The key point Nabokov makes in this chapter is that Humbert, despite his “monstrousness,” is incapable (for now) of committing murder - or at least, he is incapable of murdering an innocent person. Nevertheless, he vividly fantasizes about killing poor Charlotte. We all dream of doing terrible deeds we would never actually go through with - but does the mere thought make us terrible people? H.H. insists that his inability to go through with his plot proves his “gentle nature.” Dear reader, are you convinced?
In this chapter quite a few linguistic details return. First, Nabokov repeatedly breaks the fourth wall: I am now obliged to describe, fictional gesture, “handle” is the word I want, I remember, Now look what happens when the operator himself plans a perfect removal, puppet-master, I say corpse because…, Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, etc.
Secondly, Nabokov has H.H. return to his habit of taking every descriptive opportunity to demean Charlotte: her habitual sloth, the gooseflesh of her thick thighs, flung herself, dutiful awkwardness, the glossy whiteness of her wet face so little tanned despite all her endeavors, her pale lips, and her naked convex forehead… a trustful and clumsy seal, the poor, slippery, big-bodied creature, etc. These descriptors don’t only reveal H.H.’s contemptuous attitude towards his wife, but (more importantly) highlight how unattracted he is to her - how her body turns him off! We can imagine that any “normal” adult male would attend these same details with a hot flush and a warmth in his groin, but Nabokov uses the narration to remind us over and over that Humbert is no such male.
Lastly, we see that H.H. has returned again to referring to Lolita as his own, and now to Charlotte as well - but note that aloud he refers to Lolita as Charlotte's, not his own. Ample foreshadowing also persists in this chapter, with H.H. referring to this swim as their last, Charlotte as his “doomed dear,” and finally
Oh, my poor Charlotte, do not hate me in your eternal heaven among an eternal alchemy of asphalt and rubber and metal and stone - but thank God, not water, not water!
With all these psychological ticks dappled throughout this chapter, the reader is led to (1) remember that our narrator is unreliable, (2) view Charlotte negatively or at least remember how unattracted H.H. is to her, (3) see how H.H. has taken a possessive view of Lo, hitching on every detail (see paragraphs 5 and 10) that reminds him of her, and most importantly, (4) anticipate Charlotte’s coming death with mounting tension.
Alfred Appel, Jr. points out that H.H.’s uncorrected “error” in this “unrevised” draft - mistaking Hourglass Lake for Our Glass Lake - underscores H.H.’s solipsism (“the circumscribing mirror of ‘our glass’”) and obsession with time (hourglass).
And what of the chapter’s events themselves - or rather, their lack?
First, Nabokov presents Charlotte as an immovable impediment to Humbert’s happiness when she assures him of her plan to take care of Lolita. Nabokov smartly withholds H.H.’s reaction to the news for one brief paragraph (#14), interestingly avoids the cliche “wringing of the hands” gesture by actually discussing it, breaks the fourth wall (“‘handle’ is the word I want”), and at last brings up Valeria as a perfect foil to Charlotte. The contrast will return later in the chapter, but he describes it perfectly here:
In the good old days, by merely twisting fat Valechka’s brittle wrist (the one she had fallen upon from a bicycle) I could make her change her mind instantly; but anything of the sort in regard to Charlotte was unthinkable. Bland American Charlotte frightened me.
(You may recall that I mentioned the potential interpretation of Lolita as a love letter to America. I won’t go into it, but this is yet another example of where the idea may be read.)
Here H.H. reveals his sociopathic tendencies toward “Valechka” before delivering the revelation of his fear. He goes on to say that despite Charlotte’s unwitting slavery to the “falsity” of social convention (the romance novels, the book clubs, the movieland men, the interior design books with their “masculine” and “feminine” rooms), she would detect his own falsity in an instant. From his deep guilt and the very proximity of its potential success stems a heightened paranoia that he will be found out. My friends, remember those Poe references and reread The Tell-Tale Heart!
