Part One, Chapters 16–22
Summary: Chapter 16
Still reeling from Lolita’s kiss, Humbert is handed a note by the maid, Louise. Charlotte Haze has written him a letter, confessing her love for him and asking that he leave—unless he reciprocates the feeling and marries her. Humbert goes into Lolita’s room and looks at the clippings on the wall. One of the men in the pictures resembles Humbert, and Lolita has written “H. H.” on it.
Summary: Chapter 17
Humbert considers marrying Charlotte so he can stay close to Lolita. He even toys with the idea of giving both mother and daughter sleeping pills in order to fondle Lolita. He would stop short, he thinks, of having sex with the girl. Humbert decides to marry Charlotte and calls the summer camp to tell her. However, Charlotte has already left, and he reaches Lolita instead. He informs her that he plans to marry her mother. Lolita seems distracted and not particularly interested—she has already forgotten about Humbert at camp. However, Humbert believes he will win her back after the wedding. He makes himself a drink and waits for Charlotte to return.
Summary: Chapter 18
Charlotte and Humbert become lovers and start planning the wedding. Charlotte quizzes him on whether he’s a good Christian and says she will commit suicide if he isn’t. Charlotte enjoys the prestige of being engaged to Humbert and waits on him hand and foot. Humbert states that he actually enjoys some aspects of the affair and that it seems to improve Charlotte’s looks. Humbert tells himself that this helps him get as close as possible to Lolita. Charlotte responds to the engagement by becoming highly social and redecorating the house. Charlotte doesn’t have very many close friends besides John and Jean Farlow, whose niece, Rosaline, goes to school with Lolita.
Summary: Chapter 19
Humbert describes Charlotte further and mentions that she is about to suffer a bad accident. Humbert finds Charlotte extremely jealous, as she asks him to confess all his previous relationships and mistresses. Humbert makes up some stories to satisfy her romantic notions. He grows used to Charlotte, but her constant criticism of Lolita still secretly upsets him.
Summary: Chapter 20
Charlotte and Humbert go to the nearby lake in the last week of summer. Charlotte confesses that she wants to get a real maid and send Lolita off to boarding school. Humbert seethes quietly but, afraid of repeating his experience with Valeria, doesn’t want to intimidate her. He considers killing her there at the lake but cannot bring himself to do so. Jean and John Farlow join them, and Jean tells of seeing two young people embracing by the water. She starts to tell a story of Ivor Quilty’s nephew but gets interrupted.
Summary: Chapter 21
Humbert tries the silent treatment on Charlotte, to no effect. However, when she decides they will go to England in the fall, Humbert argues against it, and she immediately becomes contrite for making plans without him. Regaining some control in the relationship pleases Humbert. Charlotte tries to be near him as much as possible and mentions going to stay at a hotel called the Enchanted Hunters. She wonders why he locks the small table in his study. Humbert teases her by saying it contains love letters. Later, Humbert worries whether the table’s key remains secure in its hiding place.
Summary: Chapter 22
Charlotte informs Humbert that Lolita can only begin attending boarding school in January. Meanwhile, Humbert visits a doctor and pretends to have insomnia, in order to procure stronger sleeping pills to use on Lolita and Charlotte. When he returns from the appointment, he finds that Charlotte has broken into the table in his study and found the journal in which he details his lust for Lolita. Bitterly angry, she threatens to leave with Lolita, having already written some letters. Humbert goes into the kitchen to mix a drink and decides to tell Charlotte that the journal was merely part of a novel he’s working on. Just as he finishes the drink, the phone rings, and a man informs Humbert that Charlotte has been run over by a car.
