This is the McFateful chapter in which Charlotte is killed. But Nabokov never keeps things quite that simple, does he? As the chapter continues into the aftermaths of the accident - including what to do with Dolly - our author makes extremely clear to us just how deceptive our narrator can be.
First, the point in question: we left the last chapter on a cliffhanger, and Nabokov does not expect that we’ve taken a break to make a cup of tea. The action continues - but why the chapter break in the first place? I place my bet on the fact that it just increases tension, propelling the narrative forward. Two long sentences (169 words; 162 words) take up the bulk of this first paragraph, and at both starts of which Nabokov takes pains to remind us that this is all coming from a manipulative and unreliable source: Humbert Humbert.
I have to put the impact of an instantaneous vision into a sequence of words; their physical accumulation in the page impairs the actual flash, the sharp unity of impression:...
And again at the start of the second long sentence:
At this point, I should explain…
Above all, dear reader, we are reminded to question H.H.’s veracity.
We are also left to wonder: why did Leslie go through the pain of calling by phone, rather than walking the few yards to the Humbert residence? He clearly believed Mr. Humbert was home. It must have taken longer for him to call than it would to run over in person. Perhaps he feared H.H.’s reaction, but more likely Nabokov simply found it more dramatically effective.
It is also in this first paragraph that H.H. refers, for the first and only time, to Charlotte by her new legal name: Charlotte Humbert. Indeed, throughout the book and especially in this chapter, Nabokov uses naming and the terming of subjects very astutely, each change reframing the character in a new light, often under the light in which other characters perceive them: H.H. is the widower and later the distraught father; Charlotte is at first Charlotte Humbert but reverts to Charlotte Becker; Lolita is the child, his daughter, or his stepdaughter, depending on who’s asking. This is an expert little trick.
In the second paragraph, as per usual in highly emotional scenes, H.H. slips into third person (becoming “the widower”). One must appreciate here the alliteration of “bone, brains, bronze hair and blood.” The Farlows are painted slightly different shades: John is “gentle,” Jean “dewey-eyed,” and they are suddenly H.H.’s “friends.” What caught my attention here was the last sentence:
The sun was still a blinding red when he was put to bed in Dolly’s room by his two friends, gentle John and dewy-eyed Jean; who, to be near, retired to the Humberts’ bedroom for the night; which, for all I know, they may not have spent as innocently as the solemnity of the occasion required.
Pull back and ask: why does Nabokov place Humbert in Lolita’s room and the Farlows in the Humberts’ room? Firstly, the Farlows play an important, and importantly cloying, role in the aftermath of Charlotte’s death, standing in as representatives of the community. How society perceives H.H. is, after all, extremely important in this tale. (As John Ray, Jr. noted in the Foreword: this book “should make all of us - parents, social workers, educators - apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”) We are constantly shifting our views of Humbert in this kaleidoscopic novel from the point of view of society to Humbert himself and back again, perhaps still more. That has thus far been nowhere more apparent than in this chapter.
Secondly, what stands out to me in the note that the Farlows may not have spent the night “as innocently as the solemnity of the occasion required.” I can only guess at Nabokov’s intention here, but I believe the point is that no one is ever innocent or a paradigm of propriety - life goes on, people are people, and they will always have sex, perhaps with some “inappropriate” fetishes.
The third brief paragraph again pulls us out of the narrative to break the fourth wall; it also establishes a small amount of tension in anticipation of the postmortem “incidents.”
The first of these addresses the mystery of the three (a fairy tale number) letters that Charlotte carried en route to her death. These fragments serve only to give us a fleeting glimpse into her last thoughts and plans, both for Lolita and for herself and her marriage. Interestingly, just as she had pointed out to her husband countless times the dangerous cracks in the pavement, she also apparently had a slight intimation of her coming death.
Besides taking care of the necessary details of his plans for Lo and the community’s (via the Farlows’) perception of the situation, the remainder of the chapter is devoted to displaying H.H.’s prowess as a mastermind of deception and manipulation. He even acknowledges it himself: “Oh, what a crafty Humbert!”
But the Farlows are not the only dupes. In my view, the most important line in the chapter - and one of the most important in the whole book - is this:
“Look,” he continued, “why don’t I drive there right now, and you may sleep with Jean” - (he did not really add that but Jean supported his offer so passionately that it might be implied).
He did not really add that, but it might be implied! How easily H.H. can lie to us!
I won’t insult your intelligence by delineating every little instance of H.H.’s deception; you can spot them all easily enough. There are just two other things I want to point out in this chapter.
One is the couple paragraphs in which Mr. Beale comes to exonerate himself before the widower.
With his hummingbird pencil deftly and delicately flying from one point to another, Frederick demonstrated his absolute innocence and the recklessness of my wife: while he was in the act of avoiding the dog, she had slipped on the freshly watered asphalt and plunged forward whereas she should have flung herself not forward but backward (Fred showed how by a jerk of his padded shoulder).
This is a class act in victim blaming. When it occurred to me I at first thought, “Am I being too feminist about this?” But look how ridiculous this lie is! She flung herself? In the wrong direction? How absurd! (Similarly, H.H. in the previous chapter tried to call Charlotte crazy, and earlier in this chapter, he worried that “unpredictable Lo” might distrust him - when in fact she would be absolutely right to do so. Females in this novel are consistently painted as crazy - or any other word you’d like to substitute - when in fact their judgments are spot-on. And then a manslaughterer blames them for being manslaughtered.)
Lastly, Humbert refers again to fate - “fat fate’s formal handshake” - which he occasionally invokes throughout the book. That devilish “force”, Aubrey McFate, is responsible for many things according to H.H. - and his worst aspect appears in the form of Clare Quilty. Dear readers, the ride is not yet over.