The Non-Existence of Lolita
The novel Lolitatakes for granted the existence of Lolita—or does it? Is she real? There is no doubt that Dolores Haze, a twelve-year-old American schoolgirl, is real: but isLolitareal? To answer this question we must first investigate the category of the nymphet: is there such a thing as a nymphet? Early in the novel Humbert expatiates as follows: “Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’”. The nymphet is thus a “maiden” who is not a human but a demon, recognizable only by someone bewitched. She sounds very much like a mythological creature not a flesh-and-blood human child. The nymphet is said to live on an “enchanted island” surrounded by a “vast misty sea”. “[A]re all girl-children nymphets?” Humbert asks. “Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane.” Is it just the pretty ones? “Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.”
Clearly the nymphet is difficult to identify and indeed is close to indefinable (“certain mysterious characteristics”). “You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; shestands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” The true nymphet is a far cry from the pretty young girl who might attract the eye of a man of pedophilic disposition; she is much harder to pin down and analyze (“ineffable signs”), seeming to depend on the sensibilities of the “artist and madman” who sets out to detect her. To put it plainly: she is a projection of his fantasies not an objective human type. There is really no such thing as a nymphet—no human girl falls into the category as a matter of objective fact. This is why Humbert’s attempts at providing criteria are so vague and unhelpful: he simply can’t tell us what makes a girl a nymphet. A nymphet is, as he implies, a mythical creature, a creation of the (fevered) imagination, not a member of a subclass of actual human girls. Nymphets don’t exist in the real world but only in the world of imagination. It is impossible to pick one out of a crowd of human children for the simple reason that there arenone, except as projected by the bewitched observer. There are pretty girls and plain girls, thin girls and plump girls, shy girls and bold girls, but there are no girls that are nymphic demons—theyexist only in fairy tales. If a bewitched traveler discerns one in a group that is only because he projects his fantasies onto her: the object of his fantasy does not really exist—though its real-world counterpart does. We cannot existentially quantify over nymphets.
But Lolita is essentially and by definition a nymphet. Not so Dolores Haze, an actual American schoolgirl: she is no mysterious deadly demon equipped with magic powers. At the outset of the novel we memorably read: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” Here the theme of multiple identities is sounded loud and clear: the real girl Dolores is contrasted with the fantasy girl Lolita constructed in Humbert’s febrile mind. In his arms she was always Lolita; in his mind too. She was Lolita to him. Put this together with the passage about the idea of the nymphet: she was a nymphet to him, not in the real world. Her name is “Dolores Haze”; hecalls her “Lolita”. Thus, given that nymphets don’t exist, and that Lolita is a nymphet, we can deduce that Lolita doesn’t exist. She is a figment of Humbert’s imagination superimposed on the actual girl Dolores Haze (dolorous and hazy). The title of the book is therefore the name of a mythical creature not of a human girl. Lolita never existed. There was no such person.
If Lolita never existed, can she die? Did she die? We know that Dolores Haze dies because she is numerically identical with Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, who we are informed died in childbirth (by John Ray, Jr., PhD, in the Foreword). But Lolita is not identical to her, so didn’t die with her. Then did she outlive Dolores? No, because the lifespan of the nymphet is strictly limited, expiring at the age of fourteen. Lolita actually died a few years before Dolores—the latter being a tragedy, the former not so much. We do not weep for Lolita, because she is a mythical being who never existed to begin with. In the middle of the novel Humbert anticipates the death of his nymphet owing to advancing age, mainly viewing it as an inconvenience requiring him to get rid of Dolores and find another nymphet to take her place: nymphets come and go quickly (lifespan, five years at most). However, the non-identity of Lolita and Dolores does have implications for the course of Humbert’s love life (if we may so describe it), because when, at the end of the novel, he finds himself loving the woman about to bear another man’s child, it is not Lolita that he then loves. He used to love Lolita (or whatever passed for love in his nymphleptic days with her), but now she is gone and the individual before him is not a nymphet at all but a grown woman. It is not that he still loves Lolitain her post-nymphet incarnation, because there can be no such thing, but rather that he loves the person that corresponded to her in the real world. He now loves a real human being—Mrs. Dolores Schiller, notLolita. Shedoes not belong on an enchanted island but lives in a crappy house in the grim North West. He has thus made a stunning psychological breakthrough: not just loving a female beyond the age limit of the nymphet but also loving a real person. That is his fundamental transition—the move from fantasy to reality, not just from one age of female to another. Now he loves someone distinct from his fantasy objects—someone who can really die (and does die quite soon). He was a pedophile, to be sure, but he was also a fantasy-phile, cut off from reality. For the first time he lives in the real world. That is his redemption as well as his tragedy. We need feel no grief for Lolita, because she was a mere figment, a phantasm, an hallucination–though Dolores has our profound sympathy. What was done to Dolores was criminal. So there is no consolation for the reader in getting the ontology of Lolitastraight. Lolita doesn’t exist, never did, and so can’t be harmed; Dolores does exist, and certainly was harmed.
So here is a linguistic recommendation: stop referring to Dolores Haze as “Lolita”, because that buys into Humbert’s distorting prism of self-serving fantasy; instead call her by her proper name, “Dolores” (or “Dolly” or “Lo” if you like). She was never a nymphet, save in Humbert’s imagination, but always an ordinary human girl. The creature called “Lolita” is a non-existent entity conjured up by the sick mind of a “panting maniac” (as Dr. Ray aptly describes friend Humbert). Names matter. Dolores Haze was no Lolita.
Both films of Lolita(not to mention countless readers) treat our young heroine as objectively nymphet-like, completely missing the point that she is a fantasy object of Humbert’s, as the text makes clear (if studied carefully). It is now a commonplace to suppose that the world is populated with actual Lolita’s. In fact, there are none, because the nymphet is as mythical as the unicorn. No one has ever been a Lolita.