Lolita

by: Vladimir Nabokov

Part Two, Chapters 18–22

Summary Part Two, Chapters 18–22

The butterfly motif continues in these chapters, as Lolita transforms from girl to woman, from hapless innocent to seemingly ruthless manipulator. If the novel undergoes a shift in genre, from romance to crime thriller, Lolita’s role in the narrative shifts as well. Whereas before, Lolita represented the idealized loved one, she now represents the femme fatale, a crucial character type in the film noir genre. Femme fatales are cruel yet irresistible, and, like that category of character, Lolita grows increasingly indifferent to Humbert’s disintegration, seducing him into trusting her only to betray him, leading him to his destruction. Lolita lures Humbert to the summer production of Quilty’s play but then hides what she knows about Quilty, convincing Humbert that Quilty is actually a woman. She then defies Humbert by secretly erasing Quilty’s license plate number. Humbert’s threats and bribes are having less and less of an effect on Lolita, as she slips out of Humbert’s control. Like a classic film noir protagonist, Humbert begins to drink too much and rely too heavily on his gun.

We should note, however, that although Humbert seems to have fallen into this crime thriller unwittingly, he remains the narrator of this tale. This means that Humbert controls the shift in genre, and that the decision to cast himself as the beleaguered, hapless detective is, ultimately, his. Lolita may come across as a femme fatale in these chapters, but her inner psyche and secret intentions remain just as opaque as before: it’s never made clear whether Lolita is masterminding the whole scheme or whether she’s simply acting on Quilty’s instructions. Similarly, what Humbert interprets as a cruel plot to destroy him may, in fact, be the desperate actions of a girl trying to escape an oppressive, unhealthy situation. After all, if Humbert can convince us, his jury, that the object of his sincere devotion cruelly duped him, then he manages to cast himself as the true victim in this situation, perhaps earning our sympathy.