Clare Quilty, when first introduced, seems to be almost an afterthought from Nabokov. The initial mention of him comes in Lolita’s faux-foreword written by a fictional John Ray, Jr. In it are a few words about a biography entitled My Cue (Cue being Clare Quilty) written by Vivian Darkbloom (Nabokov 4). Vivian Darkbloom is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov, which the author uses in order to place himself into Lolita. This first indication of Quilty is innocuous and innocent. It does not betray how important he is to the story that the main character, Humbert Humbert, will spin over the next three hundred pages. Clare Quilty, for the beginning of the novel, is simply a playwright – in fact, for much of the novel Humbert seemingly believes him to be a woman. However, Clare Quilty is quite possibly one of the most interesting characters in the novel due to the fact that he simply might not exist. Whether it is just his personality that is dreamt up by Humbert or whether he never existed at all, Clare Quilty is nothing but a pawn in Humbert Humbert’s quest to prove his morality and innocence.
The main task set forth by Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita is simple, yet challenging: it is to look through every sentence written by Humbert Humbert (or the foreword writer John Ray, Jr.) in order to glean the truth about his relationship with Dolores Haze, alias Lolita. Throughout the novel, there are signs and symbols that something is off with the details Humbert presents as fact. Humbert is widely known as an unreliable narrator, one whose every word must be read with skepticism. While it may seem like his story becomes truly flawed once Lolita escapes from him at the hospital, it in fact starts from the very beginning.
In the first few pages, the reader is swiftly exposed to the misleading statements that make Lolita so difficult to navigate. The supposed editor, John Ray, Jr., writes in the foreword that “‘Humbert Humbert’ . . . had died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952,” (Nabokov 3). Later, at the end of the book, the reader will find out that Humbert supposedly received a letter from Lolita on September 22, 1952 (Nabokov 267). He was arrested for the murder of Clare Quilty on September 25, 1952 (Meyer 4). Lastly, Humbert states that it took him fifty-six days to write Lolita (Nabokov 308). If all of these statements are correct, then Humbert must have begun writing “on the day he received Lolita’s letter, and finished on the day he died” (Meyer 4). He could not have possibly gone to his final encounter with Lolita wherever he dreamt she ended up – he must have made up the entire visit with her for the sake of his writing. Additionally in the matter of disjointed dates, he is not jailed until three days until after reading Lolita’s letter. From the beginning of his novel, he writes to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” even though he is most likely not imprisoned yet (Nabokov 9). The purposefully misleading dates, introduced in the first few pages of the novel, throw the entire story of Lolita into doubt. What really occurred and at what time?
Clare Quilty, as Humbert Humbert has written him, does not exist. The question is, as stated previously, whether or not it is just his personality that is manufactured or if he is even a real person. With the consistent unreliability of Humbert, either of these options are a possibility.
Aside from the inaccurate dates, Humbert Humbert continuously establishes himself as untrustworthy throughout the Lolita. Some have even speculated that John Ray, Jr., is in fact Humbert Humbert. In the foreword, Ray uses a French word, writing, “But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!” (Nabokov 5). Although it may seem that this is a sly indication that John Ray, Jr. is Humbert Humbert, Vladimir Nabokov casts doubt upon this belief with the admission in his afterword “On a Book Entitled Lola” that he has done an “impersonation of suave John Ray,” (Nabokov 311). While Humbert Humbert is proven to not be the author of the foreword, it is still a thought-provoking start to Lolita.
After the foreword, Humbert continues to exemplify himself an unreliable narrator. After his first wife, Valeria, has left him for a Russian taxi driver, he invents a story about the couple in California. Humbert alleges that they participated in a study in which they had to live and eat on all fours (Nabokov 30). Here, Humbert tries to pass his ex-wife and her new husband as crazy, foolish, and gullible. This story, which he repeats again in the novel, is simply untrue (Nabokov 155). He is trying to appear as if it was his decision to separate from an erratic wife, as opposed to the truth that Valeria left Humbert because he was mad in the head and abusive.
