relationship by not giving her any other choices after her mother dies; however, Lolita is aware of what is happening between her and Humbert, and she consents to the relationship that is forming once Humbert picks her up from camp. As soon as the couple begins their expansive road trip, Lolita tells Humbert that she has been “revoltingly unfaithful to [him],” implying that the two are already in a relationship and also inviting Humbert to view her as a sexual being (112). Lolita is eager to tell Humbert what she did at camp, but reveals that she “simply can’t tell [him] without blushing all over” (115). By feeding Humbert statements that hint at her sexual activities at camp, Lolita plays mind games with Humbert and gives him permission to think about her in a sexual way. At this point, she knows that Humbert wants her in the ways she is hinting at, because the two have already kissed on multiple occasions. Lolita also shows some agency by talking about the relationship as if it had already developed into something serious. She states, when the couple is at their first hotel after the death of the child’s mother, “Say, wouldn’t Mother be absolutely mad if she found out we were lovers?” Humbert makes a point to not encourage this behavior on Lolita’s part this early in the progression of the relationship, as he replies, “Good Lord, Lo, let us not talk that way” (114). The behavior Lolita exhibits early on in the relationship also implies that she expects some sexual engagement with Humbert. When they arrive at the first hotel, Lolita asks with “violent significance,” according to the narrator, if she and Humbert will be sleeping in the same room. As Humbert gently describes that he has “a feeling of great tenderness” for the girl, Lolita sharply replies, “the word is incest” (119). Harsh statements from Lolita about the circumstances between her and Humbert convey that she knows exactly what will occur, and she is consenting to what might happen for the couple. However, her somewhat bitter attitude and brash comments imply that for her, the relationship in its early stages is a thrilling game. In a way, she only consents to the relationship because it provides an opportunity to rebel against her mother, and Humbert reminds her of the handsome, older actors she reads about in movie magazines. One cannot ignore the fact that Lolita does consent to the relationship and she does know what is going on. She does not, however, know that the consequences of her actions might include her being trapped in a relationship with a man triple her age.
Also, if we are to trust Humbert as a narrator, the fact is that Lolita initiates most of the first sexual encounters between the pair. When Humbert first moves into the Hayes household, Lolita comes into Humbert’s study often and sits on his lap. One might argue that these actions are childish and innocent, but Lolita must notice the way that Humbert looks at her and acts around her when she gets close to him. Lolita’s awareness is proven when she is about to leave for camp, as she runs into Humbert’s arms and kisses him. This kiss is the first intimate encounter between the couple, and it is initiated by Lolita. Although Lolita may not know the consequences of her actions, it is important to note that Humbert does not coerce Lolita in any way. In fact, Humbert urges himself to remember that she is only a child. On the way home from camp, Lolita initiates a sexual encounter by asking Humbert if he does not care for her, and when he asks why she would think that, she replies, “Well you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?” (112). Humbert claims that “Lolita positively flowed into his [arms],” and that she “pressed her mouth to [his] so hard that [he] felt her big front teeth” (113). Throughout this entire embrace, Humbert thinks to himself, “remember she is only a child,” (112) and admits that he knows that for her, the relationship is “but an innocent game” (113). Also, Humbert is very adamant about the fact that it was Lolita who seduced him to have sex. It might be possible that Humbert is untrustworthy as a narrator, especially because he is so defensive about the occasion as it unfolds. The narrator begins to tell the story of the couple’s first time having sex by exclaiming, “Frigid gentlewoman of the jury! . . . I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me” (132). This explanation might be a blatant lie, but as Humbert continues to tell the story, he provides enough detail to signify that he might be telling the truth. According to Humbert, Lolita initiates the sex by showing the narrator the “game she and Charlie had played,” at camp, and expressing her surprise that Humbert “never did it when [he was] a kid” (133). Humbert places emphasis on the fact that he is not even Lolita’s first lover, and that she insists on telling him “the way she had been debauched” (135). By including all of this information, Humbert desperately tries to make listeners aware that Lolita is already a sexual being before he has sex with her. This piece of the story and the fact that Lolita initiates the sex displays that Lolita has agency in the sexual engagement. However, even though these crucial parts of the relationship show that Lolita is aware of everything that is going on, she still does not realize the consequences of her actions, and when things begin to go downhill she feels increasingly trapped.
