The buck stops here for our dear Humbert. Nabokov takes a full 750+ words in this chapter to work up to the moment H.H. realizes the game is lost. The remaining half our author spends on their dialogue and Humbert’s frantic movements and fragmented thoughts, before the final shock.
The chapter is dappled as usual with little fourth wall breaks (“I think it was”, “I love to fool doctors”, “reader, I did”). The first paragraph establishes tension: Lolita may after all still be admitted to St. Algebra’s.
After that, the first half of the chapter is spent largely on H.H.’s sleeping pill plot. In a long, uninterrupted paragraph, his focus shifts from doctor to Lolita’s remaining days with him to his experiments on Charlotte and back to the doctor and his pills.
Dr. Byron is, of course, named after Lord Byron, an apt reference for this novel. (Lord Byron had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister.) His “sweet girleen” was mentioned in the class list earlier (Marguerite).
With Humbert’s plot, we are left to wonder what ever happened to his determination never to harm her, but to protect her innocence. That being said, he could still be planning merely to fondle her. (Is that any better?)
Notable in his description of his experiments on Charlotte is this wonderful parenthetical - again, Nabokov knows when to describe a scene exactly and when to allow the reader’s imagination to work.
However, when I had done such a simple thing as kiss her, she had awakened at once, as fresh and strong as an octopus (I barely escaped).
At the end of the paragraph, H.H. reiterates his deceptive nature - not only through his true plan for the pills but the concealment of his past at the sanitorium. Dr. Byron does have a rather sweet girleen…
Thus the reader is left to wonder if H.H.’s morals really are so far gone, if he really has given up on preserving Lolita’s purity.
The next paragraph lingers on details before noting how “right” everything seemed - Nabokov is ominously tightening that rubber band of tension (with a wide grin on his face). We know, intuitively, that something is about to happen.
I left in great spirits. Steering my wife’s car with one finger, I contentedly rolled homeward. Ramsdale had, after all, lots of charm. The cicadas whirred; the avenue had been freshly watered. Smoothly, almost silkily, I turned down into our steep little street. Everything was somehow so right that day…
Note that when Humbert returns home, Charlotte is wearing again the same outfit she had on when he first met her. Everything in this novel comes full circle: it begins in prison and ends in an arrest, it even begins and ends with Lolita’s name. Now Charlotte, too, will come to an end.
Again, rare dialogue. Remember how in the previous chapter, Nabokov used the technique of describing rather than directly quoting Charlotte’s speech? Now it is Humbert Humbert whose “small but distinct voice” is silenced in fourth-wall-shattering asides.
“The Haze woman, the big bitch, the old cat, the obnoxious mama, the - the old stupid Haze is no longer your dupe. She had - she has…”
My fair accuser stopped, swallowing her venom and her tears. Whatever Humbert Humbert said - or attempted to say - is inessential. She went on:
“You’re a monster. You’re a detestable, abominable, criminal fraud. If you come near - I’ll scream out the window. Get back!”
Again, whatever H.H. murmured may be omitted, I think.
“I am leaving tonight. This is all yours. Only you’ll never, never see that miserable brat again. Get out of this room.”
Just who is the “I” who thinks whatever H.H. murmured may be omitted? Note that from the moment Charlotte opens her mouth, he is back in third person again. And then:
Reader, I did.
H.H. goes up to his studio, wherein the little table has been “raped.” Choice word, Nabokov. Choice. But then Humbert is eerily calm, and for once Nabokov withholds his cards, not telling us H.H.’s latest desperate strategy before he says:
“You are ruining my life and yours,” I said quietly. “Let us be civilized people. It is all your hallucination. You are crazy, Charlotte. The note you found were fragments of a novel. Your name and hers were put in by mere chance...”
How bold! First, H.H. of all people calls Charlotte crazy; then that as a novel’s main character he claims his own words to be fragments of a novel. Meta indeed. Thanks, modernism.
In the kitchen H.H. slips into a genius stream of consciousness. Only in such moments of crisis or ecstasy does H.H.'s control of the language slip - but of course, Nabokov’s does not. The fragmentation of his thoughts sets the reader up perfectly for the confusion that is to follow:
“Leslie speaking. Leslie Tomson,” said Leslie Tomson who favored a dip at dawn. “Mrs. Humbert, sir, has been run over and you’d better some quick.”
I answered, perhaps a bit testily, that my wife was safe and sound, and still holding the received, I pushed open the door and said:
“There’s this man saying you’ve been killed, Charlotte.”
But there was no Charlotte in the living room.