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Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How do Humbert and Lolita each grow and change throughout the novel Lolita, and how are these changes significant?

Humbert first sees Lolita as only a sexual plaything, a beautiful young girl; as he travels with her he begins to see her as a more complicated creature—an annoying, "disgustingly conventional" teenage girl. Later still he begins to mistrust her. But at the end of the book when he speaks with Lolita, he calls her by her real name, admitting her reality. Although he sees a much older woman (17!) no longer physically attractive (to him), he also experiences pure love. This admission suggests that Humbert has changed into a less self-absorbed person, more able to see the real Dolly Haze and love her. Lolita, at the beginning of the novel, is a vulnerable young girl who does whatever Humbert wants because she has no one else to depend on. She grows partly because of the skills she learned in the theater at Beardsley into a sly, cunning, trickster intent on manipulating Humbert so that she can find freedom. She becomes an active agent of her own life. In the last scene of the novel she controls the situation and is mature and emotionally restrained, yet she is empathetic enough to call Humbert "honey." She is also clear-eyed and direct enough to tell him that he "broke" her life.

What is the significance of the poem that Humbert writes to Delores Haze in Chapter 25, Part 2 of Lolita?

The poem is a melancholy elegy about the fact that Dolores (Lolita) has been stolen from him. It harkens back to Poe's poem, where Anabelle Lee is taken away by jealous angels. Some of the themes of the poem are ones that recur throughout the novel, like the part "gnarled McFate" has played in Humbert's loss of Dolores and the part that his relentless traveling has in an attempt to make him whole. Exile and revenge appear in the poem as well, as they have appeared in Humbert's life, and the repeated silly rhymes about Carmen, cars, and bars hearken back to the first time Humbert "solipsized" Lolita, having an orgasm without her knowing it. The French stanza includes the question, "Lolita, what have I done with your life?" showing that Humbert realizes he has ruined Lolita's childhood. While in the poem he accepts reality enough to use Lolita's real name, the poem itself is evidence that he is up to his old tricks—filtering facts through an artistic lens and casting himself as a bereft lover in a poem.

How does the final meeting between Dolly Schiller (Lolita) and Humbert in Lolita reflect the difference between their views of reality?

Humbert still has his old solipsistic and romantic way of looking at life and at his relationship to Lolita, while Dolly Schiller (Lolita) is cynical and calm. When Humbert says he wants her to go away with him she assumes he means he'll pay her to go to a hotel and have sex with him. He is offended by this assumption; where she has seen their relationship as at best transactional—he raped her and gave her presents for the pleasure—he has seen it as romantic. When he asks her again to go away with him, she refuses, calling him by that plain, homey endearment "honey." It's a word you can never imagine Humbert using about Lolita; Humbert uses high-flying literary rhetoric when he speaks of his love.

In Lolita what does Lolita's relationship with Quilty say about her character's development?

As despicable as Quilty is he contributes to Lolita's growth, up to a certain point. Quilty's role as an artist—a playwright—is significant. Humbert as an aesthete views Lolita as an art object. Quilty on the other hand created the play The Enchanted Hunters in which Lolita acts, giving her agency for the first time in her life. However, most of what Lolita knows about male-female relationships she learned from her abusive relationship with Humbert. She doesn't know what a healthy relationship looks like, so she falls for the first man who offers her an escape, even though he too is a pedophile. On the one hand the cleverness she shows in escaping Humbert reflects positive development. On the other the man she ends up with—another pedophile—shows her inability to pursue her own best interests. Still her refusal to take part in Quilty's pornographic filmmaking shows an ability to assert herself; the fact that she doesn't then leave Quilty (he kicks her out) simply reflects that she is still a child with few options for survival.

How would the story of the novel Lolita be different if it were told from Lolita's point of view?

If Lolita were told from her point of view the sex scenes would be described as painful and horrific. Humbert would be described in a less appealing and likeable way. We might get a different view of his physical appearance. Humbert describes himself as extremely handsome several times. However, in a brief but telling scene at the end of Chapter 2, Part 10 Lolita makes fun of his nervous tic—a feature he never mentions in his previous self-assessments. Such omissions suggest that what we don't know about Humbert could easily fill a second novel. And of course readers would get to see Lolita's meetings with Quilty, seeing Humbert's double from her point of view. "Lolita" herself would become the more complex, three-dimensional character of Dolores—orphan, victim, actress, and survivor.

