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Humbert departs to find Dr. Ivor Quilty. Attempting to
take a shortcut, Humbert’s car gets hopelessly stuck in a muddy
ditch. He walks several miles, in the rain, to a farmhouse and waits
for someone to pull his car out. Around midnight, he manages to
drive on, but exhaustion causes him to stop in a small town, not
far from the Enchanted Hunters hotel.
Humbert remembers a priest he once knew in Quebec, who
would discuss the nature of sin with him at length. He confesses
that, despite receiving much spiritual solace from the priest, he
himself can never forget the sinful things he inflicted on Lolita.
He claims that he will never find peace because, as he puts it,
a maniac deprived Dolores Haze of her childhood.
Humbert realizes that because he was so consumed by his
desire for her, he never really understood the real Lolita. In his
narrative, he begins addressing Lolita directly. Humbert recalls
a time, back in Beardsley, when Lolita burst into tears after witnessing
the ordinary, normal affection between her friend and her friend’s
father. Humbert realizes that even her strained relationship with
Charlotte was preferable to Lolita’s life with him and that Lolita
must miss her mother.
Humbert returns to Ramsdale. He visits the old Haze house,
now occupied by a new family with a nymphet daughter. Humbert visits Windmuller’s
office, then goes to see Dr. Ivor Quilty on the pretext of needing
some dental work. From Ivor, Humbert learns that Clare Quilty lives
in Pavor Manor, on Grimm Road. With that knowledge, he leaves Dr.
Humbert drives past Pavor Manor and imagines what kind
of scandalous, reprehensible activities must be taking place inside.
He drives back into town, to return the next morning. Through the trees,
he sees the screen of a drive-in movie. Humbert can see a man in
the film raise a gun before the trees obscure his vision.
The next day, Humbert arrives at Pavor Manor with his
loaded gun. Humbert enters the huge and extravagantly furnished
house and hunts for Quilty. Quilty emerges from a bathroom and appears unmoved
by Humbert’s requests that he recall Lolita. While Humbert explains
to Quilty why he must die, Quilty tries to distract him with clever
wordplay. Quilty lunges for the gun, and the two men wrestle. Humbert
regains control of the gun, then reads a poem detailing Quilty’s
crimes. Quilty critiques the poem and offers Humbert many bribes,
including concubines and erotic pictures. Humbert shoots, and Quilty
tries to escape, running through the house. Humbert shoots him many
times, but Quilty does not seem to die. Quilty begs for his life,
but Humbert finally kills him. Humbert realizes that he does not
feel any peace and is surprised to see a group of people sitting
in the drawing room downstairs, drinking. Humbert claims he killed
Quilty, but no one notices.
Humbert then drives off, and, out of sheer rebellion,
speeds down the wrong side of the road. He gets arrested after running
a red light and driving into a meadow. Humbert realizes that the
real tragedy is not that he has lost Lolita, but that Lolita has
been robbed of her childhood. From jail, Humbert writes that he
opposes capital punishment but would sentence himself to thirty-five
years for rape and dismiss the rest of the charges. He addresses
the last section to Lolita, telling her to be true to her husband
Dick and advising her not to talk to strangers. He also asks her
not to mourn Quilty, as he felt that killing Quilty was a public
service. He also states that, if given a choice between Quilty and
Humbert, Humbert should live, so he might chronicle this story and
immortalize Lolita through his art.
As Humbert winds down his presentation to the jury of
his readers, the question of appropriate punishment—the inevitable
conclusion to any criminal trial—must be addressed. Humbert explicitly
raises the issue of his own punishment twice in this section, first
in Chapter 31 and then again in Chapter 36. In Chapter 31, Humbert
suggests that no legal punishment could possibly prove sufficient
and appropriate for his crimes. He will personally, however, suffer
eternally under the knowledge that he is ultimately responsible
for the loss of Lolita’s childhood. In Chapter 36, Humbert recommends
that he be sentenced to thirty-five years in jail for his crimes,
though he can’t advocate the death penalty, being morally opposed
to capital punishment. The novel itself refuses to offer any closure
on the subject of Humbert’s punishment. We never see Humbert tried
in a literal courtroom, since, as we learn from the foreword to Lolita,
Humbert dies in jail before reaching trial. The novel arrests itself
at the stage of judgment, leaving the task of appraising Humbert’s
guilt and determining his sentence in our hands.
At the end of the novel, Humbert stops presenting his
case to us, the jury, and instead addresses his victim directly.
Humbert doesn’t plead for Lolita’s forgiveness, but he does attempt
to make peace with her. He tells her that he is “thinking of aurochs
and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the
refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share,
my Lolita.” Here, Humbert alludes to several figures from art history,
from the aurochs, or bison, of ancient cave paintings to the religious
iconography of the Old Masters, rendered in their “durable pigments.” Like
the “prophetic sonnets” of William Shakespeare—in which Shakespeare
predicted that his poems would life forever and that the sweetheart
described within them would likewise be immortalized—Humbert offers
his work of art as a present and penance to his darling. Humbert
and Lolita share the “immortality” of Lolita, becauseas
long as the novel exists, there will be a record that preserves
their time together. Though Humbert (and Nabokov) couldn’t have
known this at the time, Lolita has also become
a canonic masterpiece of western literature, thereby granting it another
level of immortality.
However, the question of whether Humbert’s artistic talent
can mitigate his moral guilt remains an open one. Humbert believes
that the true depravity of his crime lies in his wanton destruction
of a beautiful thing—Lolita. If he manages to recapture that lost
beauty in another beautiful creation, the novel Lolita,
can we somehow forgive the corrupt criminal Humbert? When Charlotte
dies, Humbert denies any culpability in the matter, claiming that
“poets never kill.” However, as Chapter 35 demonstrates, poets do
indeed kill. Humbert even composes an ode in honor of Quilty’s murder,
which he recites just before shooting him.
In the final lines of Chapter 36, Humbert speaks of “the
refuge of art,” and we may ask ourselves whether Humbert is indeed
attempting to take shelter within his beautiful, mazelike creation,
hiding his sinfulness within elegant prose. The novel ends with
the word Lolita, which, quite famously, opens the novel as well.
By bracketing the novel with such an explicit instance of symmetry,
Nabokov draws attention to the novel’s formal, literary qualities. Lolita doesn’t
represent a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, but a planned, controlled,
composed account of a deeply disturbing series of events. It may
seem inappropriate, then, to respond to Lolita emotionally,
even though Humbert’s agony often seems genuine and heartbreaking.
However we react to the ending of Humbert’s tale—whether we forgive
Humbert because of the obvious pain he has suffered, or because
he has created an exquisite work of art, or whether we continue
to hold him accountable for the incredible damage he has caused—Lolita forces
us to interrogate the moral aspects of art appreciation.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Lolita!