Lolita and Quilty
It is hard to fault Lolita artistically and morally, but there is one aspect of it that troubles me artistically, and possibly also morally: Lolita’s relationship with Quilty. Dare I suggest that it is a weakness in the novel? It has not always seemed so to me, but lately I have found myself baffled and bothered by it. I will try to express my concerns, confessing that they are difficult to pin down.
Quilty is inscrutable for most of the book, a distant hovering presence. There are no scenes in which Lolita and Quilty appear together, though Humbert and Quilty are occasionally conjoined (notably when Humbert murders him). We learn most about him from Lolita’s stray remarks, which are mainly gathered in chapter 29, that most unbearable of chapters, in which Humbert reunites with a visibly pregnant Lolita accompanied by her new husband, Richard F. Schiller, following her flight from him three years earlier. Humbert wants to know the identity of the man who (as he sees it) abducted her, but Lolita is reluctant to tell him. Eventually he understands that Quilty is the man he seeks. We read: “She was, as I say, talking. It now came in a relaxed flow. He was the only man she had ever been crazy about. What about Dick? Oh, Dick was a lamb, they were quite happy together, but she meant something different. And I had never counted, of course?”
Dolores Haze was crazy about Clare Quilty (Clear Guilty?): that is a hard fact to absorb. He was an old friend of the family and had once pulled her “onto his lap in front of everybody, and kissed her face, she was ten and furious with him”. She confides to Humbert that Quilty “liked little girls, had been almost jailed once”. He also “saw…through everything and everybody, because he was not like me and her but a genius. A great guy. Full of fun. Had rocked with laughter when she confessed about me and her, and said he had thought so.” But that’s not all: “He was a great guy in many respects. But it was all drink and drugs. And, of course, he was a complete freak in sex matters, and his friends were his slaves. I just could not imagine (I, Humbert, could not imagine!) what they all did at Duk Duk Ranch. She refused to take part because she loved him, and he threw her out.” Pressed for details about the things that happened at the ranch, she continues: “Oh, weird, filthy, fancy things. I mean, he had two girls and two boys, and three or four men, and the idea was for all of us to tangle in the nude while an old woman took movie pictures.” She intimates that when she refused to perform oral sex on the boys, because she only wanted Quilty, “he kicked me out”.
So this is the man that Lolita loved and was “crazy about”: not her husband and certainly not her stepfather-lover. The question that troubles me is why. She seems only too aware of his depravity, his absolute lack of decency, and his vile exploitations. He callously threw her out into the street for not obeying his pornographic instructions–and yet she loved him (maybe still does). He is clearly an exceptionally bad man, a villain of the first order, and she knows it. His only redeeming feature, apparently, is that he is a “genius”: but there is no evidence that he is a genius; he is just a second-rate provincial playwright. Why does Lolita think he is a genius? And even if he is, how does that excuse his beastly behavior—toward her and in general? When we meet Quilty in person, in the scene in which Humbert shoots him to death, he appears as a deranged drug addict, a rambling psychopath, and a clownish figure of fun. How can Lolita be so blind? She flees Humbert to join this odious man—not to escape the panting pedophile but to embrace a new one. Why would she do that? Humbert treated her more kindly and was less outrageous in his demands. It could not be Quilty’s confessed semi-impotence that attracted her, because she seemed more than willing to become his lover. His general awfulness was no impediment to her affections.
This then is the puzzle: why does Lolita love the odious Quilty? We can understand why she might want to escape the clutches of a pedophile by running to an old family friend, but why must she love this despicable creep? She hates Humbert for his exploitation of her, but she seems remarkably forgiving when it comes to Quilty’s even more egregious exploitation. He is praised as “a great guy” and “full of fun”. Is this intended as ironic? It seems not to be, but if it is then the puzzle becomes even sharper: he is certainly not a great guy and full of fun, but a coldhearted manipulative pervert (for more on this theme see his interview with Humbert in chapter 35). He kicks her out on her own, a bereaved motherless teenage girl, with zero resources, totally vulnerable, simply because she refuses to participate in his filmed orgies. She evidently means nothing to him save as a pornographic prop (he expresses no affection for her when confronted by Humbert, nor the slightest concern for her welfare). You would think that Dolores Haze—generally an intelligent and perceptive girl—would hate the bastard’s guts. Yet she scarcely makes any judgment against him, noting only that he “broke my heart” (while Humbert “broke my life”). Moreover, she seems to have been infatuated with Quilty for quite some time, dating from before her ill-starred association with Humbert. Indeed, it would appear that she was in love with him during her “affair” with her stepfather (this is why she arranged for him to follow them across the country).
What I don’t understand is why she loves him and why Nabokov chose to make her love him. Is it just to pile on the tragedy? Is it because otherwise we can’t see why she would run to him? Is it because of the pain this gives Humbert (who deserves much pain)? To me it seems gratuitous, perverse, and unintelligible—an absurdity. The other romantic relationships in the book make sense, including Charlotte’s devotion to Humbert: but not this one. It is not humanly plausible and not artistically required. Quilty could have been a villain like Humbert, his double in depravity, but he didn’t have to be a loved villain. Why did Lolita not turn from him in revulsion? I therefore find that I cannot reconcile myself to this aspect of the novel. It strikes me as an artistic misjudgment (painful as it is to say this) and it lowers my moral opinion of Lolita (also painful). Some readers may be tempted to resort to psychoanalytic explanations—the long-dead father, the overbearing mother, a masochistic personality. But none of this sort of funny business is apparent in Nabokov’s text, and he was notoriously opposed to such explanations (Freud the “Viennese quack”). Thus I remain puzzled and disturbed.