Soiled, Torn, Dead
Chapter 7, Part II, of Lolita is an extraordinarily powerful piece of writing, even by the standards of that work. This is the chapter that begins: “I am now faced with the distasteful task of recording a definite drop in Lolita’s morals”. In this chapter Humbert Humbert describes how the twelve-year-old Dolores Haze was turned into a prostitute by his demands on her. Her allowance was granted only on condition that she consents to his sexual requests. He reports: “Only very listlessly did she earn her three pennies—or three nickels—per day; and she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed—during one schoolyear!—to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, or even four bucks.” Obviously we are here in the realm of utter depravity, once we look beyond Humbert’s lyrical evocations of his “nympholepsy”. The reader can only feel unqualified disgust with the perpetrator and pity for the victim. But he follows up this gut-wrenching report with the following jocular outburst: “O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip, scrambling away to hide her loot.” Here Nabokov juxtaposes a comical image of a jingly Humbert dispensing coins with a tragic state of affairs involving a prostituted young girl. It is a bold, not to say outrageous, juxtaposition: the tragic seen through the lens of the comedic. In this respect it starkly encapsulates the whole style and form of the novel. Just to drive the point home, Nabokov has Humbert remark casually: “I had brought prices down drastically by having her earn the hard and nauseous way permission to participate in the school’s theatrical program”. The chapter, which is mercifully short, ends with Humbert imagining the escaped Lolita in the “foul kitchen of a diner (Help Wanted) in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead.”
Here the very limits of cruelty and abuse are expressed through comical images and flippant phrases. It is as if the comedic and the tragic join and coalesce, with no gap between them. This enables the reader to feel the distance between Humbert’s self-serving narrative and the actual facts of the case: what he contrives to find funny is anything but. This I think is the key to the power of the chapter: there is a kind of double tragedy at work—the tragedy of Lolita’s life under Humbert’s rule, and the tragic lack of vision in Humbert’s skewed perception of reality. So blinded is he by his passions (if that is the word) that he finds comedy in tragedy, humor in despair. He laughs where he should cry. The reader cannot help but feel that such a tragic lack of vision is a powerful source of tragedy of the first kind. It is how evil allows itself to exist, at least in this instance. The chapter thus sets the stage for the later transformation of vision in Humbert, and is pivotal to the story. The very idea that Lolita has undergone a drop in morals is of course monstrous, and monstrously deluded on Humbert’s part, but it is entirely in keeping with the psychopathic turn of his mind. The reader can feel nothing but hatred and contempt for him at this point, with no possibility of redemption (despite later developments). The chapter works so powerfully on the reader precisely because it so poignantly captures Humbert’s madly distorted vision. And the image of the jingly, shuddering coin emitter is genuinely funny in its way, despite its horrific real-world correlate. Nabokov knew exactly what he was doing here. 
 I once went to an all day reading of Lolita in New York City given by assorted scholars and celebrities. If I had been asked to participate, I would have chosen this chapter to read aloud. It is Nabokov’s art at its most sublime. The chapter links directly to chapter 20 in which Lolita’s tennis game is lovingly described and reality finally makes its white way into Humbert’s dark fevered consciousness.