The purpose of chapter ten is to get us from Humbert Humbert’s sanitorium experience to - at long last - Lolita! Note that we do not meet our title character until the end of chapter ten, yet we’ve had copious tantalizing hints of her up to now. Even within this chapter, Nabokov takes a prolonging 1,580 words to get to the truly enigmatic nymphet we’ve heard so much about.
The first paragraph, like this whole chapter, is a necessary summary of logistics getting us from point A to point B, summarizing H.H.’s work life and his reason for relocating to Ramsdale upon signing out of the sanitorium. The next paragraph introducing the McCoo family concludes with this line:
He said they had two little daughters, one a baby, the other a girl of twelve, and a beautiful garden, not far from a beautiful lake, and I said it sounded perfectly perfect.
This is one of many excellent examples of the tense dichotomy between outer appearance and inner motive that plagues the novel. When H.H. says the McCoo house sounds “perfectly perfect,” we readers know what he really means. Moreover, our special status as readers gives us an exclusive, voyeuristic insight into the events of the novel of which, for much of it, only H.H. is aware.
At the start of the third paragraph he refers to the McCoo girl as “the enigmatic nymphet” - here he is projecting, but we readers are on the edges of our seats: is this Lolita?? - whom he will “coach in French and fondle in Humbertish,” a brilliant little parallelism. Follow this with the comic but disappointing scene of Mr. McCoo appearing at the “toy station” late and wet and explaining that his house had burned down. No questions as to the safety of the family from H.H., only this:
Now, since the only reason for my coming at all had vanished, the aforesaid arrangement seemed preposterous. All right, his house would have to be completely rebuilt, so what? Had he not insured it sufficiently?
We’re reminded (if not stunned) by Humbert’s powerful selfishness, but “being a polite European” he plays along with the good social suggestion of checking out the Haze house to consider lodging there instead. [References to "colored" servicepeople (chauffeur and maid) and "Mexican trash" speak to that wonderful old-world racism and prejudice.] The reference to his appearance as a “polite European” reinforces to us his outer appearance to the world, and the reader may want to scream at the other characters, “Beware, beware! He’s not as he appears!” A wolf in sheep’s clothing, indeed. Swearing to himself that he would not “under any circumstances” stay in Ramsdale is a jolt of irony that will soon turn on itself like a spinning top.
Alfred Appel notes that Nabokov omitted here a scene describing H.H.’s arrival by taxi at the ruins of the McCoo house. “He recognizes that the lost opportunity to coach ‘the enigmatic [McCoo] nymphet’ is no loss at all.” Indeed, in the next chapter Lolita will refer to her as a “fright” and say that she’s mean. Appel further notes that Nabokov reinstated the scene in his screenplay for Kubrick’s film, but Kubrick wound up dropping it.
The chauffeur speeds around the corner, swerving to avoid a suburban dog - this foreshadows Charlotte Haze’s death, as Mr. Beale runs over her when he swerves to avoid hitting probably the same dog.
An “old lady” calls to the chauffeur; the “white-frame horror” of the Haze house looks “dingy and old”; there is an old gray tennis ball somewhere. Such associations of the neighborhood and Haze house with old age intensify the setup for the youthful wonder who will soon take H.H. by such surprise. Even once inside the house, the maid has to abandon him in the entryway to see to something burning in the kitchen (followed by H.H.’s snobby sneering at the decor), adding to the initial impression of the Haze house as chaotic and less than a domestic idyll.
Nabokov devotes a whole paragraph and a half to a description of Mrs. Haze, every detail of which points to her social and aesthetic incompatibility with H.H. (many of Nabokov’s characters have a low opinion of Van Gogh), as he is keen to communicate. Couching her introduction in a dismal description of the decor so that she emerges from it quite dreadfully, he writes:
...there came from the upper landing the contralto voice of Mrs. Haze, who leaning over the banisters inquired melodiously, “Is that Monsieur Humbert?” A bit of cigarette ash dropped from there in addition. Presently, the lady herself - sandals, maroon slacks, yellow silk blouse, squarish face, in that order - came down the steps, her index finger still tapping upon her cigarette.
