Lolita is a book that lends itself to a myriad of different interpretations, with each reader finding a different meaning within the story. Many readers are first drawn to Lolita expecting the tale of the escapades of a pedophile and his victim, a “lewd book. They expected the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped too, and felt bored and let down.” (Nabokov 313) It is overly simplistic to define Lolita as a novel about pedophilia –certainly one of the many elements of the story, but by no means the main theme. What makes Lolita a classic is Nabokov’s ability to weave so many elements into his writing, that each re-reading reveals a slightly different, and more profound layer to the book. The reader who opens the book expecting a simple story of pedophilia and sexual exploitation finds himself quickly immersed in the ever shifting quicksand of Humbert Humbert,’s narration. Although Humbert’s sexual attraction to barely pubescent girls, or nymphets makes him easily classifiable as a pedophile, his love for Lolita metamorphoses in the course of the novel like one of Nabokov’s beloved butterflies, starting out as immature adolescent obsession, and culminating in the mature, selfless love that parents feel for their children.
In order to meet the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for diagnosis of pedophilia, a person must exhibit certain characteristics:
“A. Over a period of at least 6 months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger); B. The person has acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty; C. The person is at least age 16 years and at least 5 years older than the child or children in Criterion A.” (Wikipedia)
According to this definition, Humbert’s obsession with young girls “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen…” can be categorized as pedophilia. However, Humbert is not attracted to all girls in that age group, but only to a select few, “who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human…and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”. (Nabakov 16) According to Humbert, these girls exhibit “mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm …” that set them apart from other girls their age. (Nabakov 17)
Humbert excuses his fantasies by blaming his obsession on his unfulfilled early adolescent love affair with his age-mate Annabelle Lee. “We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives….I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve”. (Nabakov 18)