Aside from the miscue with Valeria and additional instances of falsities, Humbert even admits that he is rewriting his version of the story. He says his diary was destroyed five years previously, in 1947 (Nabokov 40). As Humbert rewrites it, he changes certain details. While he is recreating his entries with what he claims is a photographic memory, he begins the third entry with “Beginning perhaps amended,” (Nabokov 42). Humbert does not even try to hide the fact that he is changing his story. Even later in the novel he admits to his faults, saying, “unpractical as I am, I have surely forgotten a number of items” (Nabokov, 175). For someone who claims to have a photographic memory, he has trouble remembering past events with accuracy. He mentions having a “mental daze” and how he has “somehow mixed up two events”, but dismisses both as unimportant (Nabokov 211, 263). Although he is trying to place emphasis on his words in an effort to prove his morality and innocence, he takes away from them by admitting to the mistakes in his narration.
However, Humbert also asserts his inaccuracies in more harmful ways than just memory mistakes. In one of his first physical encounters with Lolita, she sits on his lap while he (thinking she has not noticed) touches her inappropriately. Immediately after the situation ends, he writes that she jumps off of him “as if we had been struggling and now my grip has eased,” as if it is laughably untrue (Nabokov 61). Humbert cannot possibly believe that Lolita has not noticed his visceral reaction to her presence and touch — he is actively trying to trick the reader into thinking that he has “stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor” and that there was “absolutely no harm done” (Nabokov, 62). At every turn, he tries to use his power as narrator to proclaim his innocence, or push the blame onto Lolita, in order to prove that he is not as monstrous as he is made out to be.
At multiple points throughout the novel, Humbert Humbert tries to claim that he has a moral compass. In various instances, Humbert attempts to appeal to a jury who is supposedly reading his manuscript. This betrays the true purpose of his novel — he is not writing to detail his true love for Lolita, but to prove his morality and to justify his actions. In one instance, after Charlotte dies in a chance car accident, Humbert says that he, while worrying about Lolita’s life now that her mother has passed and he is her guardian, is “obsessed by all sorts of purely ethical doubts and fears,” (Nabokov, 105). His thoughts are not ethical — they cannot be if he is contemplating how he can get away with picking up Lolita from camp so she can become, for all intents and purposes, his slave. It is impossible for someone such as Humbert Humbert, who enjoys having forced sexual relations with his stepchild, to rightfully claim that he is a moral person.
Altogether, Humbert Humbert is a manipulative, deceitful narrator. The only point of this misleading manuscript is to argue his case to the jury trying him for the murder of Clare Quilty. In fact, his main argument rests upon him “proving that I am not, and never was, and never could have been, a brutal scoundrel” (Nabokov 131). That is ultimately the point of Humbert’s writing. As much as he claims that he is proving his deep love for Lolita the person and not the nymphet, Humbert Humbert is simply a shrewd author who is trying to write himself as a better man than in reality.
Clare Quilty is the main device Humbert Humbert uses in order to make his case of morality. Quilty is imperative to the story, woven through from the very beginning in order for Humbert to prove his point. He is mentioned casually at first, only in relation to his uncle, Ivor, or on a poster on Lolita’s wall. Only when Humbert and Lolita begin their road trip does Quilty begin to pop up more frequently and in more obvious ways. At the Enchanted Hunters hotel, Lolita spots a man sitting by himself that she thinks looks exactly like Quilty (Nabokov 121). However, it is unclear if Quilty is actually present in this hotel — that maybe not so coincidentally bears the same name as his play — or if Humbert has planted him here as a brief physical introduction. The story further complicates later as Lolita is discussing a play she has been cast in at her new school. Lolita claims that “some old woman, Clare Something” wrote Enchanted Hunters, the play they are performing (Nabokov 209). Humbert does not doubt this claim that Clare Quilty is a woman, even though Quilty as a male has been acknowledged many times previously. Even later, Humbert remarks on what a nasty trick it had been for Lolita to try to convince him that Quilty was a female (Nabokov 273). This mention casts doubt upon Quilty’s presence in the novel – Humbert already knows who he is and what he looks like, as he has seen the poster on Lolita’s wall, so why does he believe Lolita when she says he is a woman? Later, Quilty appears as the alleged driver of the red car that shadows Humbert and Lolita, and again in a letter from Lolita’s friend Mona Dahl. In this letter, Mona quotes a French poet and writes the words “qu’il t’y,” (Nabokov 223). Through these various subtle and obvious mentions, Humbert highlights Quilty as a character who will play an important role in the coming chapters — his double.
