Chapter 5 is the longest by far, succinctly and perfunctorily summarizing H.H.’s early adult life before moving on to something crucial: his nymphet theory, and his attempts to suppress his sexuality. Let me take you through this chapter paragraph by paragraph.
In the first Humbert summarizes “the days of his youth,” mainly his studies. He begins it with:
The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me…
As usual he is maintaining his reminiscent tone, and as we all know, memory is faulty - can we trust Humbert Humbert?
At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry as many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.
A little jab at psychiatry, followed by a stroke of genius: “a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in” - interrupting the independent clause of a semi-colon run-on with what could be spoken dialogue in an entirely separate scene. But this is summary and his speech is out of place, not even marked by quotations or italics - before he finishes the sentence, adds the verb clause. What energy this short phrase gives this long run-on!
And he concludes the paragraph with a collage of incompatible images:
Paris suited me. I discussed Soviet movies with expatriates. I sat with uranists in the Deux Margots. I published tortuous essays in obscure journals. I composed pastiches...
In the second paragraph, he takes us shortly through his publications, which is really an excuse for mentioning, at the end, his forthcoming arrest - ah yes, thank you, Nabokov, for these tantalizing tastes of what’s to come!
...which was to occupy me throughout the forties - and the last volume of which was almost ready for press by the time of my arrest.
The very casual foreshadowing! Moments like this are what keep the reader reading, pulling them along through the sludge of haughty European backstory. The very contrast between "Histoire abrégée de la poésie anglaise" and "my arrest" is comical and ludicrous.
In the third paragraph he then uses H.H.’s job to shortcut swiftly to the introduction of his nymphet theory.
I found a job - teaching English to a group of adults in Auteuil. Then a school for boys employed me for a couple of winters.
Note how perfunctory and unremarkable he makes it all sound: his life has been one long commercial break waiting for Lolita.
...where pale pubescent girls with matted eyelashes could be stared at in perfect impunity remindful of that granted one in dreams.
This is the first direct reference to his obsession, building tension - and also the distance between him and his desires. It leads naturally into his "nymphet" hypothesis. Thus, in the fourth paragraph, Nabokov is ready to define the nymphet.
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.”
This is the point of the whole chapter. This is its purpose in the wider structure of the book. Early on (in my edition this is page 16) he is setting up an hierarchy, making a key distinction between nymphets (Lolita) and other girls, and shortly, between himself and other men.
In the fifth paragraph he elaborates further, sneaking Lolita’s name into the center, after which he makes the distinction between “normal men” and himself/men like him, as well as between normal girls and nymphets.
...we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts… 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...
Here he sets himself and his comrades apart as some tragic class of superior men. To distinguish Lolita, he uses phrases like “true nymphets” and calls the nymphet:
...the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.
The idea of hierarchy is ever-powerful - most of all, H.H. sets "HER" apart, with more than a little feminine mystique to boot.
What all this talk of hierarchy and differentness does is make us as readers feel that we have a special, privileged view into a perverse subculture we wouldn’t otherwise be invited to. It is the same voyeuristic appeal of reality television shows and TV murder documentaries: a spectacle to watch with horror and awe.
In the sixth paragraph Humbert introduces the theme of time, which leads him to draw his parallel between Annabel and Lolita, and contrasts his relationship with Annabel by saying “she was no nymphet to me” since there was no age gap between them.
In the seventh, H.H. details his sexuality in his adult life and the inner turmoil it caused him; this and formal laws he mentions contrast, then, with a cursory history of pedophilia, through which he attempts to normalize it. This miniature essay also serves to couch Humbert's story within a broader societal narrative, placing him and Lo within a wider frame.
Phrases like "so-called normal," "terrestrial," "law-abiding poltroon," "human females," and "normal big males with their normal big mates" further demean societal conventions and norms. It’s said that voice is the author’s moral judgment, and H.H. certainly doesn’t hide his.
The trouble was that those gentlemen had not, and I had, caught glimpses of an incomparably more poignant bliss.
A culmination of his snobby hierarchical view of human relations: what he feels for nymphets is almost spiritual, as compared with the dull sublunary lover's love of “normal big males.”
My world was split… While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s every plea. One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimistic. Taboos strangulated me.
Begin the campaign for sympathy! All this turns us amazingly sympathetic: for who among us has not felt oppressed by one of society's many shackles?
Let me remind my reader… the Children and Young Person Act in 1933… Rahab
This is a real law. Breaking the fourth and then bringing in real-life laws aids credibility and also anchors the story uncomfortably close to our own reality, outside Lolita. Similarly, bringing in the Biblical reference to Rahab couches this story in a long history of such narratives; and the historical references continue, serving to normalize HH's inclinations. By aligning himself in the ranks of Dante and Petrarch, he even elevates pedophilia and again, sets his sexuality above others.
This is all very interesting, and I daresay you see me already frothing at the mouth in a fit; but no, I am not; I am just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup. Here are some more pictures.
The playful jab at stereotype dismisses cliché while breaking the fourth wall, urging the reader to forget their prejudices. After invoking historical references to normalize pedophilia, this is sly.
In the eighth paragraph, he emphasizes that he would never touch a nymphet, despite his longing - he has morals, dammit!
But let us be prim and civilized. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did.
A fourth wall break and shift to third person, with an almost creepy imitation of a child himself.
Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for.
Perhaps the most blatant feminine mystique bit yet!
The ninth paragraph, in which I see a slight shade of the mimosa grove scene (although it comes nowhere near that gratification), H.H. details everyday scenes which gave him fantasy and pleasure.
It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification.
Who cannot count thousands of such moments in their own lives? Including these small moments of beauty and lust make him more relatable.
And finally, the brief tenth paragraph takes us to the culminating and tender sentences: “Let them play around me forever. Never grow up.” An absolutely universal sentiment.
This may be the most important chapter yet, as H.H. both sets out his nymphet theory and, more crucially, persuades the reader to dispel stereotypes they may hold about pedophiles and try to sympathize with poor Humbert Humbert. This may be the point at which most people stop reading; continuing on is a testament to empathy and/or perverse voyeurism.