It is in this chapter that Nabokov finally breaks the pattern of summaries to provide us with a tension-inducing scene: Humbert’s talk with Pratt. Besides putting us readers on the edges of our seats - will H.H. finally be outed? - this chapter continues a few dichotomies: the European versus the American, appearance versus reality. It significantly deepens the dramatic irony of the novel and concludes with an electric shock.
The opening periodic sentence establishes tension immediately. Questions pop into the reader’s mind: what does Pratt know? Has Lolita snitched? Is H.H. finally going to get what’s coming to him? The rest of the opening paragraph compounds our fears with H.H.’s own. Nabokov perpetuates the tension with the second paragraph, in which he takes the time to describe Pratt’s demeanor, delaying any answers and keeping both reader and H.H. in suspense. This is further prolonged by the first snippets of dialogue, in which Pratt mentions “Dolly’s” sexual maturation but doesn’t get to the point. We, and H.H., are squirming in our seats.
Note that the European/American theme continues in the context of H.H. as he is seen by others: Pratt calls him “an old-fashioned Continental father,” and when he fails to grasp her Freudian reference (anal/genital zones of development - remember that Nabokov detested Freud) cries “That’s the old-fashioned European in you!” Every interaction between H.H. and another adult provides an opportunity for this Euro-American divide to deepen. [Similarly, Pratt divides Lolita - anal versus genital development, biological versus psychological drives. Also similarly: H.H. projects onto Pratt a “false” idea of her thinking. (But as we all know, women don’t really think! Not in 1950s America anyway.)] This difference between appearance and reality is just one theme that Nabokov has been playing with since the introduction, as we readers must always remember: what normal-appearing persons among us harbor such secrets as Humbert’s? But I digress.
Pratt’s long (564-word) description of Lolita’s teacher’s perceptions of her at school also further the appearance-versus-reality conflict. It is an an opportunity for Nabokov to insert more fragmented details about our heroine, and characterize her in the socio-academic context of Beardsley School. There is a moment of dramatic irony when Pratt says:
She has no regular home duties, I understand. Making a princess of your Dolly, Mr. Haze, eh?
For of course we readers know that she does in fact have “home duties.”
But we can’t lose sight of the fact that Pratt’s ramble is also pretty funny. “Miss Cormorant cannot decide whether Dolly has exceptional emotional control or none at all.” Lolita “simulates eye-strain to get away with scholastic incompetence.” The disagreements among the “researchers” about her maturity and capabilities, coupled with their pseudo-scientific attempts at Freudian analysis, are both highly amusing and another reminder that no one, not a single character, in this novel actually knows who Lolita truly is. She is the eponymous enigma at the very center of every chapter, even and especially those in which she does not herself appear.
The supreme comic irony is reserved, of course, for Pratt’s conclusion:
The general impression is that fifteen-year-old Dolly remains morbidly uninterested in sexual matters, or to be exact, represses her curiosity in order to save her ignorance and self-dignity… Miss Cormorant thinks, and I am inclined to agree with her, that Dolly is obsessed by sexual thoughts for which she finds no outlet.
The school faculty's oversight is at once hilarious and tragic. Thanks, Nabokov.
Next we come to the more material purpose of the meeting: Lolita’s participation in the school play, which (unknown to either H.H. or to the reader at this point) will in fact be the key to her escape. The Continental father acquiesces at last.
There is another touch of sad irony when Miss Pratt describes Lolita as “antagonistic, dissatisfied, cagey” - in fact, symptoms of her abuse tragically misdiagnosed as a disinterest in sex.
The theme of the Euro-American divide resumes after H.H.’s agreement to the play, with Pratt pointing out linguistic differences and assuming H.H.’s ignorance of obscenities. And just when Nabokov is wrapping up H.H.’s whole ordeal (poor man!), he injects more ironic humor:
Should I marry Pratt and strangle her?
(Ironic because of, obviously, his previous marriage.)
But Nabokov does not end the chapter here. Why not? Most writers would have. Yet Nabokov wishes to push the envelope just a little further and show us exactly how reckless and twisted our dear narrator really is, as he bribes Lo to give him a handjob on school property, inches from another young girl: lest we forget what Humbert Humbert really is. Any sympathy for him at this point is out of the question.
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