Literature Study GuidesLolitaPart 1 Foreword Chapter 1 Summary

Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Part 1, Foreword–Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Foreword

The Foreword comes from the fictional academic John Ray Jr., PhD, an editor with a special affinity for the subject matter, including his interest in "certain morbid states and perversions." The manuscript is the pseudonymous Humbert Humbert's "remarkable memoir," in Ray's assessment, titled "Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male." Humbert died three years earlier in "legal captivity" just before his trial for an unidentified crime. Ray notes how little he had to do as editor given the excellent condition of the text, which he defends against the charge of obscenity and argues has scientific, artistic, and ethical value for readers.

Chapter 1

Humbert opens his "memoir" by introducing Lolita, first as a name and then as a girl "in his arms." He indicates that she had a precursor, another "girl-child" he loved in his own childhood, and then he offers his story to the "ladies and gentlemen of the jury."

Analysis

The Foreword is partly a parody of academic approaches to literature and partly instructions for how to read the novel. It satirizes pretentious academic language and theories but embeds some genuine arguments for the text's value. Its author promotes the memoir for both its form and content. He expresses confidence that it "will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles"; its literary quality "transcends its" attempts to atone for sin; and it provides ethical guidance in its depiction of what not to do in order to bring "up a better generation in a safer world." With this language of morality Nabokov may be mocking well-meaning clichés, something he does throughout the novel.

Ray's defense of the memoir anticipates various objections in order to dismiss them. To the charge of obscenity he answers that each scene has an aesthetic and moral purpose, despite any "aphrodisiac" qualities. None of the scenes have "a sensuous existence of their own"; instead they describe stages in their author's downfall and eventual moral rebirth. He elaborates that "offensive" often means "unusual," which all literature should be.

Ray also condemns Humbert's character before the reader has a chance to, acknowledging that he is "horrible," "abject," and "a shining example of moral leprosy." Ray challenges readers to overcome their prudishness and judgment of Humbert and respond to the beauty and literary quality of the tale, rather than the immorality of the tale. This introduces a theme of the novel.

Humbert the narrator begins his "memoir," and Nabokov the writer begins the novel with poetry, a sensuous and seductive appreciation for himself and his readers of Lolita's name and meaning to him, marked by the pleasures of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) of L's and T's and a few F's and S's, among other poetic devices. Nabokov wants his readers to feel his words in their mouths, in their bodies, thus inviting readers to connect to Humbert, to identify with him, despite what they are about to learn about him. Humbert identifies Lolita both as the "light of my life" and "fire of my loins," merging love and sex in more alliteration as well as assonance (repetition of vowel sounds). Her name itself is wordplay for Humbert. Though in her life before him she was Lo, Lola, Dolly, or Dolores, Humbert names her "Lolita," perhaps as Adam names the animals in Genesis in order to exercise his dominion over them.

Humbert refers to readers as his "jury," indicating that they will ultimately have to judge him. But he makes it very difficult to do so, here and throughout the novel, by confessing to multiple sins and crimes—including murder—even while he defends or justifies them. Here we see an example of Humbert as a contradiction. He presents himself as a comely, educated gentleman, yet his actions are those of the lowest criminal who also suffers from mental illness.

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