Nabokov chiefly achieves two things in this chapter: he deepens our distrust in our narrator and raises the bar of Humbert’s insanity and depravity - while heightening the tension as we await Charlotte’s return. In this chapter also Nabokov presents (particularly in the second paragraph) the shift of mindset that allows H.H. to see Charlotte’s proposal as the opportunity of his lifetime rather than a travesty. In a concise symphony, Nabokov achieves these ends in under two thousand words. Let’s look at how he accomplishes each.
First, there are several reminders that we are not to trust Humbert Humbert’s telling. The fourth wall breaks chime in nearly every other paragraph: (P1) Gentlemen of the jury! ...I am even prepared to tell my tormentors… I wish I might digress and tell you more… But my tale is sufficiently incondite already… (P4) now ready to make a further “statement”... (P6) And now take down the following important remark: the artist in me has been given the upper hand over the gentleman… (P7) But I am no poet. I am only a very conscientious recorder… In particular, we must highlight that whole sixth paragraph, which retroactively throws the entirety of chapter eleven (at least!) into suspicion:
And now take down the following important remark: the artist in me has been given the upper hand over the gentleman. It is with a great effort of will that in this memoir I have managed to tune my style to the tone of the journal that I kept when Mrs. Haze was to me but an obstacle. That journal of mine is no more; but I have considered it my artistic duty to preserve its intonations no matter how false and brutal they may seem to me now. Fortunately, my story has reached a point where I can cease insulting poor Charlotte for the sake of retrospective verisimilitude.
After this paragraph, Nabokov ceases to remind us so much of H.H.’s “artistry” - only a last small bell ring at the end of the seventh paragraph:
But I am no poet. I am only a very conscientious recorder.
Interlinked with our growing distrust are the revelations of Humbert’s increasingly depraved imagination: remember when he insisted that he wanted to “protect” Lolita’s “purity”? Now he toes the line (and note also the references to himself in third person): (P1) there must have been times, if I know my Humbert - when I had brought up for detached inspection the idea of marrying a mature widow (say, Charlotte Haze) with not one relative left in the wide gray world, merely in order to have my way with her child (Lo, Lola, Lolita)... (P2) I imagined (under conditions of new and perfect visibility) all the casual caresses her mother’s husband would be able to lavish on his Lolita… (P4) I saw myself administering a powerful sleeping potion to both mother and daughter so as to fondle the latter through the night with perfect impunity… (P5) how eventually I might blackmail... big Haze into letting me consort with little Haze by gently threatening the poor doting Big Dove with desertion is she tried to bar me from playing with my legal stepdaughter…
And yet, Humbert is certain to note, at the idea of actually raping Lo: “No, I would not go that far.” So he maintains his desire to protect her, yet the idea occurs to him still. Cleverly, Nabokov hints again at Humbert’s true, darker thoughts even as Humbert claims not to have considered them:
I did not plan to marry poor Charlotte in order to eliminate her in some vulgar, gruesome and dangerous manner such as killing her by placing five bichloride-of-mercury tablets in her preprandial sherry or anything like that…
No, I’m sure you have never considered it, dear Humbert.
Again, this theme also stops after the sixth paragraph. The three final paragraphs of the chapter are dedicated to more concrete action, through which Nabokov heightens the tension in anticipation of Charlotte’s return.
There are other little notes:
The confessions under torture (in P1) are reminiscent of Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” in particular. (I will write an Extra sometime on Poe references in Lolita.)
There is the notion that if he were able to hold Lolita more he would be a “healthy man” (P2), implying that he is currently unhealthy.
H.H. now refers to Charlotte (P3) as a “possible mate,” the latter word so biological and echoing her letter.
There is a shift in his references to Charlotte, formerly “big cold Haze” or the like, now “poor Charlotte”.
H.H. expresses the notion that he is still a “weak” male (“I... underrated the gentleness of my nature”).
The point of the whole eighth paragraph being to emphasize how very unattracted H.H. is to full-grown women. (He does not, in fact, have a “manly imagination” as he calls it.)
H.H. now comfortably and consistently refers to Lolita in the possessive.
In the last paragraph, Nabokov uses the tension-heightening action also to prepare the reader with the sunny suburban avenue backdrop for Charlotte’s coming death.
It is a packed, symphonic chapter through which Nabokov multitasks and accomplishes multiple goals in a swift 1789 words, concluding with a cliffhanger.