In Nabokov’s afterward to his novel “On a Book Entitled Lolita”, he mentions two important facts that are essential in understanding the appearance of butterflies in the work. One: “everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories” and two, “Lolita was energetically resumed on the evenings or on cloudy days” while butterfly hunting. The first statement validates the importance of butterflies within the work. Despite Nabokov’s distaste for symbols, the prevalence of butterflies assures the reader that there can be meaning drawn from the creatures’ several appearances. However, Nabokov’s statement also suggests the frequency of the butterfly motif. Butterflies do not appear on every page or chapter. References to butterflies are often as slight as using the verb “flutter” rather than “beating” to describe the rhythm of one’s heart. If the pages of Lolita were to be overrun with the bright insect, it would be very uncharacteristically Nabokov, and the fact that they appear so few times, in true Nabokovian style, makes the motif all the more enchanting. To me at least.
The second statement hints at the intimacy of Nabokov’s use of butterflies. As I previously posted, Nabokov’s butterfly collections have appeared in leading U.S. universities and museums, and several species were named after him. His quote “Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man” shows his intense delight with the creatures. Just as Lolita is filled with Humbert Humbert’s many private jokes, plusieurs en français, the motif of butterflies and other fairy-like beasts become a sort of inside joke for Nabokov. Many expected to find some sort of hidden meaning in Lolita, but Nabokov confesses it has “no moral in tow” and “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me aesthetic bliss…” Nabokov also calls books of literary merit “Literature of Ideas…very often tropical trash”. There is one point in the novel, chapter 20 of part two, where the butterfly motif is so obvious that I see it as Nabokov’s commentary on author’s who overuse motifs for lack of literary genius. Between two paragraphs where H. H. comments on his love for Dolores Haze, there is the single sentence “An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.” This blatant reference amongst several brief appearances is my least favorite use of the motif in the book, despite its importance in explication.
Butterflies are used in Lolita when Humbert Humbert describes Dolores Haze and other nymphets. Words like “frail, silky, fragile, fairy-like” all reference the tender and delicate young girls that Humbert Humbert fancies. This is a physical likeness to the insect. The appearance of butterflies, like the sentence from chapter 20, are used to show Lolita‘s innocence and metamorphosis. In this chapter, Humbert Humbert is reflecting on how Lolita has grown in the two years he has known her. She is almost fifteen, and in a few years, after she escapes Humbert Humbert, she will be a young pregnant wife. This metamorphosis from Lolita to Dolly Schiller (her married name) is heartbreaking for Humbert. Butterflies, noted for their biological transformation, make an excellent motif to illustrate Lolita’s change. They also are excellent in illustrating her innocence because of their delicate appearance and distance from human concerns. Humbert, in many ways, captures Lolita as if she were a butterfly and he Nabokov. In chapter 11 of part one, he compares himself to a pale spider that has a super sensitive web stretched throughout the house, ready to sense Lolita. This insect reference where Humbert is the predator and Lolita the prey foreshadows the journey of the brute and his butterfly. Once Humbert takes Lolita away from Ramsdale, the two become alienated from society. She has no real childhood with a father and mother, and he has no place in America amongst Suburbia and the Wild West. Lolita loses her innocence because of Humbert, yet Humbert is still desperately trying to keep that childhood bliss within her. In catching Lolita, she becomes someone else, and his continued passion for her despite it all eventually dooms him.
Butterflies have very few defenses. Lolita, while she was cunning in finding a way to escape from the incest, alienation, and identity crisis her relationship to Humbert placed her in, was eventually weakened by her own ploys. When she escaped to Quilty, a pedophile even more pornographic than Humbert (the evil mirror of Humbert) she grew defenseless after several dirty films, and ran away from him as well. She ran to a young man, became pregnant, and as the story goes, died young without returning to Humbert. Her several transformations and brief life remind me of a butterfly. In many literary works, butterflies are often used to express the fastness of life, since their lives are also very quick.
Butterflies are not a huge or even terribly memorable part of Lolita. My favorite parts of the novel are the many allusions and literary jokes, and motifs are somewhere in the background. Because Nabokov spoke of symbols and “Literature of Ideas” with such distaste, I enjoyed searching through the pages for symbols and motifs. But it was not as fun as actually reading the prose. And while, regrettably, I have learned very little about Nabokov, I feel that I can make the assertion that he would have been happy, or at least indifferent, that I enjoyed reading Lolita more than searching through it. While butterflies do appear, and questions about innocence, alienation as a result of incest, identity crises, and transformations are all expressed by the appearances of the motif, it is important to understand that this is not the heart of the novel. The motif may explain these themes in an alternate way, but primarily the themes are drawn from the text through the allusions, eloquence, and wit of Humbert Humbert, which will forever be the core of Lolita.