We’ve all been intrigued with Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita since the classic film arrived on the scene in 1962. But, isn’t the burning question: Is there more to understand about Humbert and Lolita beyond, “he’s a pedophile and she’s a troubled 14-year-old seductress?” The answer is yes, there’s plenty. Believe it or not, both have pathological reactions to loss. Pathological is not a surprise, I’m sure. But, perhaps loss is. So, let’s look more deeply into the not so simple histories that have brought about Humbert and Lolita’s very disturbed longings and behavior. Making them unable to grieve.
Professor Humbert’s Mother Loss
Humbert (James Mason) lost his mother as a young child. No one loses a mother at an early age and doesn’t have significant psychological repercussions. And, although this will help us understand Humbert, it certainly does not excuse a grown man’s molesting or raping a pubescent girl. No matter her sultry provocative behavior.
Humbert’s early loss isn’t made obvious in Kubrick’s film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel (screenplay written by Nabokov himself). Yet, the novel’s preface does. Troubling, though, it merely mentions this mother loss and skips quickly over it:
“After losing his mother at a young age, Humbert has a rich childhood living in his wealthy father’s hotel. At the age of 13, Humbert has a precocious relationship with a girl his age, Annabel Leigh, but her family moves away before they get the chance to have full sex. Annabel dies shortly thereafter of typhus. Following this, Humbert finds he has a hebephilic fixation with certain girls ages 9 to 14 which he identifies as nymphets, citing his encounter with Annabel as the cause.”
Annabel wasn’t the cause. She died as his mother did. Two first objects of love, now out of reach. Humbert’s loss of his mother became fixated and sexualized on Annabel and then on girls her age. The unconscious purpose: having the mother he helplessly lost and did not grieve. Now, he’ll take power and control.
It seems like he could have control over a young tempting 14-year-old who’s enamored with him, right? Wrong. Not when it comes to Lolita (Sue Lyon). Lolita has her own losses, mother issues, and her own reasons why she will not be the one controlled.
We’ll see the duet of control and seduction that Humbert and Lolita play.
Humbert & Lolita: A Troubling Duet Of Control
Humbert meets Lolita while she’s sunbathing in her mother’s backyard, sporting large black sunglasses. Her mother, Charlotte Haze, a widow of 7 years, gives him a tour of the house, hoping to take him on as a lodger (and lover). He takes the room; for Lolita. He’s smitten.
Not only is he moonstruck, but he’s also immediately possessive. He keeps journal entries with his erotic fantasies. Advises Charlotte (who, in her own fantasies, has made him a part of the family) not to let Lolita involve herself with boys. It’s not out of concern for Lolita. He wants Lolita to himself. In his mind, she’s his.
Lolita watches her mother’s obnoxious, fawning behavior with Humbert. Charlotte’s histrionic needs trump Lolita’s and make Charlotte impossible to reach. Plus, Lolita has a competitive side; born out of hurt, anger, and rather vicious Oedipal rivalry. Lolita has her needs, too. And, she knows how to put them first.
She’ll take Humbert away from her mother (no matter that Humbert doesn’t want Charlotte anyway). Lolita wants him for her own confused purposes. A mixed-up need for a father, longings to be loved in a way her mother doesn’t, hatred, and proof she is more desirable than Charlotte.
Lolita mostly wants to get back at her mother for her cruelty, self-preoccupation, and inability to give Lolita what a child needs. Lolita’s walled off her feelings of hurt and turned her back on her mom. She’s learned well Charlotte’s seductive and self-obsessed ways.
Humbert is preoccupied with Lolita: “What drives me insane,” he writes in his journal, “is the two-fold nature of this nymphette. Exterior, of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of near vulgarity; strange thrill.” Yes, he has his perversion. But, his obvious obsession with her intensifies Lolita’s triumph.
Lolita’s Losses & Mother Problems
Lolita’s need for triumph grows out of her losses.
Her father died 7 years ago. She was only 7. Plus, her mother, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), is not much of a mother. She has nothing but criticisms. In fact, Charlotte must be the center of attention; jealous of Lolita’s youth and her beauty. Charlotte’s hunger takes up all the space. If Lolita gets in her way …
Charlotte loses it, tantrums in an infantile way, accuses Lolita of being a pest. And, of “having a gripe against her” since she was one. She quickly turns cold. Yells and criticizes every move Lolita makes. Elbows on the table, touching her pimples.
Then, completely unaware that Humbert wants Lolita and not her, she sends Lolita upstairs with a tray of food for him. Of course, Humbert invites Lolita in and Lolita enjoys her little flirtation. Humbert reading Poe: “kissed her and conquered her scruples.” To Lolita, it’s “corny.”
