This controversial novel starts with a foreword of John Ray Jr. (who is also a fictional character), a psychologist and book editor. Ray presents a memoir that is called The Confession of White Widowed Male and that was written by a man who died of heart attack while awaiting his trial for murdering a man in jail. The memoir’s author wrote under a pseudonym Humbert Humbert.
The memoir starts from the description of Humbert’s childhood and his love to a teenager girl, Annabel Leigh. He was also a teenager and romanced her, but soon afterwards her family moved to other place and their relationship ended. Some time after that Annabel fell ill and died because of disease. These feelings left a deep imprint and even after growing up Humbert Humbert still had romantic feelings to different girls ages from 9 to 14. He called them nymphets and saw a kind of dark and even demonic sexuality in them. Humbert claimed that this perversion was caused by his everlasting sorrow for Annabel Leigh.
As an adult Humbert used the services of prostitutes, choosing the ones who looked like teenager girls. Finally he decided to settle down and married a Polish woman named Valeria, who also tried to look younger than her age. This marriage didn’t last long because of Valeria’s affair and divorce struck Humbert hard. He suffered a mental breakdown and had to have therapy in a psychiatric hospital. After recovery Humbert moved to United States to write.
In the small town of Ramsdale he tried to rent a room from McCoo family (also thinking about sleeping with their 12-years-old daughter) but when he arrived the McCoo house was burnt down. Humbert had to search for a room. The owner of the room was Charlotta Haze, a wealthy widow. She had a beautiful daughter, Dolores or Lo (later Humbert would give her an affectionate nickname “Lolita”) and this girl was the main reason why Humbert agreed to live in that house. Dolores looked astonishingly alike to deceased Annabel and Humbert almost immediately started fantasizing about her.
Humbert started writing a diary where he described his erotic thoughts and wishes about Dolores-Lolita, his obsession and immodest “observations”. Also he wrote down his hateful thoughts about Charlotta, seeing her as an obstacle between him and her daughter. Meanwhile oblivious Charlotta also developed affection to her neighbor and finally fell in love with him.
While Dolores was in the summer camp, Charlotta confessed to Humbert and asked him either to return her feelings or to move out immediately. Humbert faced the dilemma: he didn’t feel anything towards the grown-up woman, but he also didn’t want to lose Lolita. So finally Humbert accepted her proposal to marry the widow. Later Charlotta told him her plan to send Dolores to a boarding school so that they would have more time together. Secretly furious, Humbert even planned to murder Charlotta to be left with Lolita alone, but stopped at the last moment.
Soon after Charlotta found his diary and was devastated and shocked by what she read there. She confronted her new husband calling him a repulsive liar and claiming that he would never see her daughter again. Charlotta ran away into the street to send letters to her friends about Humbert’s true nature, but she was too furious to be cautious and was hit by a car to death. Humbert calmly gathered the letters left near the accident scene and burnt them. Then he convinced everyone that he needed to take care of Dolores alone as her stepfather.
He took Lolita from summer camp and told that her mother is alive but in a hospital and needed a long treatment. Then he offered her to spend a night in lavious hotel where he planned to have first sex with her. To avoid her resistance Humbert gave the girl a sleeping pill and than walked through the hotel waiting for her to fall asleep. In the hotel he met an old friend of Charlotta named Clare Quilty, a famous playwright. After a short conversation about Dolores, Humbert returned to the hotel room to see that Lolita is not fully asleep. He did not dare to touch her that night. But next day Lolita started talking about her first sexual encounter she had with a boy from summer camp. Humbert pretended to not know about sex at all and made the girl “show” him what she did with that boy. Next day he finally revealed Dolores that her mother was dead after she demanded him to call her.
The second part of the book starts with the description of Humbert’s and Dolores’ journey. They travelled across the United States staying in different motels. To win Lolita’s obedience, Humbert, from the one hand, bought her anything she wished, but from the other hand promised to leave her in an orphanage in poverty if she ever told any person about what he was doing to her. Humbert was extremely jealous and almost paranoid, he guarded Dolores, controlled her and forbade her to talk to other teenagers. Finally Humbert enrolled Lolita to the girl’s school in Beardsley (also a fictional American town). Satisfied with her obedience, he granted Dolores permission to participate in a school play that, unbeknownst to him, was written by Quilty. At night before the play Humbert and Lolita argued and he physically hurt the girl. Dolores ran away and, after the long chase, the man found her at the drug store calling on the phone. When Lolita talked back to him it turned that she has completely changed her mind, telling that “she made a big decision”. Humbert and the girl drove away from the town.
Later Humbert noticed that they were followed by a stranger everywhere. When Humbert left Lolita in a hotel alone, somewhere in Texas, he found her later with the signs on her body telling that she had sex with someone else. He had no proof though. Later, while travelling, Dolores fell ill and Humbert had to put her into a hospital. To his surprise, when he tried to pay the hospital bill, the nurse told him that girl’s uncle has already paid it and took Dolores to her grandfather’s home. Humbert searched for Lolita and her abductor for long but they disappeared.
Finally, Humbert settled down and even got along with the woman named Rita, but he still remembered Dolores. Once Lolita, now 17-years-old, wrote a letter to him telling that she was married and carrying a child. She was in desperate need of money. Humbert came to her just to see Dolores with some random military man she never loved. Humbert realized that he was still in love with her and asked Lolita to come with him but she refused. She told him that “uncle” who kidnapped her from the hospital was Quilty and she willingly went with him because she was in love. Unfortunately Quilty exploited her just as ruthless as Humbet once did. Dolores participated in orgies and got used to alcohol and drugs. She refused to become a porn star that Quilty wanted her to be and escaped his mansion to marry and work as a waitress.
Humbert went away in tears, leaving her a decent sum of money - all the rent payment he had to pay Dolores’ deceased mother. He returned to Ramsdale where he and Charlotta once lived and wrote his last will, transferring all the property he had to Lolita. Feeling something resembling guilt, Humbert found Quilty who worked as a local dentist and, influenced by drugs, killed him in a grotesque and tragic scene. Later, Humbert was captured by the police for reckless driving and accused of murder. He was taken to the prison where he died after finishing his memoirs, as we already know from the beginning of the book. He wished that nobody would read them before all the main participants of the events described there were dead. Mrs Richard Skiller (Dolores) also died later after giving birth to a stillborn girl, and the memoirs were revealed to the public by John Ray Jr. as a curious case that he found interesting to other professionals in the field of psychology.