Chapter eighteen achieves three principal aims. First, it is all about the Happy Couple as a functioning unit in society: Charlotte readily conforms to the prescribed role of the housewife, while Humbert gives a solid impression of conventional masculinity - and the falsehood of this image. Nabokov secondly introduces a concept central to our understanding of Charlotte as a character and Humbert’s attitude toward her: that she is “a woman of principle.” Most importantly, Nabokov uses the twin mother-daughter images to remind us again of the transience of Lolita’s nymphage.
Notice that Nabokov skips the amateur writer’s instinct to describe the wedding itself - even the copulation at the end of the last chapter, though he’ll allude to it in this one - and gets to the heart of the matter. What he needs to communicate in this chapter is all outward appearances of the Humberts as a couple, as well as Charlotte’s view of H.H.
In the first paragraph, Nabokov couches the Haze-Humbert union in the context of town society, discloses their dispensing of formalities, and reminds us of what Humbert is really after: Charlotte’s daughter. He also, importantly, reminds us of that fourth wall, “my reader.” In particular, I found the phrase “Madam gives in with a tolerant smile” quite telling - by revealing Charlotte’s indulgent and self-sacrificing attitude toward Humbert’s demands, Nabokov paints a world of action for us without actually going through their rigamarole.
But in the second paragraph Nabokov introduces a concept central to our understanding of Charlotte as a character: that she is “a woman of principle.” We must know this before we can understand Humbert’s actions in the next couple chapters. Charlotte conforms, or tries to conform, completely to her society’s idea of what a woman should be: devoutly Christian, gentle and genteel, “glorifying the home.” She crafts each room as either “masculine” or “feminine,” materializing the social duality under which she and Humbert both, arguably, suffer. Even “the novels [Humbert] had found her reading when [he] moved in were now replaced by illustrated catalogues and homemaking guides.” She puts “blind faith” in “her church and book club.” She forsakes herself - “a career girl at heart,” you may remember - in order to achieve the perfect picture she’s been told will make her happy.
Humbert helps this image. His masculinity - including even his bank account (because of course a man’s worth is determined by his paycheck, right, Willy Loman?) - adds to Charlotte’s vision, complementing her perfectly. In this chapter Nabokov dapples French phrases liberally, emphasizing Humbert’s old world charm and contrasting it with Charlotte’s poor attempts to appear more sophisticated than she really is, with her bad French and plastic-topped table. Their marriage elevates her, exemplified by its inclusion in the society column of the local paper. H.H.’s humorous fibs to the interviewer show us again his snobby attitude towards Ramsdale and Charlotte. Nabokov misses no opportunity to remind us of H.H.’s narcissism. He also, importantly, returns to the third person, using it now to paint a picture of the happy couple in their social context, so that we are looking at them with a wider frame.
But then, in the fourth paragraph, he breaks the fourth again: “Let us go on with this curious tale.” He begins to describe their conjugal life, and here recognizes something obvious and yet remarkable: Charlotte’s resemblance to Lolita.
I would manage to evoke the child while caressing the mother… I kept telling myself, as I wielded my brand-new large-as-life wife, that biologically this was the nearest I could get to Lolita; that at Lolita’s age, Lotte had been as desirable a schoolgirl as her daughter was, and as Lolita’s daughter would be some day… So I tom-peeped across the hedges of years, into wan little windows. And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of the noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowth of dark decaying forests.
Hidden among paragraphs of Humbert’s contempt for his new wife we have shimmers of sincerity, tenderness, and an attempt (such as what little H.H. can muster) to appreciate her. But most importantly, Nabokov reminds us of the inevitable: Lolita, too, will grow up someday and become a mother. Humbert is caressing not only his beloved’s creator, but her future as well.
Nabokov concludes the chapter, curiously, with a smattering of details about Charlotte’s many attempts to charm the people of Ramsdale: thus her conformity to social standards ultimately fails her. H.H. describes the Farlows, referring in a tantalizing foreshadow to “that Colt.” He ultimately returns to the true subject that underlies every chapter, even the ones in which she does not appear: Lolita. Nabokov closes with the image of Humbert “ready to weep with passion and impatience” for her return.