Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Nabokov has done it. He’s gotten Humbert Humbert and his Lolita to the Enchanted Hunters Hotel. This is the pinnacle of all we have experienced so far: H.H.’s Annabel phase, his long periods of fear and self-loathing, his dissatisfying attempts to satiate his lust, his horrible marriage to and divorce from dear Valechka, his discovery of Lolita, the long ordeal of the Haze house, the torture of marriage, the sudden windfall of Charlotte’s death, getting to the damn camp, picking Lolita up, finally depositing her in Room 342 of the Enchanted Hunters… and still we wait some more. Most writers would have given readers what they wanted (or refused to admit that they wanted) by now. Not Nabokov. No, Nabokov is just twisted enough to draw out the anticipation for a few more pages. In those pages, though, he makes some important points.
So the first use of this chapter is for Nabokov to delay, delay, delay, thereby heightening the tension and putting the reader on the edge of their seat. He also, importantly, breaks down the fourth wall by addressing the reader directly and repeatedly in the first two paragraphs.
But the second, and very important, use of this chapter is to show us how conflicted H.H. feels. After planting doubts in the reader’s mind as to Lolita’s “purity” (Interestingly, H.H. makes a common feminist argument against the whole concept of a girl’s “purity.” Moreover, he implies that Lolita is being deceitful about hers, unlike the truly innocent Annabel.) and the naturalness of adolescent sexuality (with his lamentations about the loss of “Ancient World” customs and the recency of “new customs and new laws”), he spells out his inner conflict in four sentences:
Therefore (to retrieve the thread of this explanation) the moralist in me by-passed the issue by clinging to conventional notions of what twelve-year-old girls should be. The child therapist in me (a fake, as most of them are - but no matter) regurgitated neo-Freudian hash and conjured up a dreaming and exaggerating Dolly in the “latency” period of girlhood. Finally, the sensualist in me (a great and insane monster) had no objection to some depravity in his prey. But somewhere behind the raging bliss, bewildered shadows conferred - and not to have heeded them, this is what I regret!
Did you catch that? In him is the moralist - why, that’s you, dear reader! Nabokov here directly acknowledges all your counterarguments about the sanctity of childhood chastity. He spins that around by painting Humbert the Moralist as innocent and in fact deceived by Lo, as if he is the child and she the manipulative adult!
Then, of course, an appeal to liberal pop-psych in vogue at the time - the “neo-Freudian hash” that Nabokov has repeatedly ridiculed in this book. Thus he acknowledges still another type of reader’s arguments.
The “great and insane monster” is, of course, exactly how we wish to see Humbert - to distance ourselves from him, to paint him as infinitely Other, inhumanly nonhuman.
And last, the bewildered shadows - yes, society at large, or what Freud would call the superego.
And regret. Regret! (And here the third use of this chapter - ) This is the boldest H.H. has ever stated his regret. Why? Remarkably, Nabokov tells us exactly why - he tells us exactly how this novel will end:
Human beings, attend! I should have understood that Lolita had already proved to be something quite different from innocent Annabel, and that the nymphean evil breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had prepared for my secret delectation, would make the secrecy impossible, and the delectation lethal. I should have known (by the signs made to me by something in Lolita - the real child Lolita or some haggard angel behind her back) that nothing but pain and horror would result from the expected rapture. Oh, winged gentlemen of the jury!
Now did you catch that? Secrecy is impossible. Delectation will prove lethal. The rapture will result in nothing but pain and horror. Do you remember that transparent Foreword? This has been a tragedy from the start. We have always known that it would end badly for all involved.
And yet we read on. Is there any greater display of mastery than this?
Then Nabokov, as he so often does, switches from H.H.’s thoughtful lamentations abruptly to detail a specific image (Lolita waiting unconscious in the bed), heightening our anticipation further.
Then to action. He is wandering down the halls. The reference to “some rival devil” is to Quilty, whom he’ll meet on the next page. He speaks to a man in the restroom, to Mr. Potts, to the hostess (all of which provide small comic relief), and we get the impression that such witnesses may soon be called upon to testify. We may then remember that we’re hearing only H.H.’s side of the story.
In the next (sixth) paragraph H.H. encounters an echo of Lolita, another nymphet, “a most pleasurable antiphony (in terms of spinal music) to my desire for Lolita.” Yes, exactly. This hotel does indeed feel enchanted. So different from Lolita, she has the good sense to turn away.
And then the encounter with Quilty. Appel writes perfectly in his Annotated Lolita that “their verbal sparring telescopes their pursuit of one another and prefigures the physical struggle” at the end of the book. We also see some of Nabokov’s verbal genius, but wonder how H.H. should remember such a brief conversation so perfectly.
The point of the photograph at the end? It’ll appear later, in chapter 26 of part 2. H.H. will not, in fact, be immortalized; but Quilty’s “spectral shoulder” will.
And now H.H. is back in room 342, the whole chapter has been one long loop, a time-out from the narrative arc, and we have returned to where we started…
So we see that Nabokov has achieved the main goal of this chapter - to heighten tension even further. He’s thrown in some fairy tale elements and references to aging (these I did not bother to detail), but more importantly, he has communicated H.H.’s inner conflict, planted seeds of doubt and conflict in the reader’s own mind, and emphasized H.H.’s regret even as he tells us exactly how this story will end.
This literary pursuit takes hundreds of hours of work and my nonprofit day job doesn't pay much. If you find this dissection useful or interesting, please consider buying me a cup of coffee to help me get through the next chapter. :p