And so the campaign for sympathy continues. In Chapter Six we meet two young women, doubles for one another: Monique and Marie. Monique, the first, is a lithe prostitute just out of her nymphethood still trailing traces of the tempting child she so recently was. H.H.’s experience with her is the only one “among the eighty or so” prostitutes he visited who “gave [him] a pang of genuine pleasure,” as detailed in this sympathetic chapter. The experience gave him the idea to seek out his niche desire by paying for it, which brings us to the humiliating contrast of Marie: “a monstrously plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen” whose “large and unfastidious family” demands H.H.’s money even after he turns the opportunity down.
Nabokov sets up this chapter with a brief paragraph begging the question: did Humbert’s discreet pleasures, in which he enjoyed but never touched, never even displayed his wants to a child, ever hurt them?
I had possessed her - and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not somehow tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.
The mere fact that he wonders signifies a working moral compass.
I learned, however, what they looked like, those lovely, maddening, thin armed nymphets, when they grew up.
This is a continuation from the last line of the previous chapter - “Never grow up.” Now we are to see what other means H.H. tried in order to satisfy his hunger. Three paragraphs describe his sole satisfaction, which he achieved through Monique, a young prostitute:
She came hardly up to my chest hair and had the kind of dimpled round little face French girls so often have, and I liked her long lashes and tight-fitting tailored dress sheathing in pearl-gray her young body which still retained - and that was the nymphic echo, the chill of delight, the leap in my loins - a childish something mingling with the professional frétillement of her small agile rump… I do not hesitate to say (and indeed this is the reason why I linger gratefully in that gauze-gray room of memory with little monique) that among the eighty or so grues I had had operate upon me, she was the only one that gave me a pang of genuine pleasure… I let myself go with her more completely than I had with any young lady before, and my last vision that night of long-lashed Monique is touched up with a gaiety that I find seldom associated with any even in my humiliating, sordid, taciturn love life.
Words like childish, immature, and infantile give us flickers of her youth and nymphet-ness, while a repetition of the word usual reminds us that H.H. buys prostitutes’ time often. Lingering on Monique’s unique beauty, and referring to their room as “our small Eden,” along with directly stating that she was the sole source of his only “genuine pleasure,” highlight the rarity of his sexual happiness. Bringing it all to a paralyzing close by describing his love life as “humiliating, sordid, and taciturn” twists that gorgeous gaiety into a rather pitiable picture.
His attachment to Monique is so sincere that he is forced to break it off after a brief three engagements because it “threatened to burden me with heart-rending fantasies and peter out in dull disappointment.” This spells that his desire is not purely physical, but deeply emotional as well.
So let her remain, sleek, slender Monique, as she was for a minute or two...
The inevitable transience of his every genuine pleasure is as heartrending as the real evanescence we readers experience in our own love lives, and H.H.’s predilection is bizarrely relatable because of it. We only feel worse for Humbert as he continues to pursue this route, choosing to search via an ad in a “lewd” magazine for nymphets and finding Marie instead.
...a monstrously plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen with red-ribboned thick black braids who sat on a chair perfunctorily nursing a bald doll. When I shook my head and tried to shuffle out of the trap… she demanded son argent.
A word on the misogyny of Lolita: it is rampant. Dissecting Lolita is not a feminist reading of the novel, but I highly recommend “Men Explain Lolita to Me” by Rebecca Solnit, “Gender and Power in Nabokov’s Lolita” by Tristan Gans, and “Dolorès Disparue”: Reading Misogyny in Lolita by Sarah Herbold. For our purposes here, let us admit that the Marie experience serves Nabokov’s purpose of utterly humiliating Humbert Humbert, while also revealing how he sees females categorically as objects - even Monique and, eventually, Lolita herself.
We readers are meant to see through this chapter that poor Humbert tried, he really did try, to quench his thirst - if not absolutely, then at least through the (to some of us) acceptable means of prostitution. The degradation he experiences as a result only augments our sympathy. If the duty of literature is to teach human beings to empathize with one another, Nabokov achieves it through Lolita, particularly in this chapter.