Nabokov now has a problem: he wants to get Humbert as quickly as possible from alone in Ramsdale to the Enchanted Hunters with Lolita. This chapter is one giant leap in that direction. But Nabokov isn’t attending only to the practical details: he takes this chapter as an opportunity to (1) dispel any of the reader’s presumptions about what’s going on in H.H.’s mind, (2) demonstrate just how obsessed H.H. is with the girl, and (3) spell out H.H.’s stratagem. The mood of this chapter also shifts rapidly from anxious fear to dreamy confidence to eerie suspicion to eager anticipation. Let’s take it one paragraph at a time.
The first paragraph opens:
One might suppose that with all blocks removed and a prospect of delirious and unlimited delights before me, I would have mentally sunk back, heaving a sigh of delicious relief. Eh bien, pas de tout! Instead of basking in the beams of smiling Chance, I was obsessed by all sorts of purely ethical doubts and fears.
We begin by dispelling the reader’s presumptions. “One might suppose” shakes the fourth wall a little (along with, later, “you remember”) and immediately addresses the reader’s potential presumptions. He follows by enumerating his fears, once again spelling out for us his perspective and stratagem (leaning over, showing us his cards) before acting out his scheme. He simultaneously answers a few questions of plausibility the reader may have: wouldn’t Charlotte’s death have been reported in the papers? Is H.H. legally Dolly’s guardian just because he married her late mother? Nabokov uses H.H.’s fears as a mask for answering the reader’s questions. Note also the return of third-person anxiety (“Humbert Humbert, a brand-new American citizen of obscure European origin”).
In the second paragraph H.H. describes his scheme, though he continues the theme of his fears about what could go wrong. Halfway through the paragraph he changes his mind, deciding to call the camp ahead of time; here Nabokov pauses to set the scene a little (H.H. in his car in Parkington in the rain), and has our narrator become inexplicably distracted by a fire hydrant. The aside, I can only assume, serves to remind us that Humbert is not American and something as insignificant as an American fire hydrant stands out to him. The paragraph concludes with the hint of a surprise, spurring us onward.
The third paragraph is an excellent demonstration of Nabokov’s economy when it comes to dialogue. No quotations are used, no unnecessary dawdling in the burden of chit chat and spoken detail.
Holmes, the camp mistress, informed me that Dolly had gone Monday (this was Wednesday) on a hike in the hills with her group and was expected to return rather late today. Would I care to come tomorrow, and what was exactly - Without going into details, I said that her mother was hospitalized, that the situation was grave, that the child should not be told it was grave and that she should be ready to leave with me tomorrow afternoon. The two voices parted in an explosion of warmth and good will…
As H.H. himself points out (another crack in that fourth wall), he had fabricated to the Farlows this same event - it is a wave of the authorial wand that has granted our narrator’s wish, though of course he attributes his good fortune to “McFate.” (Is McFate a codename for Nabokov himself?) Then again, do we believe our dear Humbert at all? But what is the purpose of delaying H.H.’s reunion with Lolita? Perhaps Nabokov only wants to draw out the tension, and/or to display his authorial prowess.
After such a close look inside H.H.’s mind and anxieties, Nabokov pulls the camera far back so we may watch him shop for clothes for Lolita. A third-person slip does the trick. Again, let us appreciate Nabokov’s economy when it comes to dialogue:
Did I have something special in mind? coaxing voices asked me. Swimming suits? We have them in all shades. Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, oolala black. What about playsuits? Slips? No slips. Lo and I loathed slips.
But this serves another purpose in addition to economy: it keeps us firmly in H.H.’s grasp, as we are never able to judge other characters directly, but only through his own perspective. This is a technique Nabokov uses throughout many of his novels, never allowing us to escape his characters’ solipsism.
Next we leap from the previous dreamy paragraph to one of anthropometric detail, justified by (“the reader remembers”) that Know-Your-Child book. H.H.’s iteration of Lolita’s measurements demonstrates just how obsessed he is with her, for not only does he know exactly how he wishes to dress her (She is his doll.) but also every detail of her body, as if he has undressed her already. In the next paragraph, Nabokov further justifies H.H.’s knowledge of both Lolita and girls’ fashions before mentioning saleswomen’s surprise. Thus this little display of social cunning:
...so, when shown a skirt with two “cute” pockets in front, I intentionally put a naive male question and was rewarded by a smiling demonstration of the way the zipper worked in the back of the skirt.
Not only is H.H. playing on gender stereotypes, but Nabokov leads us naturally to think of when and how H.H. will use this piece of information. “Humbert, the popular butcher.”
The seventh paragraph dwells on the glory of the American shopping mall. The dreaminess of the previous few paragraphs become an eerie nightmare. In the eighth, Humbert remembers the Enchanted Hunters and delineates for us the details. His telegram reminds us to imagine how he and Lolita will appear together from an outsider’s perspective:
What should I put: Humbert and daughter? Humberg and small daughter? Homberg and immature girl? Homburg and child?
The morphing of his name denotes further deceit. Clever Homberg! The final paragraph serves to remind us again of H.H.’s secret weapon: the sleeping pills. Thus the tension is heightened even further, and we are left to anticipate the coming appointment.