Chapter 32 takes us from Lo's confession to Humbert about how she lost her virginity to Humbert's confession to Lo that her mother is dead. Nabokov could have ended Part I after the previous chapter, but holding on to conclude with Dolores' utter helplessness changes the tone of the book completely.
Chapter 32 begins with Lo’s somewhat rambling account of her schoolmates’ and her own sexual experiments at their young ages, thus serving again to normalize adolescent sexuality. Note how Nabokov gives us just enough information each time before moving on, so that before we have the chance to imagine the details we’re reading of another young “debauchment.” The focus is on Lolita’s details: her expressions, both facial and verbal. And as he often does, he draws a contrast between social pomp (Charlotte humblebragging about Lolita’s association with the “Talbot girl”) and seedy reality (“sapphic diversions” between them). But after 388 words he gets to the point: how did Lo lose her virginity?
Two full-bodied paragraphs describe the circumstances. What’s notable about them is how H.H. spends the first one emphasizing and re-emphasizing the frequency with which the kid copulated (“mark, reader, every blessed morning,” “every morning, oh my reader”) and the image of youth and sexuality in a natural setting. (Appel notes that the fictional Eryx Island is a reference to the ancient cult of Aphrodite, to whom Humbert sometimes compares Lo, and which he’ll mention again later.)
the three children would take a short cut through the beautiful innocent forest brimming with all the emblems of youth, dew, birdsongs, and at one point, among the luxuriant undergrowth
Note that he pointedly calls them “children” and uses the word “innocent” in this passage that conflates sex and purity. The next paragraph is spent on dismissing Charlie as a viable romantic competitor.
The next few paragraphs are dedicated to getting Lo and H. from point A (the hotel room) to point B (the lobby), the first highlighting Lo’s preoccupation with her appearance. H.H.’s advice against talking to strangers is echoed a couple other times in the book. (Pages 32 and 309 in Appel’s edition.)
The way Nabokov uses parentheticals in these three paragraphs (from “By that time it was close to ten” to “the hoary bellboy came up for the bags”) is interesting, as he alternates between highlighting H.H.’s gifts to Lo - the slippers, the coin purse and coins - and H.H.’s paranoia.
(the situation was beginning to frighten me)
(was she up to something downstairs?)
It’s an excellent way to describe H.H.’s state of mind without directly describing it.
The fellow in tweeds is, again, Quilty, and the movie magazine Lo is reading - “Bill’s wife had worshiped him from afar long before they ever met: in fact, she used to secretly admire the famous young actor as he ate sundaes in Schwab’s drugstore.” - describes Quilty’s secret admiration of her as well. Foreshadowing indeed.
Then the 156-word “nothing could have been more childish/harmless/innocent/naive” run-on, which describes no childish/harmless/innocent/naive qualities, but all subtle evidence of Lo’s bedroom tumble with her stepfather. Notice that from the “blood-red” and “lurid” allusions at the very start of this paragraph we have been set up for the startling conclusion: “some immortal daemon disguised as a female child.”
The “Aunt Clare” of the next paragraph is another reference to Clare Quilty. The paragraph builds further on the uneasiness H.H. felt at the hotel before. Skating quickly over the details of checking out, Nabokov puts us in a coffee shop where Lo is behaving sullenly, H.H. vainly trying to engage her. Nabokov again breaks the fourth wall in a direct address to the reader, and alludes to the arbitrariness of the road trip they are about to undergo. As H.H.’s discomfort grows, he slips into third person and Lo is, indeed, a small ghost of her mother. Without directly stating her name, Nabokov has recalled Charlotte to our minds.
“Poor Humbert Humbert” spends the next paragraph turning from one funhouse mirror to another as he examines his conflicted feelings in the car: guilt, dread, anxiety, lust, and a rare objective view:
This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning.
His emphasis on Lo’s helpless aloneness conflicts with the images of her that follow: Lolita cheerfully threatening Humbert with a police report, next squirming in sex-induced pain, lashing out and calling H.H. an “ugly name,” and at last demanding to call her mother before obediently slipping into the car. But the chapter ends with the emphasis again on Lo’s helplessness as H.H. informs her without emotion that her mother is dead.
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