Humbert wonders what happens to nymphets as they grow older. He describes his affair with the young prostitute Monique, which ends when Monique matures out of her nymphet phase. Humbert then encounters an aging procuress who provides him with another prostitute who, although young, isn’t a nymphet in Humbert’s view. When he tries to leave, the girl becomes angry. Humbert takes her upstairs and pays her, but he doesn’t sleep with her.
In an effort to curtail his illicit desires, Humbert decides to get married. He courts and marries a Polish doctor’s daughter named Valeria. He finds the conquest rather easy, given his good looks, but states that despite his success with adult women, he considers himself hopeless in matters of sex.
Humbert chooses Valeria because of her childlike nature and flirtatious, doll-like airs, and she quickly falls in love with him. Despite his initial attraction to her girlish personality, Humbert finds Valeria’s intellectual inferiority distasteful, and he rarely sleeps with her. After some time, an uncle dies and leaves him an inheritance, but the will includes the condition that Humbert move to America and take some interest in the uncle’s business. Valeria feels reluctant to leave Paris, though Humbert tries to convince her that she’ll enjoy America. Finally, Valeria confesses to having an affair with a taxi driver. Despite his relative indifference to Valeria, Humbert feels deeply betrayed and thinks about killing her. Courteous and apologetic, the taxi driver arrives to take Valeria away. He does not leave Humbert alone with Valeria at any moment, so Humbert can’t kill her. Valeria rather melodramatically packs her things and leaves. He later learns that Valeria died in childbirth in 1945, after she and her husband moved to California to participate in a bizarre psychological experiment.
At this point in the story, Humbert becomes distracted by the poor state of the prison library. He names some of the books available, including the Children’s Encyclopedia, which he likes for the pictures of Girl Scouts. He notes a surprising coincidence in a copy of Who’s Who in the Limelight and transcribes a page for the reader. The page includes the playwright Clare Quilty, who wrote such plays as The Little Nymph and Fatherly Love. Who’s Who claims that Quilty’s works with children are particularly notable. The transcribed page also contains an entry on Dolores Quine, and Humbert says that seeing Lolita’s given name, Dolores, still gives him a thrill. He states that his Lolita might have appeared in a play called The Murdered Playwright, and he plays word games with the names “Quine” and “Quilty.” He notes that he now has only words to play with.
Humbert recounts his travels to New York, where he takes a job transcribing French literature and writing perfume ads. He watches the nymphets in Central Park and later has a breakdown due to the stress of his job. After his release from the sanitarium, Humbert takes part in an exploratory trip to the Arctic, where he is charged with studying the psychology of his teammates. The trip improves his health, but he finds the project tedious and publishes a phony analysis of the psychological issues he was supposed to be studying. Upon his return, he has another breakdown and is institutionalized once again, where he enjoys confusing the doctors with fictional symptoms. This behavior improves his mood greatly. He stays for a few months before checking out and reentering the world.
The digression into Who’s Who in the Limelight initially seems like a diversion but, in fact, represents another narrative game on Nabokov’s part. Like the list of characters in the foreword, the meaning of the facts unearthed in the book will only become clear much later in the novel. Humbert offers clues that suggest the reason for his incarceration, in his word games (“guilty of killing Quilty”) and his offhand remark that Lolita might have appeared in a play called The Murdered Playwright. The incident contains certain clues about Quilty’s character, as well. For example, the fact that the Who’s Who notes Quilty for his plays with children will seem disturbingly ironic when the reader learns that Quilty traffics in child pornography. Though Humbert transcribes the entry on Quilty, he doesn’t pass any comment on it, remaining fixated on the name Dolores. Nabokov’s word games indicate that neither meaning nor truth will be fixed or literal. In Lolita, words become unmoored from their ostensible referents and take on new meanings, depending on their narrator and the point of view.
Humbert reveals the darker side of his personality during his adult years, which are marked with periods of anger, rage, and lust. Though Humbert speaks eloquently and persuasively, he is also prone to volcanic rages and cold, calculating cruelty. For example, his terrific anger and murderous thoughts upon learning of Valeria’s affair foreshadow his many instances of violence later in the novel. Also, Humbert alludes to several nervous breakdowns and bouts of madness. Though he attributes these breakdowns to melancholia, he does not describe them in detail, and the reader must wonder what kind of mental illness Humbert suffers from. Humbert once again dismisses the practice of psychology by playing games with the psychologists who analyze him. Yet he will describe himself as a madman numerous times, and his tenuous grasp on sanity will be tested throughout the book. Humbert’s tendency toward violence, along with his obsessive nature, will prove to be his downfall in the novel, and more powerful forces than his eloquence or his education.
Humbert’s encounters with adult women are often darkly comic. He enters into both his marriages with coldly rational motives that have little to do with love or affection. He marries Valeria because his obsession with nymphets worries him, and he wants to become a normal man. However, this attempt at normalcy fails, and he finds both his wives coarse and intellectually inferior. He does not describe his encounters with Valeria in detail, and the reader will see later in the novel that he was quite cruel to her. When Valeria confesses her infidelities in this section, however, Nabokov infuses the scene with black humor. As Humbert seethes in anger, Valeria’s taxi driver lover apologizes for his transgression in bad French and Valeria dissolves into hilariously melodramatic tears as she packs. The comic action of the scene thwarts Humbert’s attempts to demand satisfaction, but the sparing of Valeria spares Humbert, as well. Driven to laughter by the antics of the two lovers, the reader becomes distracted and shielded from the extremes of Humbert’s rage. And by not killing his wife, Humbert manages to hold onto the reader’s sympathy for a while longer.