This first chapter of Part Two marks the strong differences between the two halves of the novel: the change in H.H.’s attitude toward Lolita, and the change in her status from free American to child concubine. But before we dive into this first chapter of Part Two, let’s ask ourselves: why would Nabokov divide Lolita into two parts?
Pale Fire is similarly divided, its first part a long poem, the second a commentary by a different narrator on that poem. In Lolita I believe the division demarcates a flip in our dear Humbert’s inner switch: in Part One, he struggles with his pedophilia and does not wish to consummate his love for Lolita, and only by the end of that first half does he change his mind; in Part Two, he has given in completely to his lust. But perhaps more significant than that, his attitude toward Lolita as a person has flipped: while in Part One one could argue he was genuinely in love with her, from the start of Part Two it’s obvious her novelty has faded and he has no shred of respect - in fact, he has mostly contempt - for her.
So we begin Part Two. In these first few chapters, Humbert’s narration is long and meandering compared to the staccato of the final chapters of Part One, a shift in tone that sets a collage of scenes for a flitting cross-country voyage.
The first 965-ish words are devoted to the various accommodations H.H. and Lo take on their journey. (I hesitate to use this word, not only because it’s cliche, but because “journey” implies some linear growth and goal, which is not the case here.) It’s rife with hints at deception and hiding, from “illicit love,” “stillborn babies,” and a reference to partner-swapping foursomes (Nabokov continuing to point out the sham decorum of polite 1950s American society) to the false advertisements of “high class” and “gracious atmospheres” promised by billboards and tour books. The Tour Book of the Automobile Association plays a counterpart now to Part One’s Girl’s Encyclopedia and reminds us - along with Humbert’s continual direct addresses to the reader - that this is, after all, only a novel.
Paragraph five begins a shift in this chapter from H.H. speaking in terms of “we” to delineating his and Lo’s different attitudes. Note that the novel as a whole falls under that category, much contributed to by Henry James, of books in which an educated, older European male attempts to “refine” a free-spirited American “girl”.
Treasured recollections of my father’s palatial hotel sometimes led me to seek for its like in the strange country we traveled through. I was soon discouraged; but Lo kept following the scent of rich food ads...
With the memories of Humbert’s father’s hotel, in this passage Nabokov hints not only at H.H.’s and Lo’s contrasting personalities but also at the ways in which he is attempting to relive his childhood. Another parallel between past and present follows shortly: one resort “wanted to know my dead wife’s and dead mother’s maiden names.”
But in paragraph six we come to the scene for which all this summary has been spent:
Most often, in the slouching, bored way she cultivated, Lo would fall prostrate and abominably desirable into a red springchair or a green chaise longue, or a steamer chair of striped canvas with footrest and canopy, or a sling chair, or any other lawn chair under a garden umbrella on the patio, and it would take hours of blandishments, threats and promises to make her lend me for a few seconds her brown limbs in the seclusion of the five-dollar room before undertaking anything she might prefer to my poor joy.
The structure here reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, in which the author similarly takes several painstaking paragraphs to set the scene of an event that takes place in a few short ones. Nabokov in this chapter has taken five long paragraphs to contextualize H.H.’s “poor joy.”
There follows H.H.’s real intellectual contempt for Lolita and the division between them: she is, in his view, “a disgustingly conventional little girl.” None of the spiritual companionship he felt with his Annabel!
If a roadside sign sad: VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP - we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy. The words “novelties and souvenirs” simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt. If some cafe sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.
As H.H. ironically declares, “Charlotte, I began to understand you!”
Following this paragraph of European intellectual snobbery which also sets up his psychological advantage, H.H. begins describing his various ploys to control Lolita.
I relied on three other methods to keep my pubescent concubine in submission and passable temper.
How much he has changed since those chapters in which he declared he intended “to protect the purity of that twelve-year-old child”! That’s the shift I’m talking about from Part One to Part Two: no longer is Lolita an innocent and respectable girl in his eyes, but a depraved child who had already lost her virginity before H.H. laid hands on her, and who in fact initiated their sexual relationship herself. By confiding her story about Charlie and initiating sex with Humbert, Lolita has shattered his (projected) illusion of her as the embodiment of Innocent Childhood. It follows that his whole image of her has been ruined. In Part One he adored Lo’s pop culture obsessions, viewing them as cute quirks; now they are “disgustingly conventional.” And so goes all romance, those loveable habits slowly (sometimes quickly) becoming loathsome character flaws. Has Humbert already, at this point, fallen out of love with Lolita? Is their relationship already reduced entirely to sex?
The most powerful part of this chapter comes in the three paragraphs in which Humbert addresses Lo directly with “the reformatory threat” - “the one I recall with the deepest moan of shame.”
My chere Dolores! I want to protect you, dear, from all the horrors that happen to little girls… I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child. The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the therapist…
These are blatant lies, the twist of illogic intended to manipulate (dare I say gaslight?) not only Lolita but the reader as well. But most importantly, in all this, H.H. asserts that Lolita is somehow not the owner of her own sexuality. But to begin with, she was: she chose to have sex with Charlie and she also initiated sex with Humbert. The anti-feminist here is anyone who thinks a girl, even a 12-year-old girl, cannot possibly have autonomy over her own sexuality. In fact, she has so far. But this is no longer the case - as H.H. is pointing out, she no longer has the freedom to say no.
And that is the difference between Part One and Part Two of Lolita.
(Cue victim-blaming: “a minor female, who allows a person over twenty-one to know her carnally, involves her victim into statutory rape…” Excuse me, her victim?)
The following paragraphs contrast with the beginning ones which focused on the enclosed, manmade scenery Lo and H.H. inhabited by turning the reader’s eye outward to America’s natural landscape. Again, Humbert emphasizes the differences between his and Lolita’s points of view, him with an eye for beauty and her with a total blindness to it. (Now who is the ape sketching the bars of its cage, whose attitude colored by circumstance?) The difference again highlights their incompatibility.
But the final paragraph abruptly snaps us out of it, Nabokov again reminding us of that fourth wall, with Humbert’s lawyer’s suggestion.
(this is not too clear I am afraid, Clarence, but I did not keep any notes, and have at my disposal only an atrociously crippled tour book in three volumes, almost a symbol of my torn and tattered past, in which to check these recollections)
Lest we forget that we cannot trust H.H. any more than “his” Lolita can.
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