The purpose of this chapter is to deliver Charlotte's letter, setting up the situation of which H.H. will take advantage. In it, Nabokov cleverly gives the reader a chance to see Humbert from the outside, even though the narrative remains in first person; and there's some foreshadowing, namely of Quilty. Key devices in this chapter include the letter and the photos on Lolita’s bedroom wall; how does Nabokov use them, and to what end?
The first paragraph of chapter sixteen is comedown from fifteen, in which Lolita embraced Humbert. The poetry continues, repetitive and alliterative: “ivory-full… ivory-smooth, sliding sensation of her skin...tumbled… crumpled….” Notice how the first three sentenced are focused on the senses, particularly touch - and then:
I wrapped in it Humbert’s huge engorged heart. A poignant chaos was welling within me…
- an abstract feeling, vaguely expressed (What exactly is "poignant chaos welling" within oneself?) - before it's interrupted by an outside force: Louise has a letter for the lodger. All descriptors of Louise (her “velvety” voice, “softly” calling) are fully colored by the sentimental joy H.H. feels, as usual revealing more of him than of anyone else.
Then Charlotte’s letter. Four paragraphs of 594 words. What is the point of including the text of the letter? There is a dramatic effect, to be sure, but the content is certainly not revelatory - we knew already how Charlotte felt. It is mainly her demand that Humbert take action - to stay or go - that will indicate (as she makes it clear exactly how she’ll interpret his decision) to her how he feels. In other words, Charlotte is now forcing Humbert to act, thereby speeding up the action of the novel. (It creates, in the process, more tension in the reader - by the end of the chapter we do not yet knew what he will do.)
But as far as the language in the letter itself, there are a few noteworthy aspects. First, I find it interesting that there is no salutation: the letter begins abruptly with “This is a confession(colon) I love you(period)”. I write out the punctuation to bring it to your awareness; it’s as important as the words themselves. But before that first period, Humbert interrupts Charlotte’s letter with an aside about his wild hopes.
Secondly, Charlotte’s repeated use of the possessive pronoun referring to H.H. echoes how he refers to Lolita in his hopeful moments. In this letter it is “my dear one, my dearest, dearest, mon cher, cher monsieur, etc.
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, Nabokov uses the letter (and the photographs, detailed below) to show the reader what Humbert looks like to other characters. To Charlotte he has a “dark romantic European way,” he has a “British” stoicism about him, with an “old-world reticence” and “sense of decorum” that “may be shocked by the boldness of an American girl”. If you subscribe to the idea that this book is a love letter from Nabokov to the New (American) World, here’s a little proof. She is also under the impression that he enjoys talking to her, among other aspects of living in the Haze house.
Fourth, Charlotte reveals her own self-image - notable (to me) is her self-description just there as an “American girl” rather than an American woman. Earlier, she describes herself as a “passionate and lonely woman.” All this gives the reader a break from Humbert’s constricting point of view and puts us in the mind of Charlotte Haze. (At least until Humbert notes that he has omitted large parts of the letter - details below.)
There are also a couple of notable little foreshadows. Charlotte mentions the possibility of an accident - and one will indeed kill her, though not on her way home this evening. Her parenthetical aside [(but what would it matter?)] is revealing: is she not the sole parent of a 12-year-old girl? Is this just bovarism? But most interestingly - and shockingly - she writes that if he were to “take advantage” of her, then he “would be a criminal - worse than a kidnapper who rapes a child”. How bold, Nabokov! Few writers would dream of injecting this line - it would be unthinkable. Of course, it is exactly what Humbert will end up doing. The fact that Humbert does not even comment on that line makes it all the more powerful - it is hidden in the letter, yet it leaps off the page like a wild horse.
Another interesting tidbit Nabokov includes is the age difference between Charlotte and her deceased husband: twenty years. How does this compare to Humbert and Lo?
I have a few notes still, and I group them together because they all represent what (and I know that Nabokov would hate this) Freud would call the superego, the voice of society that tells us what to do, usually using the word “should.” In the very first paragraph of the letter, Charlotte effectively displaces responsibility for her letter to God: “when I asked the Lord what to do about it, I was told to act as I am acting now.” Thus she is simply obeying a greater authority - so she tells herself, among other things. She also writes that she desires Humbert “as a lifelong mate,” and that last word is what stands out to me: the almost biological categorization of him - not husband, not lover, not partner, but mate, as if she is observing apes. Lastly she invokes the notion of shame: “You… must think me a shameless little idiot...” I note this because shame has played such an important role in Humbert’s emotional life, and here again we have another character who feels ashamed of their passion.
Other than all that, Charlotte repeatedly talks down her own hopes (“Of course, I know with absolute certainty that I am nothing to you, nothing at all… Destroy [this letter] and go!”) even as it is completely obvious that she is unsuccessful, continuing to entertain the idea that she might find him upon her return.
Nabokov withholds the key temptation - Humbert “as a father to [Charlotte’s] little girl” - until the end of the third paragraph, effectively planting this poisonous seed in the reader’s mind.
And now, after giving us a glimpse into the mind of Charlotte Haze, Nabokov revokes the sweet treat: he breaks the fourth wall, reminding us that everything, every detail, every word, is filtered through and edited by Humbert Humbert, a narrator whom we absolutely cannot trust. “What I present here is what I remember of the letter, and what I remember of the letter I remember verbatim (including that awful French). It was at least twice longer. I have left out…” H.H. even cruelly pokes fun at Charlotte’s bovarism: “There is just a chance that “the vortex of the toilet” (where the letter did go) is my own matter-of-fact contribution. She probably begged me to make a special fire to consume it.”
Then the highly revealing photographs on Lolita’s bedroom wall reinforce H.H.’s outer appearance to other characters while drawing a parallel between how Charlotte and her daughter both see him. Here is the actual advertisement to which Nabokov refers.
The “conquering hero” line and mention of Morell refer to the copy’s inspiration, one of Morell’s poems. The magazine ad, and Lolita’s association of the model with H.H., is the ultimate display of how perfectly he, superficially, fits the masculine ideal set out for these women (Lolita and Charlotte), for whom they've been conditioned since birth to fall.
Notably, the Humbert lookalike, dubbed the “conquering hero” is placed above a photograph of Quilty, whom H.H. is said to resemble slightly. If you want to read into it, then, the image foreshadows Quilty’s defeat by Humbert, even as they both watch over Lolita’s chaste bed.
Thus in this chapter Nabokov not only heightens the narrative tension with Charlotte’s demand for action of H.H., but he shows us exactly the kind of power Humbert has over both Charlotte and Lolita.
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