Humbert finally tracks Lolita down to a small, clapboard house on Hunter Road. Lolita has grown taller and wears glasses now, and is hugely pregnant. Though she has matured past the nymphet stage, Humbert realizes he still loves her deeply. Humbert sees Lolita’s husband, Dick, a simple working man, outside in the yard. Lolita tells Humbert that Dick knows nothing about their past sexual relationship. Humbert realizes that Dick didn’t abduct Lolita from the hospital, and Lolita, wanting Humbert’s financial help, confesses that the man who took her was the playwright Clare Quilty.
Lolita describes Quilty as the great love of her life. She tells Humbert that Quilty knew Charlotte and had come to Ramsdale many times to visit his uncle, Ivor Quilty, the dentist. Dick comes inside the house, and Lolita introduces Humbert as her father. Humbert realizes that he bears the man no ill will. When Dick returns outside, Lolita continues her story. After she ran away with Quilty, she lived on his ranch with his friends, all of whom engaged in strange sexual practices. Lolita refused to participate, claiming that she only loved Quilty, and Quilty kicked her out. She found work as a waitress and eventually met Dick. Humbert realizes that he will love Lolita until he dies and begs her to come away with him. Lolita thinks Humbert might give her money if she goes to a motel with him, but Humbert says he’ll give her the money regardless of her answer and hands her four thousand dollars. Lolita is excited by the money but firmly and gently refuses to go away with Humbert, saying she would rather go back to Quilty. Humbert leaves her with the money and drives off, weeping.
These chapters continue to play with the idea that Lolita has transformed into a detective novel. After losing Lolita, Humbert goes on a wild goose chase, retracing their previous road trips. He uncovers seemingly incredible coincidences, such as when he realizes that he and Lolita met at 342 Lawn Street, consummated their relationship in Room 342 of the Enchanted Hunters hotel, and registered in 342 hotels across the United States. However, these clues don’t add up to anything. In the end, the presence of these incessant, repetitive numbers shows that Humbert was right, and McFate did indeed play a role in his journey. Beyond that, they represent nothing more than a meaningless string of fascinating flukes.
Similarly, the clues that Lolita’s abductor has scattered along the way prove to be nothing more than teases, providing insights into the personality of the kidnapper but no concrete evidence as to his identity. We learn that the mysterious stranger is witty and well read, and shares Humbert’s own interest in puns and word games. However, the anagrams, Latin phrases, and literary allusions seem to do nothing more than proclaim their own presence, since Humbert eventually gives up on the prospect of finding Lolita. The mystery of Lolita’s disappearance can’t be solved by any ordinary kind of investigation, as we learn from the comically ineffectual detective Humbert ends up hiring. Long after any information might have proved useful, the private eye reports “an eighty-year-old Indian by the name of Bill Brown lived near Dolores, Colo.” The fake registry entry for a “Will Brown, Dolores, Colo.” ends up having an unexpected basis in reality, but the connection remains a specious one; for all the names and numbers Humbert collects, they end up amounting to nothing more than “nonsense data.”
Humbert’s reaction to losing Lolita, as well as his reaction to seeing her again, exemplifies just how complicated his feelings for Lolita truly are. Over the course of the novel, Humbert has always strived to demonstrate that he’s not a common pedophile. For example, he grants his desire mythic qualities, describing the objects of his affection as magical creatures capable of bewitching a man. Humbert believes that, rather than signifying some kind of deviant tendency, his love for young girls demonstrates his refined aesthetic sense. By linking all subsequent girls to the original girl, Annabel Leigh, Humbert also situates the girls within the dramatic narrative arc of his own life. The nymphets become symbols of Humbert’s deep, innate romanticism, not victims of his abnormal appetites. In this section of the novel, his attitude toward nymphets changes. Now that he’s lost Lolita, Humbert still finds himself sexually drawn to young girls, but he suppresses that craving more forcefully and can’t imagine copulating with them anymore. When he sees her again, he realizes that Lolita is now long past her nymphet phase, yet he finds that he’s still smitten with her. It’s up to the reader, as Humbert’s jury, to decide whether this devotion constitutes a genuinely selfless love and, if so, whether that excuses Humbert’s crimes.
Similarly, we have to determine whether Clare Quilty’s crimes are categorically worse than Humbert’s. Humbert would argue that his feelings for Lolita are authentically romantic, while Clare’s are basely sexual. Humbert has always situated his relationship with Lolita in a larger artistic context, comparing the two of them to figures from literature and history. Clare is an artist as well but produces the kind of art Humbert denigrates as vulgar and unsubtle. Given that Humbert has always tried—unsuccessfully—to cultivate a taste for fine art in Lolita, the fact that Lolita believes Clare to be a “genius” seems cruelly ironic. Humbert feels disgusted by Clare’s attempt to use his status as an artist to shield and excuse his perverse behavior. However, Humbert is just as guilty of artistically manipulating the situation. After all, Lolita is not a straightforward, disinterested account of the events in question. Humbert has taken literature, his chosen medium, and fashioned a piece of art that beguiles its audience as cleverly as Lolita beguiles him.