The entire purpose of this chapter is to add a little complexity to Charlotte's character - namely, to reveal her negative attributes: her jealous romanticism and her hatred of her daughter. Social and cultural influences play a persistent role in defining how Charlotte shapes herself - at least, in the eyes of H.H. Through this Nabokov drives the wedge between husband and wife a little deeper - especially the part of that wedge that is Lolita.
Despite Charlotte’s complete conformity to the socially prescribed role of wife (more Hera than Venus), the role of mother is clearly less natural to her - and both these aspects grate on Humbert. Nabokov dedicates the first paragraph to Charlotte’s jealousy as she fuels it with H.H.’s fabrications of past flames “according to the rules of those American ads… The more popular and platitudinous I made them, the more Mrs. Humbert was pleased with the show.” This idea continues in the second paragraph, where H.H. calls their recited histories “congeneric since both were affected by the same stuff (soap operas, psychoanalysis and cheap novelettes) upon which I drew for my characters and she for her mode of expression.” The presence of American culture, advertisements, and “movieland” imagery has already consistently patterned the novel (after H.H.’s emigration) and will continue to do so. Here, it is another example of society’s influence over Charlotte and her romantic attitudes, and it ultimately, of course, leads to her misery and demise.
Strikingly, in the very first sentence we have brazen parenthetical foreshadowing (“a bad accident is to happen quite soon”) to that demise. Morbid allusions - as to her autopsy - also leap out at us later in the chapter, which continues to heighten our anticipation of the mysterious “bad accident.”
Throughout these first two paragraphs H.H. shows consistent contempt for Charlotte, painting her as a “crazily jealous” wife who “makes” him tell her all about his past. In the first paragraph alone Nabokov uses dramatic language, calling Charlotte “so crazily jealous,” with “a fierce insatiable curiosity,” and uses words like resuscitate, insult, trample, revoke, destroy, scream, atrocious, and morbid delectation. Humbert thus has to pad his past in order to “keep her happy,” while smirking smugly at her own (air-quotes here) “love-life.”
The second half of the chapter pivots from Charlotte’s possessive attitude toward Humbert to her apparent hatred of Lolita.
H.H. increasingly refers to Lolita as “my Lolita” again, even stating parenthetically that, “with an incestuous thrill,” he “had grown to regard [her] as [his own] child.” In the chapter’s third paragraph he manages to segue from one of Charlotte’s “tasteless reveries” to the fantastical possibility of her confinement in a maternity ward, during which he may be alone with Lolita.
Following this sentence, H.H. calls Charlotte’s hatred of Lo “vicious” - directly after the he casually refers to his desire to drug and rape the child! In this rich juxtaposition, Nabokov expertly highlights Humbert’s hypocrisy and blindness to his own moral shortcomings.
Nabokov uses Charlotte’s “vicious” answers to a questionnaire not only to reveal her attitude towards her daughter, but, perhaps, Lolita’s real personality as we never see it through H.H.’s eyes. Her mother describes Lo as “aggressive, boisterous, critical, distrustful, impatient, irritable, inquisitive, listless, negativistic (underlined twice) and obstinate.” H.H. calls this “really maddening,” but we readers are left to ask who knows better here.
Dolly’s brief letter and Charlotte’s verbal reaction at the end are telling glimpses of each one’s personality, carefully pruned and selected by Humbert (courtesy of our author) to prove his argument. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, are you yet convinced?