The Insatiable Booksluts Read Lolita: Book One, Chapters 17-33
When last we saw Humbert Humbert, he had just received Charlotte Haze’s letter professing her deep and undying love for him and begging him to move out before she returns from driving Lo to summer camp, because she knows he doesn’t share her feelings.
[ed. note – Once again, please keep the comments to the chapters covered in this section or those before. Any comments that spoil later sections of the book will be removed or edited. Thanks! sj]
Or does he?
Actually no, she’s right, he doesn’t. But Humbert knows that marrying her is a fantastic way to stay close to Lo, and it would also grant him certain indulgences that would no longer seem overtly inappropriate: “I imagined (under conditions of new and perfect visibility) all the casual caresses her mother’s husband would be able to lavish on his Lolita.” So he goes right on ahead and marries Charlotte. And actually, it’s not too bad. She doesn’t do much for him sexually (as a woman above the age of consent, she is entirely too old for his taste) but he gets by, and if it isn’t a thrill a minute, he at least isn’t miserable in his life with her.
Then Charlotte reveals that she’s sending Lo to boarding school in the fall. Uh-oh. At this point, Humbert knows it’s time to stop playing such a passive role in the relationship and begins deliberating on what to do. He thinks about murdering Charlotte, but he can’t do it. Why? That’s where it gets rich: “The majority of offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior…we are not sex fiends!” Oh, right, got it. They’re just timid, harmless guys who want to molest little girls. They’re not monsters, like the kind of people who would murder somebody. Humbert’s already said and done some pervy stuff by this point in the story, but this section in chapter 20 where he tries to invoke sympathy and–dare I say it–pity for him and his creepy hebephilic desires disgusted me. Up until this part, I found him to be squicky at times, as one must, but he also had a charm and charisma that made me want to like him in spite of myself. His old-world snobbery and witty, judgmental inner dialogue made me laugh. But this was the part where I began to shut down and I thought, “Okay, you can make me laugh with your funny little snide comments, but do NOT expect me to play along while you try to describe yourself as innocuous and ‘practically harmless.’ No dice.” The very idea becomes even more outrageous when, a few pages later, we find Humbert visiting his doctor to procure some weapons-grade sleeping pills so he can drug Lolita before molesting her. You know, to protect her purity.
All plans are derailed, however, when Charlotte discovers Humbert’s journal that details his obsessive lust for her daughter. He walks in on her writing some letters in a very agitated state, and when she runs across the street to put them in the mailbox, she is hit by a car and killed. Humbert asserts himself as Lolita’s guardian, and he goes to pick her up at camp. He plans to take her to a hotel and carry out his original drugs-and-molestation plan.
This, my friends, is where things get crazy.
From pretty much the moment Lolita gets in the car in chapter 27, things are a little out of control. She plants a kiss on her stepfather that is decidedly un-daughterly, and shortly thereafter remarks, “Say, wouldn’t Mother be absolutely mad if she found out we were lovers?” Cheeky! Moments later, in recapping her camp experience, she says, “I am absolutely filthy in thought, word, and deed.” (At this point I’m thinking, what kind of camp was this? This girl is twelve.) Humbert takes her to the hotel*, buys her dinner, and gives her a sleeping pill that he says is a vitamin. But the pills aren’t nearly as powerful as he was led to believe; Lo goes to sleep, but not deeply enough for him to carry out his plan. So after a very uncomfortable, virtually sleepless night for Humbert, morning comes and he discovers that Lolita is not the unsullied, innocent little thing he (and we) assumed. She’s been busy at summer camp with such activities as repeatedly having sex with a 13-year-old boy named Charlie Holmes (taking turns with another girl, because sharing is caring). She “seduces” Humbert, and they have sex.
This scene was immensely upsetting to me. Lolita brings up the subject of sex as though it’s an esoteric childhood game. “You mean you never did it when you were a kid?” she asks. She is so young and uninformed that she doesn’t seem to understand what sex is in any sense beyond the pure mechanics of it. It’s just a thing you can do that’s “sort of fun.” And to make matters worse, Humbert does nothing to disabuse her of this idea. He plays along and pretends that he’s never tried this thing she’s talking about. Humbert feels like he’s off the hook because Lolita has already been deflowered so he’s not stealing her purity. “Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover.” He makes a point of mentioning that she is the one who initiates the sex, as if that makes a difference, as if that makes this not statutory rape. And then there are the moral acrobatics he performs in a further attempt to rationalize why what he did isn’t wrong. Studies have shown that in cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Cincinnati, girls are physically mature at Lolita’s age, and she was born less than 300 miles from Cincinnati, so hey, GREEN LIGHT. “Why then this horror that I cannot shake off?” Perhaps it’s because you’re a hebephile and you just committed statutory rape against your own stepdaughter, Humbert.** That might have something to do with it. Physical maturity is not the only factor to consider when it comes to sex.
We leave them on the road together at the end of book one, Humbert fending off guilt and paranoia and buying Lolita heaps of things in an attempt to keep her happy and quiet. Ultimately she’s his, though, because she has nowhere else to go.
The story is upsetting and frustrating, but I will also admit that it is utterly fascinating, and Nabokov’s writing is blowing me away. It’s beautiful and lyrical, with no strange, jarring word choices or awkward syntax to be found anywhere. It flows effortlessly, describing everything (even the naughty parts) with gorgeous poeticism. I think his ability to describe lewd and explicit acts without using lewd or explicit language is truly impressive. Interesting how a book can be appalling and brilliant at the same time, no?
I’ve seen Humbert Humbert described many times as a sympathetic character, and we had an interesting discussion about that in the comments of Samantha’s post last week. Can there be any sympathy for the devil here? Is your initial opinion of him changing? I think there is clearly some mental illness in play–does that factor into the equation when judging his actions? What else is on your mind, now that we’re about halfway through the book?
* Called The Enchanted Hunters, which is an entirely apt name given the men that are staying there that night. Also, notice that when the clerk believes HH’s name to be Humberg (a Jewish name), they are suddenly full for the evening, a room only opens up once he’s been corrected.
** Lots of Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass-type imagery in this whole section, which was apparently done on purpose. Nabokov called him “Lewis Carroll Carroll because he was the first Humbert Humbert.”