A combination of melodramatic gestures, laughable attempts at world-weary refinement, and sincere, naked emotion, Charlotte’s letter to Humbert provides insight into both the woman she really is and the woman she would like to be. The letter also predicts the future in some uncanny ways. In the letter, Charlotte mentions that while Humbert is reading her letter, she’ll probably be speeding home in her car and risking an accident, a fate she does indeed suffer at the end of Chapter 22. Similarly, she tells Humbert that if he tries to seduce her without reciprocating her genuine affection, he would be worse than a kidnapper who rapes a child, which Humbert will indeed become. Surprisingly, the letter also highlights certain shared characteristics between Charlotte and Humbert. Even as he scoffs at it, the passionate prose and uncontrolled emotion of Charlotte’s letter echoes Humbert’s own rhapsodizing of Lolita, though much less skillfully. Both Charlotte and Humbert are propelled by their own poetic, romantic fantasies, rather than a genuine connection to the people they profess to adore. When Charlotte discovers Humbert’s secret, for example, she feels jealous that Humbert would prefer Lolita to herself. The fact that an adult man yearns to molest her daughter seems to be of far less consequence to her. Like Humbert, Charlotte is blinded by a passion that seems more directed at herself than the people around her.
Through Charlotte and her reactions to the impending marriage, Nabokov mocks the bourgeois values of American domesticity. Despite her attempts at sophistication, Charlotte’s preoccupations before and after her marriage show the power of her middle-class sensibilities. First, she must assure herself of Humbert’s religious faith, which she mistakenly sees as a sign of his good character. She devotes herself to becoming a prominent member of the community by holding tea parties and garnering mentions in the society column. She fervently cleans and redecorates the house according to rules and tips she finds in catalogues and decorating manuals. With these efforts, Charlotte attempts to create an air of respectability about her, befitting society’s expectations for the satisfied wife of a prominent man. Humbert describes the town of Ramsdale as idyllic and as artificially peaceful as a town depicted on sitcoms. Under the surface, however, dark emotions prevail, and despite Charlotte’s attempt to remake her life in the image of a perfect, American nuclear family, the façade soon crumbles.
In these chapters, McFate—the particularly American mix of chance, destiny, and coincidence that Humbert distinguishes as a guiding force in his life—seems to show its hand with increasing frequency. At the same time, in its seemingly anarchic unpredictability, McFate serves as a counterpoint to the characters’ grander attempts at finding systematic meaning in their lives. For example, Charlotte demands that Humbert “erase” his past romances so that nothing can obstruct his affection for her, the woman destined to be his soulmate. However, in bringing Humbert to Charlotte, McFate has also brought Lolita to Humbert, and the girl will eventually displace Charlotte and become what Charlotte always wanted to be: the love of Humbert’s life. In a particularly cruel twist, McFate will also mercilessly dispatch with Charlotte by sending her into the path of an oncoming car, conveniently clearing the way for her daughter’s usurpation of her place by Humbert’s side. Like many other characters in the novel, such as Annabel or Humbert’s mother, Charlotte is killed off suddenly and with little fanfare, as if she has fulfilled her purpose and become obsolete to the narrative. Considering that Lolita doesn’t represent an objective account of the given events, but rather Humbert Humbert’s specific, biased view of those events, this harsh summation of Charlotte Haze as a one-dimensional composite seems appropriate. Though Humbert acknowledges McFate’s capricious nature, he assumes that Charlotte’s death has set him free so he can be with Lolita forever. Humbert won’t always be able to rely on McFate’s help, however, though he will never free himself from its influence.
Though he continually attempts to justify himself to us, the readers of Lolita, Humbert’s cunning and deceitful nature hampers our ability to trust him fully. More than once, Humbert has proven himself willing to create fictional accounts in order to satisfy the public. He lies in his career, such as with his phony Arctic report, and to those trying to help him, such as the doctors in the sanitarium. Of course, he must constantly create fictions in order to distract others from his pedophilia. When Charlotte attempts the grand, romantic gesture of “erasing” their past loves, Humbert’s willingness to invent a past yet again indicates his unreliability as a narrator. Humbert’s deception represents one more kind of game-playing in Lolita, and we must question whether his willingness to lie to other characters in the novel extends to a willingness to lie to us. If we as readers truly are Humbert’s jury, as he himself calls us, than we should bear in mind that this book represents not just a confession—as the subtitle, Confession of a White Widowed Male, suggests—but also a potential attempt to sway our judgment and soften our harsh critique of a confessed pedophile, rapist, and murderer.
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