Lolita is the greatest novel ever written in English, because alone among English-language novels it is the enactment of a moral experience. Of the next five novels on my top-fifty list, only Ulysses has a similar ambition. Joyce sought to reproduce an entire day and an entire city—not to clock the day and map the city, but to raise them out of prose—while Nabokov’s intention (or, rather, Humbert Humbert’s) is what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the creation of time backwards:
Thus when he says later in the same interview that he has “no social purpose, no moral message,” that he merely enjoys “composing riddles with elegant solutions,” he does not mean that Lolita is devoid of moral intention. He means that the moral experience enacted in the novel cannot be abbreviated in a neat-and-tidy maxim to be inscribed upon the walls of a Japanese sentimentalist’s mind. There is no “message” that can be extracted from the novel without damaging it beyond repair. The novel is identical with its morality.
Here is the riddle that Nabokov set himself to solving in Lolita. How does a moral monster obtain repentance for the most unspeakable of moral evils? The son of a liberal anti-Communist, a fugitive from Berlin where his father was gunned down by right-wing extremists in 1922, Nabokov was acquainted with the worst crimes of the twentieth century. The first moral problem he faced in writing his novel was to restore unspeakability to evil. After the Great Terror and the Holocaust, he saw that evil had become a propaganda tool. Only one crime aroused an instinctive horror in the human breast:
Not so Humbert. He is remarkably open about “this horror that I cannot shake off” (p. 135). After satisfying his lust upon Lolita, an “ashen sense of awfulness” would creep over him (p. 137). Every day, as she climbed back into the car alongside him and they headed west, Humbert would be overcome with “an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed” (p. 140).
Why does he not stop? Although he claims that years of concealing his yearning for little girls had taught him “superhuman self-control,” the opposite is very nearly the case. He is helpless before Lolita. Never once, though, does he try to excuse his behavior. Earlier on he had sought to dismiss the moral qualms by learned allusions to cultural relativism (in East India, “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds”) and literary history (Dante with nine-year-old Beatrice, Petrarch with twelve-year-old Laura, Poe with thirteen-year-old Virginia). But not even he is convinced. As he looks back upon their flight, Humbert catches himself thinking that
Jewish tradition, especially as advanced by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, holds that true repentance (or teshuvah, “return,” in Hebrew) consists of five steps: (1) recognition of sin, (2) remorse, (3) giving up the sin, (4) restitution or repair, and (5) public confession. I am not saying that Nabokov was familiar with Jewish tradition, but rather that Jewish tradition has clarified a certain “logic” to repentance. Christian ideas of repentance differ only slightly, but the primary difference is this. Judaism teaches that sacramental efforts are adequate to atone only for sins between man and God. For sins between man and man, these distinct and reparative steps must be taken. And Humbert carries out each of them.
First, he recognizes the horror of what he is doing to Lolita even as he remains helpless to stop doing it. And as I wrote here a little over two weeks ago, Humbert finally acknowledges, in his last few moments as a free man, the sin he has committed against her—the sin of removing her voice from the chorus of children at play (p. 308). He does not try to dress it up as something it is not. He ceases to speak of “nymphet love,” stops holding that it is the “patrimonies of poets” and “not crime’s proving ground” (p. 131). Even the unvoiced question that he puts in the mouth of a Ramsdale neighbor (“Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle . . . had done to Sally Horner in 1948?”) is an indirect admission that, yes, he had (p. 289).
The second step—remorse—is the most difficult to reduce to an obvious discernible action. Although regret suffuses the narrative, it would violate Nabokov’s stylistic prohibition on direct statement for Humbert to babble how sorry he is. The closest is when he is able to say what his lust dispelled:
Third (and rarely remarked upon), Humbert gives up the sin:
Fourth, Humbert tries to make restitution. After he receives a begging letter from Lolita, now seventeen, married, pregnant, and broke, he hunts her down where she is living in a cardboard shack in a coal-mining town and hands her an envelope containing four thousand dollars. He asks her to come away with him. “[Y]ou mean that you will give us that money only if I go with you to a motel,” Lolita says warily. But, no, there are no conditions. Humbert wants her to live with him, die with him, and everything with him; if she refuses she will still get her “trousseau.” Lolita refuses. It is out of the question, she says. She would sooner go back to Quilty, whom she loved and who wanted her only for a sex slave. She gropes for words of explanation. Humbert supplies them mentally: “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life” (p. 279).
Because he has broken her life, and because she will not join him in an effort to repair it, Humbert must do the next best thing. He insists that the world know how much he loved her, “this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child”—no longer a nymphet, but a flesh-and-blood woman—and “even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn,” even if the young virgin become an aging mother, “even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita” (p. 278). His emphasis upon Lolita’s thisness, what Joyce called haecceity, is the unshakable foundation of his effort to restore her individuality, to break the spell of her “nymphage,” to see her as the unique woman he has uniquely damaged. It is the necessary prelude to his final restorative act.
And so the entire purpose of his book is to make a full and public confession—repentance’s fifth and final step. Originally, upon beginning it, he had thought to use the manuscript at his trial, to save his soul if not his head. “In mid-composition, however, I realized that I could not parade living Lolita,” he says (p. 308). To do so would be to use her all over again as a means to his own solipsistic ends. His intention alters as the novel progresses and his shame deepens. He no longer seeks “to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets” (p. 134). Lolita is not a token. She is not the sample of a “great rosegray never-to-be-had” (p. 264). She is a person, this Lolita, and he has forced her to dwell “in a world of total evil” (p. 284). When Janet Lewis writes a short novel about a man who introduces a beloved woman into a world of evil, she imagines him saying, when he realizes at last what he has done, “I can but die by way of atonement.” Humbert does not offer to die, because he seeks an atonement that is stronger than death. Since he has broken her life, since he has removed Lolita’s voice from the concord of children, he seeks now to “make you live in the minds of later generations.” Nabokov lends him the full armature of his art so that Humbert might recreate the time he has stolen from her and return her to the life he has broken. Repentance is but the ancilla of art, as he might have put it elsewhere (p. 259). It is the handmaiden to the superhuman effort to grant her literary immortality by way of atonement.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Meaning of Repentance” (1936), in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996), pp. 68–70.
 Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), pp. 9–19.
 Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955) (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 174. Subsequent references will be inserted between parentheses.
 Rudolf Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, ed. Steven Paskuly, trans. Andrew Pollinger (New York: Da Capo, 1992), p. 165.
 Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941), p. 108.