Now, at the end of Hum’s and Lo’s first cross-country voyage, Nabokov has reached the inexorable point at which he must take questions. He spends this long chapter (nearly 4,000 words!) answering the queries he anticipates the reader will have, but still uses ample foreshadowing to keep us wanting more. Here’s how he does it.
The chapter begins with Lolita’s flat rejection of Humbert, he calling her “cruel” and “frigid” (O sexism, my classic sexism!) and painting himself as a victim. But he never goes on too long without reminding us that this is only his side of things: the next paragraph begins with a direct address to the reader, reassuring us that he was indeed happy. And that is how the rest of this chapter goes: Nabokov addresses the variety of questions the reader may have at the point.
The first question, from the psychoanalytic perspective: will H.H. “take [his] Lolita to the seaside and... find there, at last, the ‘gratification’ of a lifetime urge, and release from the ‘subconscious’ obsession of an incomplete childhood romance with the initial little Miss Lee”? The answer is no. Allow me to remind you that Nabokov loathed psychoanalysis, which was very much in vogue at the time. He takes many jabs at it in this novel.
In the course of answering this question Nabokov again shatters romantic expectations. (At this point in my analysis I’m beginning to suspect a this as a theme.) Similarly, if you’re thinking of the work in terms of America v. Europe, it is America herself that fails to fulfill the European dream (a book in itself, although if we are to pursue this thread we must not H.H.’s later comment that the American wilds also possess “a quality of wide-eyed, unsung, innocent surrender” that Europe has lost). But in a twist, H.H. argues that he has already experienced this gratification:
...even had we discovered a piece of sympathetic seaside somewhere, it would have some too late, since my real liberation had occurred much earlier: at the moment, in point of fact, when Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta, had appeared to me, golden and brown, kneeling, looking up, on that shoddy veranda, in a kind of fictitious, dishonest, but eminently satisfactory seaside arrangement (although there was nothing but a second-rate lake in the neighborhood).
Nabokov proceeds to raise up romantic delusions only to sadistically shatter them: in the fifth paragraph, it’s the simple notion of sex outdoors. (Anyone who’s tried will relate.) He uses this to segue into an incident in which H.H. was almost caught with Lo, highlighting, as he writes himself, “the continuous risk and dread that ran through [his] bliss”. But more importantly, he describes an instance of H.H.’s staggering cruelty (or, viewed more favorably, ignorance):
I remember the operation was over, all over, and she was weeping in my arms; - a salurory storm of sobs after one of the fits of moodiness that had become so frequent with her in the course of that otherwise admirable year! I had just retracted some silly promise she had forced me to make in a moment of blind impatient passion, and there she was sprawling and sobbing, and pinching my caressing hand, and I was laughing happily, and the atrocious, unbelievable, unbearable, and, I suspect, eternal horror that I know now was still but a dot of blackness in the blue of my bliss…
After a quick but nevertheless sharp pull at our heartstrings for Lo’s profound suffering, Nabokov punctures that brilliant passage with a foreboding foreshadowing. (It also reminds me of the end of that Poe poem - “...when the rest of heaven was blue, of a demon in my view.” Nabokov borrowed earlier in this chapter from “Annabel Lee” with “the angels knew it.”)
This last incident and those that follow serve to answer the second question Nabokov anticipates the reader will be asking: how did H.H. avoid getting caught, and why did Lolita not run away, report him to the police, or try any other plausible escapes?
The following paragraph is pretty brilliant. First he foreshadows (“Now that I have an altogether different mess on my conscience”) before what to me recalls masculinity issues (“I know that I am a courageous man, but in those days I was not aware of it, and I remember being surprised by my own coolness”). Then he literally calls Lolita an animal he has trained [“With the quiet murmured order one gives a sweatstained distracted cringing trained animal even in the worst of plights (what mad hope or hate makes the young beast’s flanks pulsate, what black stars pierce the heart of the tamer!)”]. Nabokov ends with H.H., like so many, underestimating Lo (“swearing at me in language that I never dreamed little girls could know, let alone use”). Indeed, the whole premise of Lolita as innocent, blameless, helpless little girl is both the cause of H.H.’s undoing and the problem with any argument that this book is necessarily anti-feminist merely because of its subject matter. But I digress.
In the next paragraph, H.H. goes on about his and Lo’s moviegoing. The purpose of this paragraph, from the author’s standpoint, I believe is to highlight a. the continual differences between the pair’s cultural tastes and b. the risk of their outings, which in this case doubly serves to pour salt on Humbert’s old and festering wound of social shame.
Then another instance of near-discovery, in which Lo “beamed sweetly at [the police], as she never did at [Humbert’s] orchideous masculinity”. This right after the enraged girl has been swearing at H.H. We all deceive, after all, and again Nabokov shows us how Lo feared discovery for her own reasons.
Onto another question (paragraph 12): the legal situation. This allows Nabokov to throw in a number of doozies (“the many books on marriage, rape, adoption and so on” - a remarkable little bomb). You may have noticed that H.H. is characterizing Lolita in more and more animalistic terms, notably in this paragraph as a “pubescent pet.” But Nabokov is also allowing our narrator to become a little more unhinged: “Keep away, be a mouse, curl up in your hole” - a little prelude to how he’ll end the chapter. In this paragraph, too, as in so many, he allows H.H. to follow digressive fantasies only to snap back to the un-movielike reality.
The legal matter leads to another question: what about the Farlows, the good neighbors back home who might be looking out for Dolores Haze? But Humbert has thought of that too.
The next question is, well, what next? Nabokov has spun out the cross-country trip about as long as he can. (Despite popular representations of this book, the road trip occupies only a few chapters.) The introduction of the prospect of school is another opportunity to draw the distinction between erudite European Humbert (ah yes, classic European snobbery towards the U.S.) and American philistine Lolita.
At last, we come to the start of Humbert’s slow unraveling. He begins the paragraph by breaking the fourth wall (“I now think it was a great mistake to move east again”) with a foreboding regret and swiftly moves again into another digressive, and decidedly more sickening, fantasy about Lolitas the Second and Third. This paragraph seems meant to make us think he is now veritably insane, or else so twisted it doesn’t matter.
But then there is something unusual: Humbert actually takes a moment to reflect on his paternal performance, concluding - it may surprise some readers - that he is an utter failure as a “father”. This not because he’s using her as a sex slave (as so many women and children are still used) - no, H.H. has an incredible ability to compartmentalize - but even in conventional ways, he humbly and frankly rates himself a failure. Well, at least he knows that much.
The next paragraph answers the question: why Beardsley?
...but I did crave for a label, a background, and a simulacrum, and, as presently will become clear, there was a reason, a rather zany reason, why old Gaston Godin’s company would be particularly safe.
That dash of foreshadowing is quickly followed by the irony that it is his own and not Lolita’s safety that H.H. is concerned with.
And finally, the money question. It is curious that H.H. needs the aid of written records to report his spending when he earlier boasted of a near-eidetic memory. This, like so many casual comments (too many to note here), throws his credibility into serious doubt.
With the reader’s curiosity, Nabokov may hope, fully satisfied, he concludes on those oft-quoted sentences:
We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night - every night, every night - the moment I feigned sleep.
Why end with this? Nabokov seems to want to remind us through constant hints, despite the difficulty of seeing through the opaque haze of H.H.’s inner world, of the real victim at the center of this story. The book is not, after all, titled Humbert.
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