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Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Plot Summary

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The story begins with a preface that frames the action of the novel. The forward is purportedly written by a fictional doctor, John Ray Jr. The doctor confesses that he received the text that follows from a lawyer whose client died in jail while awaiting trial for murder. Dr. Ray condemns the actions of the protagonist but finds the writing beautiful and insightful from a psychiatric perspective.

The now dead writer of the story that follows, Humbert Humbert, who lusts after "nymphets," finds the perfect target in 12-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he calls Lolita. Humbert Humbert, a manipulative, psychopathic pedophile, is an unreliable narrator who kidnaps and rapes Lolita and bears responsibility for Lolita's premature death. Throughout the entire story he tries to manipulate readers to justify the atrocities of his actions.

The novel is part delusional love story, part road adventure, part psychiatric case study, part fairy tale, and part true-crime detective novel. Humbert, a 40-something émigré and a European intellectual who sees himself as superior to most people he meets, narrates the story from his jail cell. After a disjointed career and time in sanatoriums for psychiatric problems, Humbert rents a room in a New England town called Ramsdale, from a woman named Charlotte Haze. He meets and falls in love with Charlotte's 12-year old daughter, Dolores, whom he calls Lolita. Though he is physically disgusted by adult women, he marries Charlotte so he can be near Dolores, whom he has been touching and writing about in a secret diary that he locks up. One day when he and Lolita are alone he secretly masturbates as Lolita lays her legs over his. When Charlotte finds the diary Humbert has been keeping, she orders Humbert to leave. Then, running out of the house, she is struck by a car and dies. Alone Humbert travels to Camp Q where Lolita is staying, and, saying to camp administrators that he is her father, kidnaps her from the camp.

On their first night of travel they stay at The Enchanted Hunters hotel, where Humbert gives Lolita sleeping pills. He tries to rape her, but she keeps waking up; then in the morning, Humbert imagines that Lolita seduces him, a characterization of the rape intended to manipulate the audience into sympathy. Back in the car again Lolita says she will tell everyone what he has done to her, and she asks to call her mother. Humbert coldly tells Lolita that her mother is dead.

Humbert and Lolita next travel through the United States for 12 months, and Humbert tries desperately to entertain Lolita, to frighten and emotionally manipulate her into total dependence on him, and to keep her away from other people. Eventually, worried about money Humbert gets a job through fellow émigré Gaston Godin at a New England college called Beardsley, and he enrolls Lolita in the Beardsley School for girls. At Beardsley Lolita becomes involved in the theater and acts in a school play called The Enchanted Hunters. Worried that Lolita is lying to him and that someone will discover their relationship, Humbert becomes more violent with Lolita until she tells him she wants to leave on another road trip with him, and Humbert agrees.

On their second journey across the United States, Lolita is in charge. Humbert becomes more and more anxious, certain they are being followed. In a Colorado town called Elphinstone Lolita falls ill, and Humbert leaves her in the hospital for eight days. He becomes ill and fails to visit her; when he returns she has been released from the hospital and has left with her "uncle." Humbert searches for Lolita for three years, hires a detective, and enters a psychiatric ward.

Lolita, now married and pregnant at 17, sends Humbert a letter asking for money. Humbert, who has been seeing a kind, alcoholic woman named Rita, finds Lolita living with her husband in a tenement. Lolita tells Humbert how she escaped from him, and that she had met Clare Quilty, the playwright who wrote The Enchanted Hunters at Beardsley. Lolita had fallen in love with Quilty, who had followed them on their road trip and helped her run away from Humbert by posing as her uncle when she was in the hospital. Lolita lived with him for a while, but when he wanted her to make pornographic movies, she left him. Humbert gives Lolita all the money he has and asks her to leave with him. She gently refuses, calling him "honey."

Humbert drives back to the Ramsdale area—a melancholy journey of memory—and finds Clare Quilty in a nearby town. He chases Quilty around his house, shooting him as Quilty jokes and makes fun of him. Quilty dies and Humbert is arrested. He is recording his memoir of his time with Lolita from jail and writes that the book should only be published after his and Lolita's deaths. By the time the editor John Ray Jr. receives the manuscript, Lolita has died in childbirth and Humbert has died from heart failure in jail.

Lolita Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Humbert tells of his early life and first marriages.

Rising Action

2 Humbert has sexual encounter with Lolita.

3 Humbert and Charlotte marry.

4 Charlotte dies.

5 Humbert kidnaps Lolita from Camp Q and travels with her.

6 Humbert rapes Lolita at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel.

7 Humbert takes Lolita to Beardsley and the two live there.

8 Humbert and Lolita travel across the United States again.


9 Lolita runs away from Humbert with Quilty.

Falling Action

10 Humbert looks for Lolita, then finds and speaks to her.

11 Humbert kills Quilty.


12 Humbert is caught by the police and put in jail for murder.

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