The Subversive Structure of Lolita
—an essay by Sam Lloyd

Vladimir Nabokov always insisted, throughout his entire life, that his literary masterpiece Lolita was not intended to be satirical, allegorical, or really anything beyond simply a story that he wanted to get off his chest. The afterword to Lolita certainly seems to back this up, as Nabokov claims that he got the idea for the story while suffering from neuralgia in 1940 and wrote a brief outline then, later turning it into a full-blown novel a decade later. Additionally within the afterword, Nabokov dismisses all possible alternate readings of the story, denouncing analytical reviewers as “flippers” and pronouncing his own hatred of “symbols and allegories,” thus strengthening his stance that Lolita exists solely as a story to be told, without much greater meaning to take from it (Nabokov 314). However, although Nabokov’s intent was not to write an allegorical novel, the story he created inadvertently ended up as representative of a number of different philosophical, sociological, and psychoanalytical truths, given both his subject matter and his distinct writing style.

One of the strongest associations given to Lolita over the years has been its status as a work of deconstruction, a strong theory of philosophical criticism that, in layman’s terms, involves “a philosophical or critical method which asserts that meanings, metaphysical constructs, and hierarchical oppositions (as between key terms in a philosophical or literary work) are always rendered unstable by their dependence on ultimately arbitrary signifiers” (Merriam-Webster). Essentially, theorists have argued that because Lolita both parodies and takes apart just about every aspect of storytelling and novel-writing possible, that it exists solely to undercut the ideas of story-telling and novel-writing themselves. This argument is not without merit; within its pages, Lolita effectively parodies detective novels, romance novels, road novels, psychoanalytic novels, “Great American” novels, Greek tragedy stories, family structure in storytelling, character names, settings, forewords, introductions, and just about everything else possible there is to parody. Given this set of circumstances, it is not difficult to assign Lolita this designation as a work of deconstruction, given that it almost appears to be a book specifically about how ridiculous everything about books is. However, this is precisely why Lolita is actually a complete work of structuralism, one of the main theoretical opposites of deconstruction.

The concept of structuralism basically entails any attempt to view a specific entity as a system of interconnected mechanisms, all working together to create a whole. Throughout history, structuralism philosophers have used this theory to build notions of all aspects of human life being interrelated, and that these interrelations form a structure with rules and variances that flow together to create a whole out of a series of parts. Within literary theory, structuralism states that every single form of literary text must form some kind of a structure with rules that must be followed, and that even texts that intend to subvert traditional structures are actually simply structures in and of themselves; they exist simply as inversions of the archetypal structure (Klages, Frey). It is this latter detail that relates most to Lolita.

As explained above, Lolita effectively parodies just about every single aspect of a traditional novel, which has been one of the primary reasons for literary critics to deem it a chief example of deconstruction. However, what is missed with this analysis is the key idea that complete subversion of an entity is an entity in and of itself; through the subversion of everything that a typical novel would be, Lolita actually creates structure for itself. This structure exists as the opposite of everything one would intend to find in a novel, with all of the various elements of parody forming the system of interconnected mechanisms that form the structure.

Prime examples of these elements include the semi-sarcastic foreword (written by Nabokov through the pen of a fictional doctor, who makes overblown proclamations about the book and even gives away the ending); the novel’s pseudo-introduction (the standard, throwaway introduction actually begins in Chapter 2 with a simplistic opening sentence of “I was born in 1910, in Paris”); the overwhelming casual descriptions of the causes of Humbert Humbert’s condition (killing his mother off with the informal words of “(picnic, lightning)” and killing off his first love with a ten-word phrase tacked onto the end of a run-on sentence); the irritated dismissals of the ideally matching women for him (referring to his wife Valerie with the condescending name “Valechka”; the various primal descriptions he makes of Charlotte; bitterly referring to Rita as inferior and simple-minded numerous times); the actual condition he finds himself afflicted with (a strong desire for young girls which undercuts the type of attraction he should have); the various names assigned to throwaway entities (“Vivian Darkbloom,” an anagram of “Vladimir Nabokov,” comes into play as a collaborator of “Clare Quilty,” the main villain of the story; the satirical list of plays of Quilty’s read by Humbert at one point); the various names assigned to throwaway places (“Lake Climax” is where Lolita first makes love to a boy; “Dolores, Colorado” and “Tombstone, Arizona”, both satirical fictional places, are places where Humbert attempts to track Lolita down).