What Charlotte really doesn’t want is to have Lolita interrupt her fantasy of Humbert becoming her second husband.
And, of course, Lolita does, sneaking in after a party (that was supposed to be overnight) and intruding into Charlotte’s attempt to seduce Humbert with the Cha Cha. “What are you two up to?” Humbert turns his attention to Lolita. She’s the little victor once again.
But, this isn’t just a small bit of sparring between mother and daughter. It’s war. Charlotte sends Lolita 200 miles away to summer camp, driving her there. Humbert’s none too happy. When he receives Charlotte’s note that she’s in love with him and if he doesn’t feel the same to be gone when she gets back, he cooks up a neat plan to get what he wants.
Doing Anything To Get What Humbert Wants
A man like Humbert doesn’t care who’s in his way or who gets hurt. He’ll do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Call it narcissism, sociopathy, or perverse hostility, his ruthless determination makes him dangerous. No one will stop him. He can fake things pretty darn well if his scheme requires.
What does Humbert do? He laughs cruelly when he reads Charlotte’s letter, but stays around and marries her. That way, he’s right where he wants to be when Lolita returns.
He plays the role of dutiful and adoring husband, letting Charlotte follow him around, make her needy demands. He “makes love” to her as any husband would (while looking at Lolita’s photo on the bedside table). But, he’s faking it, of course, and Charlotte’s inability to allow any kind of separateness begins to grate on his nerves.
When she tells him she’s sending Lolita to boarding school after summer camp, foiling the plan he’s paying dearly for, he imagines the perfect murder. But, when she reads his diary and the cruel things he’s written about her amidst fantasies of Lolita, she tries to kick him out, yelling: “You’re never going to see that brat again.”
Distraught, Charlotte feels she’s betrayed her dead husband’s memory, sobbing while looking at his photo and apologizing. The next thing we know, Humbert receives a phone call: “Your wife’s been hit by a car.” She ran in front of it. Charlotte has taken murder out of Humbert’s hands this time. She’s managed to kill herself.
For Humbert, there couldn’t be a better opening for his plan to really take hold. Acting like the distraught bereaved husband, family friends Jean and John convince him he has “everything” to live for. Of course, he does, now Lolita belongs to him.
Lies, Clare Quilty, & A Dead Mother
Humbert drives to camp. Leaving with Lolita, he lies that her mother is ill and they’re on their way to see her. The flirtation begins. “I missed you terribly,” Humbert confesses. Flippantly, Lolita banters: “I haven’t missed you at all. In fact, I’ve been terribly unfaithful and you haven’t even kissed me yet.”
Humbert picks up speed. He tells her they “must” stop at a hotel for the night. Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a famous playwright, comes on the scene. He had a brief affair with Charlotte a year or so ago and is quite aware of Lolita’s charms. He’s a lascivious drunk with a sensual dark-haired woman on his arm.
Immediately, Quilty’s suspicious of the relationship between Humbert and Lolita. A pretender and a snoop, Quilty offers to help with a better room, talking fast and repetitiously about how “normal” the two of them are. Far from it.
No hot and heavy scenes to make it obvious, but this is where the illicit affair begins. Or let’s call it what it is, a series of statutory rapes. The hotel has one room with one bed left. The first night, he sleeps on a fold-up cot, but his intentions aren’t comical.
In the morning, a giggly childlike Lolita wants to play a fun game she learned at camp. From a boy named, Charlie. Humbert’s competitor: “You haven’t played this game before when you were a kid?” “No, I don’t know about games,” Humbert lies. He’s got her where he wants her.
On the road again, Lolita wants to call mother. And, quickly that lie is over: “You can’t.” “Why?” “Because she’s dead.” Lolita laughs hysterically. She thinks it’s a joke. It’s not. Now, she’s sobbing: “Everything was so normal.”
“Nothing will ever be all right again.”
No Room For Grief
Lolita’s Humbert’s prisoner, motherless and fatherless as she is. There’s nowhere else to go. He halfheartedly comforts her, but really wants to be enough to replace the parents she’s lost. She’s dependent on him. Has to give him what he wants. And, he wants all of her.
She’s a kid. Playing at Oedipal triumph is one thing. But, to really “have the man” isn’t what she wants at all. This is sexual abuse. No, nothing will ever be all right again.
And, there’s no way to grieve. She’s lost everything. Humbert tries to get her to stop crying. To be happy that he’ll buy her a new record player. They’ll go on trips. He wants her to move on and pretend everything is more than ok.
