The purpose of this chapter is not only to introduce us to Hum and Lo’s first humble home alone together, but to showcase and even satirize the so-called “education” Lolita will receive at Beardsley. As usual, Nabokov will conclude on a foreboding note to keep us tensely curious as we continue.
First, a couple paragraphs on the house. Nabokov describes it mainly in terms of Lo’s reaction (blase as ever) and in comparison to the Haze house. Thus, as usual, everything is compared to something from the past. The comparison also serves to remind us that this is H.H.’s and Lolita’s first static residence together without Charlotte.
But the main point is Lolita’s school. There are three main panes through which to interpret it: as American versus European schooling, as a contrast between youth and age (which can be considered part of the America v. Europe theme), and through a gendered lens. (There is also the perpetually funny botching of Humbert’s and Lolita’s names.) These views serve to further the central themes of the novel, and the way Nabokov incorporates all of them into a single paragraph of monologue from a headmistress is yet another example of his mastery.
First, let’s look through the America versus Europe pane. We’re primed with Gaston Godin’s critique, though he “was seldom right in his judgment of American habitus,” and to whom the headmistress refers to as a “French genius.” Here I think Nabokov is poking a little fun at how Americans think anything vaguely French or European is implicitly superior, at least intellectually. Yet Pratt goes on to contrast her school’s education with the one H.H. (and Nabokov) himself probably received: there will be no memorization of European capitals, “musty old books,” or indeed “the mass of irrelevant topics that have traditionally been presented to young girls.” This reflects the American instinct to reject European culture, albeit in a somewhat philistine way, in order to invent a distinctly American one. (I always remember a line from a book review that Edgar Allan Poe wrote, and which Nabokov would certainly have loved: “We praise a stupid book all the better because its stupidity is American.”) In short, Dolly’s education will be practical - a very American way to be. My favorite summation of this attitude is when Pratt says, “we want our girls to communicate freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old books.” Free and live versus musty and old - what better words to contrast the new and old worlds (and implicitly, Lolita and H.H.)?
Second, to the consumerist youth culture budding in 1950s America - another major theme of this book, and an aspect of Lolita’s character which H.H. is constantly critiquing. Headmistress Pratt references generational differences a number of times: implicitly in the “system of social life” in which she claims “Dorothy Humbird” is already involved, and the constant refrains of young, girls, child, etc., versus former days, old days, you and I. Her whole point seems to be that the school is preparing a new generation students for the future (represented by Lo and by America) rather than the past (represented by Humbert and by Europe).
But my favorite is the gendered lens, for it is rich; I have to admit that Pratt’s internalized sexism humors me. My favorite lines in support of this are:
Your delightful Dolly will presently enter an age group where dates, dating date dress, date book, date etiquette, mean as much to her as, say, business, business connections, business success, mean to you…
The association between Lolita and dates versus Humbert and business is laughable, especially since, as H.H. himself states, he’s not great at business or with money. He is, in fact, more obsessed with sex and romance than Lolita is. Anyway, my other favorite is this:
The position of a star is important, but the most practical spot for an icebox in the kitchen may be even more important to the budding housewife.
Ha! But I don’t need to beat that dead horse. You’re a smart reader, and I’m sure you saw all the same gendered notes that I did. We can always speculate on Nabokov’s personal feelings (although he’s frequently cited as a “literary misogynist” - here’s an interesting study on Nabokov and women writers), this passage feels to me like a critique not only of American schooling but of the prevailing attitude towards women and girls in 1950s America.
At the end of Pratt’s monologue, of course, is an ironic turn: “What on earth can Dorothy Hummerson care for Greece and the Orient with their harems and slaves?” Ah yes, those harems and slaves to whom H.H. so often compares her. More than you think, Pratt, more than you think.
Nabokov ends, as always, on a note of foreboding (after reminding us again that we are readers, this is a book, and H.H. is an unreliable narrator), this time by describing H.H.’s “magic vista” of the schoolyard being blocked. We are left to wonder what repercussion this may have...
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