Contralto, melodiously; “Monsieur Humbert” (the polite European); cigarette ash; “the lady herself” (we can feel the sarcasm) - the physical description cleverly applied in the order of downstairs movement, punctuated by a repetition of the cigarette. The following paragraph is devoted to further details, beginning first with “I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with.” Yes, Humbert, we know you don’t like her. Note that by the aesthetic descriptions of Mrs. Haze (and soon, the house) we learn primarily about H.H.’s attitude towards her; but it is through her body language that we glimpse a little of her as a character. His description of her voice and mannerisms is absolutely everything - she is a wholly formed character, if only through the limitations of H.H.'s egocentric gaze. Her eyes “had a funny way of traveling all over you, carefully avoiding your own eyes,” she folds one leg under her on the sofa and makes “spasmodic dashes at three ashtrays.” Even still, words like “funny way” and “spasmodic” speak more to H.H.’s attitude than to Haze herself. He judges her instantly and harshly:
She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humor; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished.
The misogyny here is obvious and we needn’t go over it; H.H. follows with the presumption that she intends from the first moment to seduce him. His arrogance is palpable. Ironically, it is (if we are to buy into H.H.’s uninformed analysis of Mrs. Haze) her very efforts to make herself attractive (“what I think is called ‘poise’,” H.H. later says), by all the social conventions of femininity, that make her repulsive to him.
Three more belabored paragraphs take us with H.H. through the Haze house: he could never be happy in “that type” of household.
(where “I and Lo have our rooms” - Lo being presumably the maid)
Of course, the first-time reader now recognizes that H.H. will, in fact, lodge here, and Lolita is soon to debut. The anticipation!
Finally nearing the end of the insufferable tour of the Haze house and of the chapter, we begin the next paragraph with H.H. still “reluctantly” following Mrs. Haze. From the start of this paragraph we are building anticipation, moving anxiously through the house, which is described precisely. (In his lectures, Nabokov was known for illustrating settings and buildings of novels, as in his diagram of the Samsa house.) H.H. surreptitiously checks a timetable for the next train out of here. But then--
I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery - “the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses.
Note the coming-of-spring elements (sudden burst of greenery, pool of sun) and association of beaches (blue sea-wave) that clearly link Lolita with the legendary Annabel, his “Riviera love.” The next paragraph (mimicking his treatment of Mrs. Haze) goes into further details. Now he has gone from “polite European” to having “aging ape eyes.” There continues the constant back-and-forth between Humbert the Terrible (the ape, the animal, the man) and Humbert the Small (the genteel gentleman, the old world European, the man). Apollo wrestles with Dionysus.
And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnapped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds)...
See Appel’s Annotated Lolita for details on fairy tale references. To summarize, Lolita, like many of Nabokov’s books, has several fairy tale elements, including themes of deception, enchantment, and metamorphosis, “while the recurrence of places and motifs and the presence of three principal characters recall the formalistic design and symmetry of those archetypal tales. But the fate of Nabokov’s ‘fairy princess’ and the novel’s denouement reverse the fairy-tale process, even though H.H. offers Lolita the opportunity of a formulaic fairy-tale ending: ‘we shall live happily ever after’” (Appel).
He concludes the paragraph by reminiscing again about Annabel, and for a moment we may not be sure whether he is speaking of her or of Lolita. Lo even wears sunglasses that harken back to the forgotten pair that watched clumsy Humbert nearly “possess” his Annabel in one final attempt. “The twenty-five years I had lived since then tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.” Is this it, then - the pursuit of a lost youth? We are left to wonder, to guess.
I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of that “princedom by the sea” in my tortured past. Everything between the two events was but a series of gropings and blunders, and false rudiments of joy. Everything they shared made one of them.
Recall the "movieland manhood" referenced in previous chapters, H.H. alternatively comparing and contrasting himself to such masculine (adult) ideals. Note, then, how he refers to his "adult disguise" - like all of us, he is truly, secretly, a child. This is a continued contrast between his inner emotional life and his outward appearance. And again, H.H. is nothing but a victim - and it is the female genre that is to blame each time. There are also, one may easily note, more references to Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
The next paragraph jolts us back to the present reality of H.H. in prison: “I have no illusions, however. My judges will regard all this as a piece of mummery on the part of a madman with a gross liking for the fruit vert.” Fruit vert was, according to Nabokov, slang for “‘unripe’ female attractive to ripe gentlemen” (Appel).
“That was my Lo,” she said, “and these are my lilies.”
“Yes,” I said, “yes. They are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!”
Thus the “perfectly perfect” McCoo house is supplanted by the “beautiful, beautiful” Haze house, where idyllic youthful nymphet femininity (replete with cliche associations between the feminine and spring, flowers) reigns supreme over the adult disguise of movieland manhood.