Lolita – Part One, Chapters 16–22

Summary: Chapter 16
Still reeling from Lolita’s kiss, Humbert is handed a
note by the maid, Louise. Charlotte Haze has written him a letter,
confessing her love for him and asking that he leave—unless he reciprocates
the feeling and marries her. Humbert goes into Lolita’s room and
looks at the clippings on the wall. One of the men in the pictures
resembles Humbert, and Lolita has written “H. H.” on it.
Summary: Chapter 17
Humbert considers marrying Charlotte so he can stay close
to Lolita. He even toys with the idea of giving both mother and
daughter sleeping pills in order to fondle Lolita. He would stop
short, he thinks, of having sex with the girl. Humbert decides to
marry Charlotte and calls the summer camp to tell her. However,
Charlotte has already left, and he reaches Lolita instead. He informs
her that he plans to marry her mother. Lolita seems distracted and
not particularly interested—she has already forgotten about Humbert
at camp. However, Humbert believes he will win her back after the
wedding. He makes himself a drink and waits for Charlotte to return.
Summary: Chapter 18
Charlotte and Humbert become lovers and start planning
the wedding. Charlotte quizzes him on whether he’s a good Christian
and says she will commit suicide if he isn’t. Charlotte enjoys the
prestige of being engaged to Humbert and waits on him hand and foot. Humbert
states that he actually enjoys some aspects of the affair and that
it seems to improve Charlotte’s looks. Humbert tells himself that
this helps him get as close as possible to Lolita. Charlotte responds
to the engagement by becoming highly social and redecorating the
house. Charlotte doesn’t have very many close friends besides John
and Jean Farlow, whose niece, Rosaline, goes to school with Lolita.
Summary: Chapter 19
Humbert describes Charlotte further and mentions that
she is about to suffer a bad accident. Humbert finds Charlotte extremely
jealous, as she asks him to confess all his previous relationships
and mistresses. Humbert makes up some stories to satisfy her romantic notions.
He grows used to Charlotte, but her constant criticism of Lolita
still secretly upsets him.
Summary: Chapter 20
Charlotte and Humbert go to the nearby lake in the last
week of summer. Charlotte confesses that she wants to get a real
maid and send Lolita off to boarding school. Humbert seethes quietly
but, afraid of repeating his experience with Valeria, doesn’t want
to intimidate her. He considers killing her there at the lake but
cannot bring himself to do so. Jean and John Farlow join them, and
Jean tells of seeing two young people embracing by the water. She
starts to tell a story of Ivor Quilty’s nephew but gets interrupted.
Summary: Chapter 21
Humbert tries the silent treatment on Charlotte, to no
effect. However, when she decides they will go to England in the
fall, Humbert argues against it, and she immediately becomes contrite
for making plans without him. Regaining some control in the relationship pleases
Humbert. Charlotte tries to be near him as much as possible and
mentions going to stay at a hotel called the Enchanted Hunters. She
wonders why he locks the small table in his study. Humbert teases
her by saying it contains love letters. Later, Humbert worries whether
the table’s key remains secure in its hiding place.
Summary: Chapter 22
Charlotte informs Humbert that Lolita can only begin attending boarding
school in January. Meanwhile, Humbert visits a doctor and pretends
to have insomnia, in order to procure stronger sleeping pills to
use on Lolita and Charlotte. When he returns from the appointment,
he finds that Charlotte has broken into the table in his study and
found the journal in which he details his lust for Lolita. Bitterly
angry, she threatens to leave with Lolita, having already written
some letters. Humbert goes into the kitchen to mix a drink and decides
to tell Charlotte that the journal was merely part of a novel he’s
working on. Just as he finishes the drink, the phone rings, and
a man informs Humbert that Charlotte has been run over by a car.
