Nabokov’s goal in this chapter is to set us up for the events leading to Charlotte’s death. To do that, he must delineate three things: the growing rift between Charlotte and Humbert, Charlotte’s distrust of Humbert, and most importantly, the key and dresser in which Humbert hides his little black book. Noteworthy, too, is the America versus Europe theme that continues in this chapter, addressed aloud for the first time by our dear H.H. Humbert also continues to repeatedly anticipate - in glowing, sensuous detail - his absent beloved. In this chapter Lo is “getting warmer and browner every day” like a real bun in the oven.
To begin with, H.H. continues to compare Charlotte (America) to Valeria (Europe); independent American women clearly frighten him. He also mentions the correspondence with Miss Phalen’s sister, which will come up later. The second paragraph is a brief fourth wall break (“that I can recall”) before a dash of foreshadowing that keeps us reading on.
I could surely devise some general means to assert myself in a general way that might be later directed toward a particular occasion.
What struck me first about this sentence - after the “I could surely devise” which reminds us of H.H.’s cunning and that he is again spelling out the logic of his strategy before pursuing it - is that he repeats the word “general” twice. Why would Nabokov do this? What seems like an uncharacteristic oversight makes sense a few paragraphs later when H.H. says:
I ignore the particular. I cannot ignore the general.
Ironic for a character so easily distracted by details! Nabokov uses H.H.’s little lecture to remind us of some of the novel’s “general” themes: gender roles and America versus Europe. Humbert is shifting the power dynamic back to its traditional place.
But let’s back up a bit. Humbert is about to assert himself in a general way, and what follows is a rare snippet of dialogue. Why include this? The comedy is rich and speaks volumes about the dynamic between husband and wife:
“I have a surprise for you,” she said looking at me with fond eyes over a spoonful of soup. “In the fall we two are going to England.”
I swallowed my spoonful, wiped my lips with pink paper (Oh, the cool rich linens of Mirana Hotel!) and said:
“I have also a surprise for you, my dear. We two are not going to England.”
H.H.’s explanation as to why they two are not going to England begins, notably, with an assertion of more traditional gender roles (against Charlotte’s independent American woman nature, as contrasted above with Valeria’s very meek traditional attitude as wife) and ends with a dismissal of Europe in favor of sweet new America. (That little bun getting warmer and browner every minute…)
I happen to be allergic to Europe, including merry old England. As you well know, I have nothing but very sad associations with the Old and rotting World. No colored ads in your magazines will change the situation.
Do you recall my mentioning on several occasions throughout these analyses that some consider the novel Lolita a love letter to America? Keep this idea in mind as we read on.
H.H.’s diatribe is punctured now and then with objections to Charlotte (“Don’t do that,” “No, please, wait.”) even as Nabokov does not interrupt his main character to describe Charlotte’s behavior. It’s a genius way of allowing the reader to fill in the blanks about Charlotte’s reaction. In the end, H.H. re-asserts traditional gender roles, at last claiming - perhaps quite long after than most, say, American men would - his own “small but distinct” voice.
Only after H.H.’s monologue concludes does he at last attend to Charlotte’s actions. Interestingly, he no longer quotes her speech directly - she literally no longer has her own “small but distinct voice” - but he continues to relay her words. Are they exact? Do we trust him? Either way, it paints her as desperate and subordinate - his goal exactly, making her much more like Valeria. Soon she’ll even be wearing the same perfume.
Next comes the scene in which Charlotte interrupts her husband as he’s thumbing through the C section of the Girl’s Encyclopedia. (I consulted Appel’s Annotated Lolita on this and there is apparently no significance to the C section.)
Over the course of another rare snippet of dialogue, H.H. makes nearly anthropological observations of Charlotte. Despite outwardly paying no attention to her whatever, he is acutely aware of her every move, describing her tone and touch in curt parentheticals and even theorizing her actions: “Conditional reflex on her part.”
“I think I know where that is,” she said, still pointing. “There is a hotel I remember, Enchanted Hunters, quaint, isn’t it? And the food is a dream. And nobody bothers anybody.”
She rubbed her cheek against my temple. Valeria soon got over that.
I wish to make two notes about this quotation: first, Charlotte mentions the Enchanted Hunters hotel. As Appel notes, this is part of the enchantment/fairy tale aspect of the novel. “H.H. calls himself ‘an enchanted hunter,’ takes Lolita to the hotel of that name, speaks of an ‘enchanted island of time’ (p. 18), and so forth. Nabokov told his lecture classes at Cornell that a great writer was at once a storyteller, a teacher, and, most supremely, an enchanter.” (Appel 359)
Second, H.H. compares her once more with Valeria, and we get the sense that Charlotte will soon go the same way, or worse.
Finally, the chapter ends forebodingly with H.H. checking the location of the key to the dresser.
Was it the perfect hiding place - there, under that razor, in the groove of its velvet-lined case? The case lay in a small trunk where I kept various business paper. Could I improve upon this? Remarkable how difficult it is to conceal things - especially when one’s wife keeps monkeying with the furniture.
H.H. asks these reflective questions as one does when retrospectively wondering if things might have otherwise turned out differently - a clever technique on Nabokov’s part, followed of course with that last foreshadow. Read on, dear readers, read on.