Nor is this limited to names. Examples also the existences of accidents and coincidences moving the plot along instead of characters doing it themselves (Annabel Leigh dying of a random disease to set Humbert’s tragic life in motion; Charlotte dying in a car accident to get her out of the way and strengthen Humbert’s relationship with Lolita); Humbert’s thwarting of his various attempts at psychiatric help, i.e. character advancement as the hero of a story is wont to receive (he freely admits to faking his way through sessions in order to get them over with, almost seeming to relish his unfortunate circumstance in life); the mocking of America (Humbert’s negative descriptions of the various places and hotels they stay at, subverting the usual “grand” description of America); the mocking of detective fiction (Humbert’s comical chase of Quilty and Lolita, including all of the dead-end “clues” left to him); the mocking of road novels (by framing the story’s main “road trip” as a story of a controlling, sadistic pedophile and his child sex slave); the mocking of romance novels (by making the romance between a slimy old man and an unwilling young girl); and the mocking of traditional family structure in stories (by establishing Humbert as Lolita’s father figure in Part I, complete with a character believing that “Humbert is Dolly’s real father,” and then making him into her sexual tormentor in Part II) (Nabokov 9, 10, 29, 31, 101, 137, 251). Added together, these elements form the basis of Lolita’s entire aesthetic; these various elements of parody and satire, added together, construct Lolita as something of an “anti-book,” and this is exactly the structure that is given.

One of the major aspects involved in structuralism that heavily applies to Lolita is the aspect of binary opposition, a theoretical concept with structuralism origins. Binary opposition essentially involves the “structuralist name for opposed terms which are structured into a power relation, (or 'violent hierarchy', for Derrida) - eg. self/other, masculine/feminine, black/white, civilian/barbarian” (Arrowsmith). It expounds on the differences between two entities that appear to be mutually exclusive. Structuralism includes this concept as part of its overall theory, as the connections between opposites are key to understanding the organization of everything, including culture, language, and critical thinking. Lolita reflects this aspect of structuralism by making heavy use of the concept of “mirroring,” wherein one character or other entity is meant to expound on the nature of another not through direct action, but mere representation.

The first and best example is the dichotomy between Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty. Quilty is the main antagonist of the story, thus establishing him as the “mirror” to “hero” Humbert in this way…but, his mirroring goes far beyond simple character structure. The two men relate to Lolita in very similar, yet entirely different ways; Humbert Humbert feels a sincere love for her even after his psychological condition indicates he should not (given that, after he visits her as older Dolly Schiller, he claims that “until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth…I insist the world know much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita”), whereas Quilty can barely even be bothered to dig up old memories of her when confronted at gunpoint (Nabokov 278). This allows the narration to cast Humbert as something of a semi-sympathetic victim, and one who grows and develops as the story goes along (as a traditional hero would), while Quilty remains the dirty-and-despicable-yet-handsome-and-charming devil that he is all the way throughout (as a traditional villain would). The relation is so apparent that Nabokov even writes it into the text, as Humbert climbs into Lolita’s mind and imagines her contrasting her two tormentors with the comparison “He [Quilty] broke my heart. You [Humbert] merely broke my life” (Nabokov 279).

Given that the character of Lolita is the main object of the story throughout which all other characters’ actions relate, the dichotomy of her relations with the protagonist and the antagonist serve as a prime example of the concept of binary opposition, as well as literary mirroring, involved with the protagonist/antagonist relationship. There are many different other “mirrors” within the story that reflect these various truths: the mirroring of Charlotte and Lolita (examining the relationship of mother/daughter as well as elder/youth); the mirroring of young and old Lolita (examining the relationship between love/lust); the mirroring of author Nabokov and character Quilty, as well as between author Nabokov and character Humbert (examining the relationship between author/work); the mirroring of the word “Lolita” being both the first and last word of the general narration (examining the relationship between introduction/conclusion); and even the mirroring of Lolita with the various aspects of novel-writing and storytelling it parodies (examining the relationship between archetypal structure/subversive structure). The way the reader interprets these various contrasting elements helps create an understanding of the subversive structure of Lolita as a whole.

Humbert, the hero of the story, does more damage to the main romantic interest than the villain does (see the earlier “broke my heart/broke my life” quote); this is the inversion of what one would expect from a typical story. The older, wiser, more mature adult in the story is seen as the antithesis of attractiveness by the adult male hero, while her daughter serves as the main romantic interest; again, this inverts typical story structure. It is also atypical of traditional stories for a deep care to be felt for a youth of the opposite sex, but a lustful, sexual attraction only to be felt after the character matures; again, Lolita subverts this dynamic, by having Humbert lust after the young Lolita but feel a meaningful connection to her only after she ages. Even the fact of the narration beginning and ending with the same word subverts traditional structure; it is ordinary for stories to end on a completely different note than how they began, rather than on the exact same note, and Lolita undercuts this as well.