But, not being able to grieve has its consequences. Humbert hasn’t grieved and he’s become a pedophile. Lolita hasn’t grieved her father, the fact she had a hateful mother, and now no mother at all. So, she must look for love and attention in all the twisted and confused ways that she does.
Plus, she’s terrified he’ll abandon her too: “Promise me you’ll never leave me. I don’t want to end up in one of those places for Juvenile Delinquents.”
Lolita has no choice but to become Humbert’s barely teenage paramour. They move to Beardsley College where he has a lectureship. He reluctantly puts her in school. Tries to control her every waking moment. No dating. Fun. School play. He wants her to himself. He’s afraid of being discovered.
But, Quilty, the playwright-director of the play, poses as the “school psychiatrist,” Dr. Zempf. Quilty has suspected Humbert all along. Now he threatens him. But, after the school play is over, they’re soon taking a trip. Running away from Beardsley too.
Lolita’s Escape & Cruel Victory
Escape isn’t in the cards for Lolita just yet. It’s hard to say if she runs away with Humbert out of terror that he’ll leave her or a plan. She is being suffocated. On Hubert’s part, he knows he’s losing his hold on Lolita. He’s desperate.
At the play, her piano teacher tells him Lolita hasn’t been to a lesson in a month. Is she hanging out with a boy? Hubert’s control is threatened and he insists they go away. Lolita tries to refuse: “No! I hate you. I have news for you. I’m going to do anything I want to with anyone I want to.” Suddenly, though, she gives in.
Does she have a plan up her sleeve? Has she enticed someone to help her? A car follows them for days. Humbert’s scared. She talks to the driver at a gas station, saying he just asked for a map. She later gets sick with the flu and ends up in the hospital.
He’s sick too, but with cardiac problems, not the Asiatic flu. He gets a threatening call, waking him: “Enjoying yourself in our little town? Rumors are circulating about you and the little girl. Traveling doesn’t give you much time to see a psychiatrist regularly.”
Quilty? Humbert’s agitated. And, when he races to get her from the hospital in the middle of the night to escape: “Oh, she was discharged yesterday in care of her uncle.”
Lolita’s disappeared. He pines away for 3 years, another indication of his inability to accept loss. A letter comes. “Dear Dad, I’ve gone through much hardship. I’m married. Sad. Going to have a baby. We don’t have enough money to pay our debts. Please send a check.” She’s Mrs. Richard Schiller. He goes to Lolita’s. Takes his gun.
Pathological Reactions To Loss Lead To Revenge
Humbert demands to know who took her from the hospital. At first, she refuses, but telling him gives her cruel revenge and victory over her needs and losses she’s always looking for:
“Oh, criminy, it was Clare Quilty, of course. You don’t think you were the only one? I had a crush on him ever since he came around for Mama. I had to trick you. Otherwise, how would I be in his play? How would I get to see him?” Then, she cuts him to the core: “I guess he was the only guy I was ever really crazy about.”
Still desperate for her to love him: “Come away with me, leave your husband. You’re married only by accident. You aren’t bound to him. You’re bound to me.” He’s waited 3 years and would wait for his whole life.
Lolita’s in a trance. Humbert’s undying love is what her mother never gave her. Yet, she snaps back to reality. Dick, her husband, is a young man, she’s having his baby, he needs her. A part of her wants a more normal life.
Humbert’s sobbing now. This time Lolita tells him to stop crying. He gives her a $13,000 check. She races off: “Let’s keep in touch. I’ll write.” He’s lost her. There’s no place for his grief or rage.
Losing Lolita means losing control over loss. Revenge is the only “answer” to regain power. Since he jealously blames Clare Quilty, he’ll track him down. Isn’t this the reason he brought his gun? So, he kills Quilty in cold blood. But, of course, this doesn’t take care of grief.
Holly Prado Northup
Sandra — This is an aspect of “Lolita” I never thought of — you’ve opened a whole new way for me to understand Nabokov’s novel and the film. I’ve been a Nabokov reader for years; thank you for such a fresh, perceptive, incisive vision of the film, focusing on the wrenching price one pays for loss when there’s no place to grieve, no one to share your feelings with so you can recover from the emotional distress of loss — particularly of early parental loss..
Brilliant! Thanks again.
Dr. Sandra E. Cohen
Thank you so much, Holly. I enjoyed thinking about Lolita and understanding the deeper motivations to their disturbing relationship. I’m glad you could relate to what I wrote! As always, I very much appreciate you reading my writing and your thoughtful comments.