by Vladimir Nabokov
Autobiography (memoir), Realism, Romance, Satire and Parody, Tragedy, Mystery
Lolita is such mash-up of different genres, it's impossible to label the novel as any specific one. Just when we think it complies with one generic category, Nabokov switches and plays on all of the conventions of another, readily combining realism, romance, erotic confessional, psychological case study, and detective fiction. It's also a tragedy – after all, everyone dies in the end and the hero destroys everyone and himself. The novel's Foreword has pretentions to realism, announcing that it's a "memoir" and "case study," a sort of academic examination of abnormal psychology – but that characterization is proven wrong from the novel's opening lines, which reads like nothing so much as a romance:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta […] she was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. (1.1.1)
Despite the brutal abuse throughout, Humbert claims that he loves Lolita, almost willfully trying to make us believe we are reading a romance.
In addition to realism and romance, satire runs from beginning to end, as Nabokov derides the high moral value Ray (the writer of the Foreword) attributes to the novel – and assures the reader in the Afterword that such moral lessons are simply not there. Lolita is certainly not a pious condemnation of child abuse or a moral story. Nabokov resists being didactic all the way, making Ray's Foreword read like a bit of dry psychological wishful thinking. Humbert's dark humor, puns, and exaggerations all contribute to the satiric effect. Words are his only playthings, so he is going to push their possibilities to the limit, as well as do his best to amuse himself in jail (and make himself appealing to his readers).
Elements of fantasy and fairy tale take hold as Humbert and Lolita approach The Enchanted Hunters hotel. Humbert's anticipation is high, and everything is colored with a supernatural feeling. Words like "magic," "forbid," "swoon," "dream," and "treasure," enter into Humbert's vocabulary, indicating we are entering another genre altogether – one in which instincts and desires prevail over rational decision making and reality. Notably, however, there is another shift as a sneaking paranoia begins to take hold of him immediately after he and Lolita have sex. A sense of tragedy begins to seep in:
More and more uncomfortable did Humbert feel. It was something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed. (1.32.25)
Though the "romance" commands our attention, we are also reminded throughout that we are reading a murder mystery. After all, Humbert is in jail for murder and intermittently reminds us with interjections such as:
Being a murderer with a sensational but incomplete and unorthodox memory, I cannot tell you, ladies and gentlemen, the exact day I knew with utter certainty that the red convertible was following us. (2.18.3)
The Aztec Red Convertible initiates the novel's turn toward the detective genre, as Humbert begins to accumulate clues that they are being trailed and that Lolita is not exactly being forthright. At this point in the novel, Humbert becomes both detective and criminal. Allusions to the classics of detective fiction such as Poe's "The Purloined Letter," Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, or Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced, announce these influences.