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Literature Study GuidesLolitaPart 1 Chapters 20 21 Summary

Lolita | Study Guide

Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita | Part 1, Chapters 20–21 | Summary



Chapter 20

Humbert learns that Charlotte plans to ship Lolita off to a boarding school. He thinks about how much easier it was to control his first wife than it is to control Charlotte. They take a swim together and Humbert thinks about how easy it would be to drown Charlotte—but he can't bring himself to do it. Jean Farlow appears, interrupting Charlotte and Humbert, and then her husband John joins them.

Chapter 21

Charlotte decides she and Humbert should go to England but Humbert convinces her that his life there was too unhappy for him to want to return. He's glad he's been able to say no to her. But a few days later, as he's reading the encyclopedia in his study, Charlotte asks why he keeps one of the drawers in his desk locked. He tells her he keeps love letters there. She gives him "one of those wounded-doe looks that irritated" him. Then she sees a state in the encyclopedia and mentions that they might travel to a hotel she knows of there—The Enchanted Hunters hotel. Humbert wonders if he should hide the key to the drawer in a safer place.


One of the themes running through the novel Lolita concerns the potency and mutability of memory and the impossibility of recapturing lost time—as, for example, Humbert is trying to recapture his childhood experience with Annabel through Lolita. In any case the name "Hourglass Lake" reminds readers of the fleeting aspect of time—and that Lolita is growing older.

Addressing the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Humbert defends himself, saying that he is not a "scientist" and that most sex offenders are "innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers" who are not sex fiends, rapists, or killers. But of course Humbert will kill, has killed—readers know that's why he's in jail.

Humbert and Charlotte's argument about whether to go to Europe or not is significant—Humbert, the European émigré, calls Europe "the Old and rotting World." Throughout the novel Nabokov plays with differences between the American popular culture and Humbert's refined manners and his highly educated, literary, European mind. Many critics have suggested that Humbert represents old Europe, full of history, and Lolita the brash, young, beautiful, albeit corrupt country, the United States. In this chapter readers first hear mention of The Enchanted Hunters hotel, which will become important in coming chapters.

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