Lolita plays mind games with Humbert from the very start of the relationship, making him feel guilty for the circumstances the couple is in, and maybe also signifying that she is uncomfortable with the relationship. After the first time the couple has sex, Lolita begins to call Humbert a “brute” (140) and a “dirty, dirty old man” (141). Immediately, Humbert begins to feel remorse because of the way Lolita acts after the sex. He notices that she is miserable, and concludes that he has forced her into a living nightmare. Although Humbert takes responsibility for Lolita’s misery, I still argue that Lolita is playing mind games with the narrator. She tells him, “You chump. . . You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me.” Not simply does Lolita toy with Humbert’s emotions; she threatens to get him in legal trouble. She also complains of pains, and accuses Humbert of tearing “something inside her” (141). This specific accusation, as Lolita must know, particularly attacks Humbert’s mind, because the narrator seriously cares about this young girl and her well-being. Lolita knows that her and Humbert’s encounters are legally and morally wrong, and she uses this knowledge against Humbert when she tries to make him feel guilty. Lolita’s occasional threatening comments and complaints mixed in with her consent to the relationship and the sex confuses Humbert. While Humbert is left feeling confused and paranoid, Lolita knows exactly what she is doing, and she purposely plays these mind games with the narrator. On the other hand, although these mind games are tormenting and painful for Humbert, they might be signs that Lolita actually feels trapped and uncomfortable in the relationship. Many believe that Lolita’s mind games are a part of the thrilling game that she is playing with Humbert for her own benefit. While this is true to some extent, Lolita knows that the mood swings and threatening comments toy with Humbert’s emotions and watching him struggle with her behavior is fun for her, the comments and complaints might have some truth to them. One cannot ignore that the complaints she makes might imply that she does feel uncomfortable and that she has made a mistake. Also, an important fact to note is that still, at this point, Lolita does not know that her mother is dead. Once Lolita finds out the truth about her mother, she has even more reason to feel as if she has no other choice than to go with this man wherever he takes her.
With the progression of the relationship, Lolita increasingly feels trapped and as if she has no other choice but to stay with Humbert. As damaging as Lolita’s mind games are for Humbert, and even though Lolita is aware of what she’s doing, her snobbish complaints are her way of hinting that she is not comfortable with her circumstances as they are. Humbert reveals that Lolita “sobs in the night— every night,” indicating that she is nowhere near content (176). Humbert also starts having to bribe Lolita for sexual favors, because the initial passion is gone. He confesses, “I might fondly demand an additional kiss, or even a whole collection of assorted caresses, when I knew she coveted very badly some item of juvenile amusement” (184). Humbert begins to pay Lolita for sexual acts, which indicates that they are no longer something that she wants to be a part of. Lolita saves and hides the money she receives from Humbert, and Humbert assumes that she’s trying to save up enough to run away. One can only assume that Humbert’s suspicions are correct, because why else would Lolita be hiding the money that she’s saving from Humbert? Lolita’s act of hiding the money signifies that she is most likely going to use it to get away from Humbert, therefore, Lolita has been feeling trapped by Humbert for a long time. Humbert notices Lolita’s emotional state, as he admits, as time goes on, that he is “less successful at keeping her in good humor,” and that he has to terrorize Lolita in order to keep her quiet (151). When it gets to the point that Humbert has to terrorize the child and pay her to keep her with him, Lolita is no longer a consenting player in the game. The narrator even calls her “a young captive” and other degrading phrases throughout the progressing problem (157). When Humbert confronts Lolita about her increasingly bitter attitude, he becomes violent and threatening. The narrator threatens to pull the girl out of school and “lock [her] up” if her behavior does not change, or go back to the way it used to be. To respond, Lolita tells Humbert that she loathes him, and that she will “sleep with the very first fellow who [asks] her” (205). Humbert’s outburst displays that he is becoming increasingly desperate to keep the girl under his wing, and also that Lolita is trying harder and harder to get away. During one fight, Humbert hits Lolita, delivering “a tremendous backhand cut that caught her hot hard little cheekbone” (227). Humbert’s resorting to violence conveys that Lolita is no longer his lover but instead his captive.
