Humbert’s tone shifts markedly in this brief chapter which deals with the scene of his departure. There’s not much to interpret here - the point of this chapter is exactly what Nabokov tells us: that the reader must keep in mind Humbert’s “gloomy good looks” in order to understand his story. But Nabokov also makes sure to hit a couple other notes - a little humor, guilt, and sentiment. In the end he brings everything back to Lolita, around whom every word of this text revolves.
From the start H.H.’s tone shifts in this chapter to a numb, pensive, sentimental mood. How does Nabokov achieve this? By dwelling on the details of place: the poplars, the thunderhead, the “livid house.” He also hits the note of closure with the phrase “for the last time” and reminds us that all this started only ten weeks ago. Ten weeks! A little unbelievable, no? Note also that no details are given about the closure of Charlotte’s estate.
And then “a funny thing happened.” With this simple phrase Nabokov quickly establishes tension, then delays gratification while reminding us - in the most meta way possible - of H.H.’s good looks. Indeed, our narrator is not only conceited but borderline narcissistic, which makes us doubt him more. He even acknowledges it:
Of course, such announcements made in the first person may sound ridiculous.
Yes. Yes, they do. And they underscore our narrator’s unreliability.
I do want to point out, as somewhat of an aside, what terrific thumbnails Nabokov writes. There have been many so far, for sure, but Jean Farlow’s struck me the most here - interestingly, Nabokov felt no need to give it to us upon first introducing her, but waited for this most relevant moment:
She was very tall, wore either slacks with sandals or billowing skirts with ballet slippers, drank any strong liquor in any amount, had had two miscarriages, wrote stories about animals, painted, as the reader knows, landscapes, was already nursing the cancer that was to kill her at thirty-three, and was hopelessly unattractive to me.
It’s just brilliant how he not only picks out the most telling details, but concludes with the relevance of all these details to H.H. - the point being that he is not attracted to her in the least. After the awkward missed kiss, Nabokov injects some levity to release the tension.
“Perhaps, somewhere, some day, at a less miserable time, we may see each other again” (Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).
The chapter ends in under 600 words, at long last hitting two important notes: H.H.’s hinted guilt over Charlotte (Nabokov set us up for this way back in chapter 20, so he needn’t waste time on it now; he only needs to hint) and his associated sentiment about Lolita, bringing it full circle (again) back to his beloved. Note, also, that the final paragraph is a single sentence of 81 words, building up to her essential name.
And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.