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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Lolita!