When Lolita finally does run away from Humbert, beginning a new life, she reveals that she is never truly happy in the relationship. Lolita tells Humbert that the man she runs away with, Quilty, is “the only man she had ever been crazy about,” when Humbert visits Lolita and her new husband. This claim leaves Humbert feeling as if he “never counted,” but it also shows that Lolita never cares for Humbert, and she leaves with Quilty because she does not want to be in her current relationship (272). Although it is easy to feel bad for the narrator, as he is heartbroken at the loss of his true love, it is important to remember that Humbert’s narration does not truly give insight to how Lolita feels about the relationship throughout the entire novel. It is possible that Lolita never feels anything real for Humbert, and what starts out as a thrilling game for her turns into a harsh reality that she becomes trapped in. Also, when Humbert comes to visit Lolita, he gives her money that she has been asking for. Upon giving her the money, Humbert asks Lolita to leave with him, meaning leave and spend the rest of her life with him. However, Lolita replies, “You mean you will give us that money only if I go with you to a motel. Is that what you mean?” (278). Lolita assumes that Humbert will only give her the money if she goes to a motel and has sex with him one last time. This assumption reflects on how the relationship functions in the stages leading up to Lolita’s running away— Humbert would raise Lolita’s allowance in return for sexual favors. Lolita still believes that all Humbert wants from her is sex, displaying both that she does not understand how much Humbert cares for her and she never really reciprocates those feelings. If Lolita never reciprocates the feelings but stays with Humbert for as long as she does, she is essentially trapped in a relationship she doesn’t want to be in, feeling that she has no other choice. To an extent, Humbert knows that the relationship damages Lolita. When Humbert asks if Lolita will ever come back to him, she replies that she would sooner go back to Quilty. Upon Lolita’s stumbling over her words, Humbert offers to “[supply] them mentally” in his narration, speaking for Lolita, “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life” (279). By guessing that these are Lolita’s thoughts, Humbert shows that he realizes the damage he does to Lolita’s childhood. Also, if Humbert knows that these are Lolita’s feelings towards the relationship, he should have allowed her to make her own choices regarding whether she stays with him or not. Instead, he keeps Lolita under his wing, only giving her money in return for sexual engagement and pulling her out of school when he starts getting worried about her interactions with others.
The way Lolita acts towards the beginning of the novel implies that for her, beginning a relationship with her mother’s older, attractive, mysterious new husband is an exciting game. However, as the relationship progresses, Lolita’s behavior displays that she is unhappy, uncomfortable, and feels as if she has been denied her childhood. Although Lolita initiates some of the events that spark the relationship— the first kiss, the declaration that the pair are indeed lovers, even the first time they have sex— Lolita does not realize that her life traveling from motel to motel with a man three times her age will turn into a nightmare. Essentially, Lolita knows what she is doing as she creates the sparks of the relationship, and she is aware of the mind games that she plays with Humbert, but as a young girl, she does not realize that part of the consequences of her actions is that she will lose the childhood she desires. As for the blame on Humbert’s part, even though it is easy to feel bad for the narrator, the man should not be forgiven for keeping such a young girl as his captive for as long as he does. Although Lolita does show interest towards the early stages of the relationship, Humbert does not give the girl any other choice when she starts showing signs of discomfort and unhappiness. As a responsible adult, the man should have told Lolita that her mother is dead right from the start, and also let her make the decisions on where to live, where to go to school, and other things when she begins to feel trapped in the relationship. Because of all of these factors, it is impossible to determine who is really at fault for the destruction of Lolita’s childhood, Humbert’s incarceration and death, Lolita’s mother’s death, Quilty’s death, and all other happenings that occur due to the relationship between the young girl and the grown man. However, surely, one must not conclude that Lolita is about a grown man who rapes young girls, but instead, about a child who has been sexualized by American society, a man whose desire for nymphets is a disturbing sickness, and an unconventional relationship that turns into a nightmare for both parties.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 1955. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.