Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita: Part 2, Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Humbert Humbert regrets that he ever allowed Lolita to learn acting—all it did was help her to deceive him. He also happily reflects on her beautiful form in tennis, speculating that she might have become a tennis champion had he not molested her and broken her spirit.
Acting and the theater are central themes in Lolita, and they become increasingly important as the final chapter with the playwright Clare Quilty approaches. Just as she acted in Quilty’s play, “The Enchanted Hunters,” Lolita is acting out the drama of her escape from Humbert on Quilty’s instructions. Humbert views Lolita’s theatrical skill as a kind of loss of innocence. As the moment of Lolita’s disappearance approaches, Humbert the narrator begins to experience remorse for what he has done, wondering what Lolita could have become had he not interfered in her life. Humbert will explore his remorse at greater length in Chapter 32.
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The two of them continue driving west, and stop in Colorado. There, on the tennis the courts of the Champion Hotel, they play tennis. In the middle of their game, two young people approach and ask to join. Soon after, Humbert is summoned for a long-distance call in the hotel lobby, which turns out to be fake. From the window, he sees that a third stranger—a man—has joined the game. The man banters with Lolita, taps her on the behind with his racket, and leaves. When Humbert returns to the court, he is in tears. He begs Lolita for an explanation—she gives none.
In this chapter, Lolita’s tantalizing near-escapes continue, in a parody of novelistic tension. The false telephone call continues the pattern of toilets and telephones as important agents in Humbert’s fate. Throughout the novel, the ever-tearful Humbert presents himself as a hysterical, sentimental lover. This is both a parody of romance novels and an effort at self-justification. Humbert tries to build sympathy from his readers by presenting himself as weak and desperate, as actually loving the young girl he has raped and abducted.
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