In fact, I could not say anything at all to Charlotte about the child without giving myself away. Oh, you cannot imagine (as I had never imagined) what these women of principle are! Charlotte, who did not notice the falsity of all the everyday conventions and rules of behavior, foods, and books, and people she doted upon, would distinguish at once a false intonation in anything I might say with a view to keeping Lo near. She was like a musician who may be an odious vulgarian in ordinary life, devoid of tact and taste; but who will hear a false note in music with diabolical accuracy of judgment. To break Charlotte’s will, I would have to break her heart. If I broke her heart, her image of me would break too.
And so Humbert spells out for us his logic just as he would in a chess game we were observing. (I’ll write an Extra sometime about Nabokov’s love of chess puzzles.) This is the great writing device in which the narrator shows his cards to us readers alone but presents only a stone-cold poker face to his fellow characters.
After this reverie, H.H. retreats to the detail of the scene. Another technique of which Graham Greene was a notable master: the vacillation between a character’s thoughts and the concrete detail of his environment, serving to heighten tension as well as lead us to a shock: after dwelling on the poetic image of young girls emerging from “a sun-dappled privy marked ‘Women’” (I say poetic because they are not yet women, and that’s rather H.H.’s preference.) Nabokov delivers the arresting conclusion: “The natural solution was to destroy Mrs. Humbert. But how?”
And thus the fantasy. After breaking the fourth wall Nabokov begins the transition into H.H.’s plot. But in order to get us there, he first paints the scene very carefully for us. Doing so serves the doubled purpose of heightening the tension, misleading the reader to believe that Humbert Humbert really is about to drown Charlotte Haze.
I walked down to Hourglass Lake. The spot from which we and a few other “nice” couples (the Farlows, the Chatfields) bathed was a kind of small cove; my Charlotte liked it because it was almost “a private beach.” The main bathing facilities (or “drowning facilities” as the Ramsdale Journal had had occasion to say) were in the left (eastern) part of the hourglass, and could not be seen from our covelet. To our right, the pines soon gave way to a curve of marshland which turned again into forest on the opposite side.
All the parentheticals serve to slow the reader down and pay attention, constructing the image carefully in the reader’s mind. H.H. sits down beside Charlotte so noiselessly he startles her - how sneaky he is, how easy it would be for him! Then a tense, almost Hitchcockian dialogue; again, H.H. has shown us his cards - we know what he really means, but Charlotte does not.
Slowly we swam out into the shimmer of the lake.
Setting this sentence alone slows the reader down even further, forcing us to picture everything in great detail, continuing to heighten the tension. In the following paragraphs, phrases like "I could make out," "I knew," and "I also knew" all plant us firmly in H.H.'s knowing perspective. He refers to the potential witnesses as puppets, and it seems H.H. is the puppet-master. But after such a careful setup and plotting comes-
Simple, was it not? But what d’ye know, folks - I just could not make myself do it!
The tension breaks with a laugh! Nabokov has swum us through Humbert’s entire murderous fantasy only to say, "Just kidding!"
Nabokov has taken the whole chapter to set up this crucial paragraph - this is the point of chapter twenty:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyes gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill. Oh, my poor Charlotte, do not hate me in your eternal heaven among an eternal alchemy of asphalt and rubber and metal and stone - but thank God, not water, not water!
None of this would work had he not set us up for it in the preceding pages. Breaking the fourth wall, Nabokov again attempts to flip our cliche expectation about monstrous pedophiles on its head: Humbert Humbert is no monster. At least, that is what he wants us to believe.
Note also that he reminds us again of the “falsity” of everyday life: “We do not rape as good soldiers do.” There is so much hypocrisy in our society. The crucial argument in defense of pedophiles (with its key phrase, “physical but not necessarily coital”) deteriorates into crazy talk, H.H. wailing in his cell. He ends with a cry to Charlotte that both foreshadows her death and punches us in the gut with Humbert’s guilt.
But then the suddenly sober -
Nonetheless it was a very close shave, speaking quite objectively. And now comes the point of my perfect-crime parable.
These sudden swings in tone betray how swiftly and radically H.H.’s moods change. And the point he wants to make? The “completely indecent story” about Ivor’s nephew - Ivor’s nephew is none other than Clare Quilty.