In Lolita how does the description of Lolita's death in the foreword further serve to hide her true identity?

In the foreword John Ray Jr. tells us what happened to the novel's, or his case study's, major characters: "Mrs. 'Richard F. Schiller' died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl." Professor Ray writes that this character died on Christmas Day 1952 in a settlement in the Northwest called "Gray Star." In his afterword to the book Nabokov calls Gray Star "the capital town of the book." Here is Lolita, hidden from us at the very beginning of the novel, with a name we readers won't recognize as hers until the very end of the novel—hidden from us but there, as Dolly is throughout the novel. It's another one of Nabokov's clues, a mention of something that happens in the future, something that won't make sense to readers unless they read the novel more than once. This information also provides us with one of the first of the many dead children we hear of in this book, including of course Lolita, whose childhood has been taken away from her—she becomes dead, in a sense, with her dead smile focused on no one in the room—because of her relationship with Humbert. The many threatened or dead children accumulate through the novel—the barber's son in Kasbeam, the "cancelled" child, Mona's dead brother—and they are all comments on, reflections of, this spiritual, psychological deadness of the girl Dolly, cancelled and hidden by Humbert's obsession with "Lolita."

In what sense is Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita a better man than his shadow or double, Clare Quilty?

While both men are pedophiles Humbert is at least, at the end of the book, aware that he has hurt Lolita, and he seems to feel genuine guilt for robbing her of her childhood (though it is not clear that his pedophilia would end). We are not shown any self-awareness from Clare Quilty, who does seem to see life as a joke and who not only wants to have sex with Lolita but wants to profit off that by making pornographic movies of her having sex with many people. He does not even take his own life seriously. Like Humbert he seems to be playing a role during their final confrontation; Quilty, however, is playing the clown, mocking Humbert's own attempt to create a scene of high drama.

In Lolita what is the significance of the following couplet: "The moral sense in mortals is the duty/we have to pay on mortal sense of beauty"?

When Humbert quotes the "old poet" (in fact these lines are Nabokov's invention) he is just beginning to realize how, in what he earlier called his obsession with fixing the exact nature of nymphets, he has destroyed his ward. His "sense of beauty" knew no limits—he feasted on Lolita for two years. He was the god of his own small, solipsistic universe. Only recently has his "moral sense" been awakened, and that moral sense seems to be making him feel terrible. What's more, that feeling is the "duty" (that is, tax) he must pay because he is "mortal," not a god; his sense of beauty doesn't give him license to pin and mount the object of his lust. Whether Humbert himself really believes all this is unclear he still seems enthralled with his own ability to spin a spectacular tale—though he insists it shouldn't be published until Lolita's death.

During which two times in Lolita does Humbert seem to see Lolita as she really is?

In Part 2, Chapter 32 Humbert recalls overhearing Lolita talking to her classmate Eva Rosen about death, describing it as lonely. As he recalls this he realizes that he had never bothered to ask Lolita what she thought about anything: "Behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden ..." He recalls also watching Lolita watch her classmate Avis with her father and realizing she envies them. He realizes that not only was there a "garden" in her that he never saw but also that she yearned for a real family, not just her strange relationship with him. Humbert remembers a time Lolita asked where her mother was buried. These are times, as is his last conversation with her, when Humbert seems to see Lolita as she really is. This is significant because it suggests that Humbert may have grown a bit: he seems to be moving a bit beyond his self-centered perspective on Lolita and the rest of the world, he's beginning to see that other people have inner lives, that all is not romance, and that he has really caused pain.

What is the meaning of the following line from Lolita: "the refuge of art ... is the only immortality you and I may share"?

In some ways the novel Lolita is a meditation on art, on how an aesthete (Humbert) works with an object (Lolita) and tries to "fix" it, or preserve it from the ravages of time and death. Art strives for beauty and also immortality. Perhaps "the refuge of art" refers to the novel, or memoir, or psychological case study that is Lolita. Only within those pages, within that "refuge of art," can Humbert and Lolita be together forever. After all, if Humbert believes in an afterlife (which seems highly unlikely) he must assume that he and Lolita will not be going to the same place. If (as seems more likely) he is not a believer, then immortality only exists in art.

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