The morning of the next day, Humbert Humbert oils his gun and drives to Pavor Manor, murder on his mind. He knocks at the door several times, but nobody answers. He tries the door, finds it unlocked, and enters. Humbert goes through the house unlocking every door and pocketing every key he finds left in its lock: he doesn’t want Quilty to hole himself up in a room. While he’s walking toward a third bathroom, Quilty steps out of it and goes downstairs, failing to notice Humbert. Quilty wears a purple bathrobe, which Humbert notices is very much like one of his own.
Quilty’s emergence from the bathroom completes the pattern of toilets and fate which recur through the novel. The fatedness of toilets for Humbert perhaps suggests the way that baser needs have dominated Humbert’s life. The beginning of Humbert’s confrontation with Clare is anticlimactic, deflating the tension which has been building for the previous chapters, another example of Humbert’s melodramatic literary imagination running up against a more ordinary real world. Note that Humbert was wearing a bathrobe during his first sexual episode with Lolita. The shared item of clothing suggests that Quilty is Humbert’s shadow or double, and also raises a hint that in attacking Quilty, Humbert may also be subconsciously attacking himself for what he himself did to Lolita, that his pursuit of revenge is also a seeking of redemption.
Humbert Humbert follows Clare Quilty to the parlor, where the playwright finally notices him. Confused, he asks him if he’s Brewster. Humbert tries to remind him of his identity by asking him if he remembers Dolores Haze. When Quilty pretends ignorance, Humbert shouts at him to sit down. Quilty notices Humbert’s gun, but doesn’t seem particularly scared. Humbert tells Quilty to concentrate on his final moments of life, but Quilty goes on talking and fiddling with his cigarette.
Humbert is trying to create a melodramatic scene of confrontation, but Quilty deflates the mood with his flippant, casual behavior. This happens throughout the novel: Humbert is trying to create a tragic love story, but Quilty, with his tricks and mockery, turns it into a joke.
Humbert tries to shoot Quilty in the foot, but the gun jams: when it finally fires, “with a ridiculously feeble and juvenile sound,” the bullet goes into the carpet. Quilty reaches for the gun, but Humbert pushes him back down, asking him to think about his “kidnapping,” of Dolly Haze. Quilty protests, claiming that he saved her from “a beastly pervert.” Quilty reaches for the gun, but Humbert pushes him back down into the chair. During the scuffle, the pistol falls and slides beneath a chest of drawers.
The way Humbert describes his missed shot is a parody of the way guns in movies and novels are often associated with sexual potency. The “feeble,” sound of the gun suggests impotence in the face of Quilty, who defeated Humbert in the sexual contest over Lolita. It is deeply ironic that Humbert calls Quilty a kidnapper. Quilty only ran away with her, while Humbert kidnapped her as a child. Quilty’s reply reminds us of the great distance between Humbert’s fantasy about his life with Lolita and the reality. Neither Quilty nor Humbert is any good at fighting. Their contest is a parody of dramatic shootouts in Hollywood films.
Quilty warns Humbert to “stop trifling with life and death,” remarking that as the author of fifty-two plays, he knows a lot about both. Humbert and Quilty both go for the gun, and end up wrestling on the ground: “We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.” Finally, Humbert secures the gun. He gives Quilty a poem to read; the poem explains why it is Quilty has to die. After reading it—stopping every few verses to make a joke—Quilty begins trying to negotiate with Humbert. He offers him the whole house, along with his collection of erotica. He tells him to be reasonable and find himself another nymphet.
Quilty is warning Humbert not to confuse his life with literature. A fight to the death over Lolita might be the “right” ending for a good story, but in Quilty’s view Humbert should just go find another little girl. The number fifty-two is significant in Lolita. It’s the number of cards in a deck, weeks in a year, and the final year in the story’s chronology. The fact that Quilty has written 52 plays darkly hints that he might be responsible for some of the insidious patterns Humbert has noticed in his life. On the other hand, the allusion to a deck of cards suggests that it might all be luck. Whether or not things happen because of chance, fate, or conspiracy is one of the central themes of Nabokov’s writing. During the wrestling, it becomes hard to tell Quilty and Humbert apart, another suggestion that they are doubles for one another.
Humbert, unconvinced, takes a shot at Quilty—he misses again. Quilty runs into the other room, where he sits down and begins playing the piano. Humbert shoots him again, hitting him this time, and Quilty howls theatrically. Humbert chases Quilty up the stairs, shooting him repeatedly. Quilty responds to every shot with theatrical cries, shivering as though being tickled. He manages to reach the bedroom, where he tucks himself into bed. Humbert shoots him a final time, then heads downstairs, profoundly disturbed by Quilty’s lack of fear and nightmarish refusal to die.
Quilty mocks Humbert to the end. His theatrical howling and jarring behavior is a parody of the melodrama Humbert seems to expect from the scene of his revenge. Rather than a feeling of relief and triumph, Humbert feels disturbed: even in death, Quilty has made him feel manipulated, like the butt of a joke. This passage is disturbing in part because Quilty’s desire to psychologically torture Humbert is so inhuman: even death will not keep him from his tricks.
Humbert walks down the stairs, where he encounters a group of young people having drinks. He tells them he’s killed Quilty. They take it as some kind of joke. As Humbert leaves, Quilty crawls onto the second-floor landing and finally dies. Humbert realizes that this is “the end of the ingenious play staged for me by Quilty.”
What makes Quilty so ingenious is that he anticipates Humbert’s mindset and intentions at every step of the plot. He does this when he kidnaps Lolita, when he teases Humbert with pseudonyms, and in the final fight. In this, he resembles Nabokov himself, who is constantly anticipating what his readers expect to happen (based on what “usually happens” in novels and films) and giving them something close to it, but surprisingly different. This ending itself is a perfect example: while we might expect a dramatic confrontation with Quilty, his frightening humor and strange way of dying is a surprise.