The Memory and Time Discourse in Lolita

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8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1468|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, narrator Humbert Humbert exerts the power of memory as he attempts to manipulate time to suit his devices and desires. Realizing that the nymphet stage which occurs in the lives of a select number of girls endures only between the ages of nine and fourteen, Humbert employs a variety of techniques as he struggles to cope with his unusual lust for these young girls whom he claims possess a rare grace and charm that sets them apart from their peers. Annabel Lee becomes Humbert’s nymphet prototype as well as childhood sweetheart when she dies of typhus at the age of twelve. She leaves the child Humbert with a plethora of unfulfilled sexual fantasies which he retains long after he has left his childhood behind. Upon fulfilling these fantasies twenty-five years later with the twelve year old nymphet Dolores Haze, Humbert creates a dilemma for himself as the only way to insure his prolonged happiness is to stop time. Thus, Humbert dooms himself from the moment he combines the entity of Annabel Lee with the flesh and blood vessel of Dolores, as he unsuccessfully attempts to preserve the fleeting phenomenon that is “Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta” (Nabokov 167).

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In her essay “Memory, Consciousness, and Time in Nabokov’s Lolita,” Olga Hasty compares Humbert to Orpheus, whom she calls “a great literary paradigm of mortal resistance to temporal passage” (231). Orpheus is a mythic poet whose love for Eurydice extends endlessly following her death, much like Humbert’s love for Annabel Lee. Early in the novel, Humbert describes his failed attempt at a sexual encounter with his childhood love: “I was on my knees, on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu” (Nabokov 13). This event has an enduring impact upon Humbert, as he says that the shock of her death obstructed any further romance in the years of his youth. Humbert believes that this unrequited desire for Annabel Lee instills within him a permanent desire for young girls, each of whom possesses unique qualities that remind him of his childhood sweetheart.

The tragedy of Annabel Lee’s untimely death leaves Humbert with only his memories, and these memories protract his love and desire: “Duration prolongs a particular event, but it also resists closure and new experience, which would interrupt that which is being prolonged” (Hasty 232). Like Orpheus, Humbert resists the passage of time by focusing upon his loss. He prevents himself from moving beyond her death by evoking memories of her and fantasizing about their near sexual encounter. He will remain in this moment until those fantasies are fulfilled and the essence of Annabel Lee can be instilled within a new girl (Hasty 232). “That little girl, with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since- until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another” (Nabokov 15). This new girl of course ends up being the young nymphet Dolores Haze.

Unlike his protracted desire for Annabel Lee, Humbert’s life with Dolores is one of repeated gratification. If Humbert’s love for Annabel Lee is like that of Orpheus for Eurydice, Humbert is more like Don Juan during his time with Dolores: “Because the moment of satisfaction is fleeting, Don Juan is driven to one amorous adventure after another with women whose individuality is absorbed into the single list that brings him celebrity” (Hasty 232). Humbert does not care about Dolores’ unique traits; he only possesses a physical interest in the girl; as Winston notes, he “in fact, carefully avoided any recognition of her personality which might interfere with the satisfaction of his own physical and psychological needs” (425). Humbert’s failure to see Dolores as an individual eventually drives her to leave him for another, more attentive man.

The satisfaction Don Juan gains from each sexual encounter diminishes over time; as the moment of satisfaction is ever more fleeting, he must gratify his desires more and more frequently. The same pattern occurs with Humbert, as each sexual encounter with Dolores eventually becomes temporary sustenance that merely tides him over until he can obtain gratification again. Humbert desperately attempts to outdistance time as he travels all over the United States while he exploits his young nymphet. Time’s passage is only evident in the changes that occur in Dolores’ body as she matures (Hasty 235).

Humbert recognizes these changes as he also recognizes that he loves Lolita the nymphet, rather than Dolores Haze the individual: “I knew that I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita” (Nabokov 65). Humbert considers ways to preserve his Lolita; he mourns the fact that he has never videotaped her and, more upsetting, considers having a child with her: “With patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960” (Nabokov 174). He then continues to ponder this potential bloodline as he states that he will “practice on Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad” (Nabokov 174). By having a daughter who will then have a daughter of her own, Humbert can render the passage of time inconsequential as he will produce for himself a lineage of nymphets, each of whom he may exploit as he has the original Lolita.

After Dolores leaves Humbert he comes to recognize how valuable the unfolding of time has been. He comes to see time not as loss but rather “as increasing both the span of time along whose continuum the remembering individual can range and the possibility that can be derived from that ranging” (Hasty 235). He recognizes finally that it was not realistic to imagine that his time with Lolita would last forever, and therefore the fact that several years passed while he was with her becomes a blessing.

However, the memories are not enough for Humbert. He attempts again to find someone who can gratify his desires. This time he finds Rita, a very small girl in her mid-twenties. While he says that his senses are only “very slightly stirred,” he adopts her as his constant companion and bedfellow for the next two years. While he does not specifically say which qualities besides her friendliness attract him, his physical descriptions of her make it apparent that he likes her childlike qualities: “The oddly prepubescent curves of her back, her ricey skin, her slow languorous columbine kisses kept me from mischief” (Nabokov 259). At one point, Humbert takes Rita to one of the hotels in which he and Lolita stayed in during their travels in an attempt to recapture the moment he had with the nymphet. However, as Lolita tells him later, “the past is the past” and his relationship with Rita falls hopelessly short of fulfilling his desire for the young girl (272). He finds that now, his memories of Lolita are nearly as unfulfilling as were his memories of Annabel Lee years earlier, and that the only way that he can ever be truly happy is with Lolita, his only true living love.

Two years after she escapes from him, Dolores writes Humbert a letter informing him that she has married and expects a child. With this, Humbert’s obsession with the nymphet returns in full force. He drops everything, including his relationship with Rita, to track down the now seventeen year old girl. As he drives, he rehearses in his mind the way in which he will eliminate her husband, whom he believes is the man who stole Dolores from him. When he arrives at her house, however, he finally seems to realize and regret the damage he inflicted upon her during her childhood. He realizes that Dolores will not leave with him and that happiness is no longer possible, so he rushes off to murder the man who actually took Dolores away – Humbert feels that he no longer has anything to lose.

Humbert’s life is filled with futile attempts to gain more time with those he loves, and so it is again as Lolita rejects his final attempt at happiness. Here dies his final attempt to love Annabel, Dolores, Lolita – and with it dies Humbert, for all intents and purposes, for he has lost his reason to live.

Works Cited

Hasty, Olga. “Memory, Consciousness, and Time in Nabokov’s Lolita,” KronoScope. 4.2 (2004): pp. 225-238.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

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Winston, Matthew. “”Lolita and the Dangers of Fiction,” Twentieth Century Literature. 21.4 (Dec. 1975): pp. 421-427

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The Memory and Time Discourse in Lolita. (2018, April 20). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
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