A combination of melodramatic gestures, laughable attempts
at world-weary refinement, and sincere, naked emotion, Charlotte’s letter
to Humbert provides insight into both the woman she really is and
the woman she would like to be. The letter also predicts the future
in some uncanny ways. In the letter, Charlotte mentions that while
Humbert is reading her letter, she’ll probably be speeding home
in her car and risking an accident, a fate she does indeed suffer at
the end of Chapter 22. Similarly, she tells Humbert that if he tries to
seduce her without reciprocating her genuine affection, he would be
worse than a kidnapper who rapes a child, which Humbert will indeed
become. Surprisingly, the letter also highlights certain shared characteristics
between Charlotte and Humbert. Even as he scoffs at it, the passionate
prose and uncontrolled emotion of Charlotte’s letter echoes Humbert’s
own rhapsodizing of Lolita, though much less skillfully. Both Charlotte
and Humbert are propelled by their own poetic, romantic fantasies,
rather than a genuine connection to the people they profess to adore.
When Charlotte discovers Humbert’s secret, for example, she feels
jealous that Humbert would prefer Lolita to herself. The fact that
an adult man yearns to molest her daughter seems to be of far less
consequence to her. Like Humbert, Charlotte is blinded by a passion
that seems more directed at herself than the people around her.
Through Charlotte and her reactions to the impending marriage, Nabokov
mocks the bourgeois values of American domesticity. Despite her
attempts at sophistication, Charlotte’s preoccupations before and
after her marriage show the power of her middle-class sensibilities.
First, she must assure herself of Humbert’s religious faith, which
she mistakenly sees as a sign of his good character. She devotes
herself to becoming a prominent member of the community by holding
tea parties and garnering mentions in the society column. She fervently
cleans and redecorates the house according to rules and tips she
finds in catalogues and decorating manuals. With these efforts,
Charlotte attempts to create an air of respectability about her,
befitting society’s expectations for the satisfied wife of a prominent
man. Humbert describes the town of Ramsdale as idyllic and as artificially
peaceful as a town depicted on sitcoms. Under the surface, however,
dark emotions prevail, and despite Charlotte’s attempt to remake
her life in the image of a perfect, American nuclear family, the
façade soon crumbles.
In these chapters, McFate—the particularly American mix
of chance, destiny, and coincidence that Humbert distinguishes as
a guiding force in his life—seems to show its hand with increasing
frequency. At the same time, in its seemingly anarchic unpredictability, McFate
serves as a counterpoint to the characters’ grander attempts at
finding systematic meaning in their lives. For example, Charlotte demands
that Humbert “erase” his past romances so that nothing can obstruct
his affection for her, the woman destined to be his soulmate. However,
in bringing Humbert to Charlotte, McFate has also brought Lolita
to Humbert, and the girl will eventually displace Charlotte and
become what Charlotte always wanted to be: the love of Humbert’s
life. In a particularly cruel twist, McFate will also mercilessly
dispatch with Charlotte by sending her into the path of an oncoming
car, conveniently clearing the way for her daughter’s usurpation
of her place by Humbert’s side. Like many other characters in the
novel, such as Annabel or Humbert’s mother, Charlotte is killed
off suddenly and with little fanfare, as if she has fulfilled her purpose
and become obsolete to the narrative. Considering that Lolita doesn’t
represent an objective account of the given events, but rather Humbert
Humbert’s specific, biased view of those events, this harsh summation
of Charlotte Haze as a one-dimensional composite seems appropriate.
Though Humbert acknowledges McFate’s capricious nature, he assumes
that Charlotte’s death has set him free so he can be with Lolita
forever. Humbert won’t always be able to rely on McFate’s help,
however, though he will never free himself from its influence.
Though he continually attempts to justify himself to us,
the readers of Lolita, Humbert’s cunning and deceitful
nature hampers our ability to trust him fully. More than once, Humbert
has proven himself willing to create fictional accounts in order
to satisfy the public. He lies in his career, such as with his phony
Arctic report, and to those trying to help him, such as the doctors
in the sanitarium. Of course, he must constantly create fictions
in order to distract others from his pedophilia. When Charlotte
attempts the grand, romantic gesture of “erasing” their past loves,
Humbert’s willingness to invent a past yet again indicates his unreliability
as a narrator. Humbert’s deception represents one more kind of game-playing
in Lolita, and we must question whether his willingness
to lie to other characters in the novel extends to a willingness
to lie to us. If we as readers truly are Humbert’s jury, as he himself
calls us, than we should bear in mind that this book represents
not just a confession—as the subtitle, Confession of a White
Widowed Male, suggests—but also a potential attempt to
sway our judgment and soften our harsh critique of a confessed pedophile,
rapist, and murderer.