Binary opposition, as it applies to Lolita, indicates that the mirroring in the novel exists to establish relationships between entities that are seemingly exclusive in order to ascertain truths about the structure of the story as a result. In this case, it succeeds: it strengthens the point that Lolita is a completely subversive “anti-book,” because all of the relationships involved with the entire story exist as the opposite of what one would expect from a traditional story, thus even establishing Lolita as the binary opposite of a traditional novel.

A major figure in structuralist literary analysis is Roland Barthes, who wrote a critical essay titled S/Z examining Honoré de Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine,” in which he came up with a new theory of structuralist interpretation that applies to Lolita. Barthes hypothesized that there are five “codes” of textual significance, ‘and each and every lexia will fall under one of these five codes’” (Barthes 19). The codes involve identifying, suggesting, suspending, and ultimately revealing a story’s enigmas (the “hermeneutic code”); leaving interpretations of sequences of actions up to the reader, with the author’s job merely to list them (the “proairetic code”); establishing various connotations to go along with characters, places, or objects to give them additional significance (the code of “semes”); determining “multivalence” and “reversibility” within the field of the text, allowing it to be delved into from many different points and collecting all meanings together into one lexia (the “symbolic grouping”); and using “references to a science or body of knowledge,” indicating the “type of knowledge…referred to, without going so far as to construct…the culture they express” (the “culture codes”) (Barthes 19-20). Despite Lolita’s status as a novel that subverts traditional novel structure, it hits on every single aspect of Barthes’ system of codes that “create a kind of network, a topos through which the entire text passes”—in essence, structuralizing it (Barthes 20).

The various enigmas within Lolita (the identities of the characters in the foreword; the nature of Humbert’s writing; the identity and fate of Lolita’s captor) are established in the way that the hermeneutic code dictates. The various sequences of actions and coincidences in Lolita (Humbert’s mother’s death; the sexual intrusion that interrupts him and Annabel Lee; Charlotte’s death; Humbert and Lolita’s deaths) are presented to the reader in a non-essential sequence reminiscent of the proairetic code, leaving them to be interpreted on their own. The various allegories and representations within Lolita (Humbert ascribing primal characteristics to Charlotte, grating characteristics to Valerie and simplistic characteristics to Rita; everything about Humbert’s life other than nymphets being described in a wry, depressive manner) create signifiers vital to the understanding of the story as a whole, as the semic code requires. The various transgressions within Lolita (Humbert’s attraction to stepdaughter over wife; Humbert’s subversion of societal and familial norms with his behavior; Humbert’s subversion of typical actions of rich, educated men with his depraved sexual desires) all come together to establish Humbert as the ultimate symbol of transgression, which is an idea that symbolically can be entered from many different pathways. Finally, the various references within Lolita (Annabel Leigh referencing Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee”; Humbert Humbert’s name referencing Poe’s “William Wilson”; various references to Alice In Wonderland and the works of author T.S. Eliot) all strengthen the novel’s cultural code without constructing the culture they express. These five codes flow together in Lolita to allow for a singular interpretation of the text, much as Barthes intended, and that interpretation is that Lolita is the opposite of everything a traditional novel should be. The enigmas of the novel, the sequences of actions and reactions of the novel, the connotations prescribed to various character types in the novel, the transgressions contained within the novel, and the cultural references within the novel all go against what one would typically expect.

Therefore, the final detail needed to establish Lolita as a constructed entity comes into view. Although the novel is full of subversion and chaos, all of this subversion and chaos is interconnected and interrelated, and rather than serving to deconstruct the traditional novel, it serves to construct an inversion of the typical novel, which is a structure in itself. Nabokov claimed that he had not intended this to be the case, with his extensive explanations in the story’s afterword proving as much, but the construct remains just the same. Through the telling of a subversive, bizarre story, Nabokov actually was able to relate a powerful message about establishing structural order through chaos, and that message is the entire structure that is the novel Lolita.

Works Cited

“Deconstruction.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 2012.

Arrowsmith, Aidan. “Critical Concepts.” North Seattle Community College. Facweb. 2010.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Ed: Richard Miller. 1970. Éditions du Seuil; France.

Frey, Mattias. “Post-Structuralism; From System to Subversion.” Film Reference. Advameg, Inc. 2012.

Klages, Mary. “Structuralism/Post-structuralism.” Associate Professor of English, University of Colorado, Boulder. Online Document. Retrieved from:

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 2nd Vintage International Edition. 1997. Random House, Inc.; New York, NY

Sam Lloyd is currently an English Major and Writing Minor at Portland State University, due to graduate in Winter 2013. Most of his work thus far has been in the field of literary analysis and criticism, although he is beginning to advance into the field of fiction specifically with regard to short stories. He hopes to become a writer in some capacity, whether as a novelist, a screenwriter, a journalist, or any field that involves creatively expressing truths to people that can affect them for the better.