Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. This line is often cited as one of the best openings of all time. But what is it about this first line - and the few following paragraphs - that make Lolita's brief first chapter so intoxicating?
The purpose of this chapter is to get you, immediately, in the mood. Within three short paragraphs we understand that (1) a great love is afoot; (2) there is something dark or socially inappropriate about it; (3) we are in for some poetry and romanticism; (4) this narrator is a murderer; (5) he is obsessive; (6) this telling is intimately addressed to you, dear reader; and (7) because of many of these things, our narrator is likely unreliable.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
Juxtaposition of soul/life with sin/loins: the physical and spiritual merge to form a perfect love. Also note the ample consonance and assonance that takes us immediately into a poetic landscape.
Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Introduces an attention to detail we can expect throughout the book - indeed, a dissection of the object of his obsession.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
This emphasizes that not only are there multiple interpretations to glean, but that H.H. has his own secret, private version of Lo.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did... Oh when?
These lines set a precedent for the implicit second person: this is an intimate account, H.H. is speaking directly to you.
In a princedom by the sea... Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied.
The first of many references to Poe’s “Annabel Lee” hint at both H.H.’s learned background and a sense of darkness. Only note that he has changed "kingdom" to "princedom."
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Jarring, simultaneous: direct address (”you”), foreshadowing (”murderer”), and fourth wall break (”fancy prose style”).
Look at this tangle of thorns.
Ah yes: we're in for a tragedy.
Overall, the first chapter of Nabokov's Lolita is a powerful assertion of voice. It gets you immediately and viscerally into the mind of Humbert Humbert. Chapters and chapters before we meet Dolores Haze, Nabokov forcibly injects us with curiosity (and more) about her, as well as about our dear narrator Mr. Humbert.
So, are you in the mood for Lolita?