Clare Quilty, whether real or not, is the device Humbert Humbert has selected in order to partially excuse his actions towards Lolita. As he does earlier to Lolita, Humbert solipsizes Quilty so he cannot differentiate between the Quilty he needs for his story and the one that exists in reality. To Humbert, Quilty is the double that is successful in every way that Humbert is not. While Humbert is an adequate poet, Quilty is a prolific, popular playwright. Quilty is richer, at the top of his field, and most importantly, has the love and admiration of Lolita. While Humbert claims to have loved Lolita the person, not Lolita the nymphet, she has never loved him back. Yet Lolita does love Quilty, with whom she allegedly willingly runs away. Humbert sums up the difference between himself and Quilty well when he “reunites” with Lolita in Coalmont, knowing that she is thinking that while Quilty may have broken her heart, Humbert “merely broke [her] life” (Nabokov, 278). Humbert is someone Lolita will never forgive, or more importantly to him, love. In Humbert’s bizarre mind, Quilty is the reason for that. Quilty is the one who took Lolita away from him and made it so they could not love each other. Quilty is Humbert’s double who has stolen everything away from him. For this crime, Humbert decides that Quilty must pay with his life.
The scene, in which Humbert discovers that Quilty is Lolita’s alleged kidnapper, when Humbert visits Lolita at her new home in Coalmont years after her disappearance, is when the story positively starts to unravel. It is hypothesized Humbert falsely implants the majority of the happenings after Lolita’s hospitalization in Elphinstone. In actuality, Lolita died on July 4 at the hospital in Elphinstone, ultimately gaining freedom from her tormentor on Independence Day. Humbert hints at her death, suggesting, “her illness was somehow the development of a theme” (Nabokov 241). The “theme” that is developing is the reasoning for Humbert’s murder for Clare Quilty. Lolita’s sickness and subsequent death lead up to the finale of the novel, to the killing of Quilty. Another clue given by Humbert is when Lolita refers to the bouquet of flowers that he gifts to her in the hospital as “funeral flowers” (Nabokov 243). It seems very likely that this is the scene in which Lolita passes away, as opposed to what is suggested by John Ray, Jr. in the foreword when he writes that she died giving birth to a stillborn girl in the made-up city of Gray Star (Nabokov 4).
The chapters that follow Lolita’s death at Elphinstone are jumbled, confusing, and nonsensical. They do not match up with prior chapters or previous characters’ actions. It is possible that Lolita’s death was the final event needed to fully trigger Humbert Humbert into insanity. He mentions that he had previously been admitted to sanatoriums, and following Lolita’s stay at the Elphinstone hospital, mentions of his decreasing sanity occur with greater frequency. Humbert describes how he is losing his “time and [his] wits” and that he is “losing contact with reality” (Nabokov 253, 255). He writes a poem and then describes it as “a maniac’s masterpiece” (Nabokov 257). Given his previous bouts of mental illness, it is not hard to imagine that Lolita’s death pushed him into an absolute state of madness. This state of insanity could very well have created a false path in his mind that lead to Clare Quilty.
When he writes of visiting Lolita at her new home in Coalmont, the scene feels bizarre. It does not match up with previous characterizations. Firstly, as previously mentioned, the dates of the visit do not correspond with dates provided of Humbert’s death or his writing of his manuscript. Secondly, it is astounding that Humbert was able to track down the location of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Schiller so quickly and efficiently. All he had to go by was the vague name of their town and encounters with people who may have known the couple. Thirdly, when Humbert finally arrives, Lolita is entirely too casual for someone faced with her former torturer and rapist. She even calls him “honey”, a term of endearment Humbert admits that she had “never called him . . . before” (Nabokov 279). There is no reason that Lolita would show any affection to him, especially if she had only asked him there for money. Lolita has no love for Humbert and would not refer to him as “honey.” Lastly, how Humbert leaves Lolita at the end is a key clue to realizing that there is more to this scene. He gives up on her. He realizes that she will not go with him and he simply drives away. He makes himself out to be some kind of champion, leaving Lolita alone to live her new life with her new husband. This goes against all of his previous actions with the women in his life and his former experiences with Lolita. With Valeria and Charlotte, both of whom he did not care for even a fraction as much as he cared for Lolita, he refused to let them leave. When Valeria decided to separate herself from Humbert, even though he did not love her, he wanted to beat her and inflict pain. When Charlotte left him, he attempted to manipulate her into staying and believing that she was the crazy one, even though she had just found his diary detailing his horrifying, vulgar thoughts about her twelve-year-old daughter. Lastly, even when Humbert realizes he might be losing his grasp on Lolita during their second road trip, he thinks to himself that he would rather “destroy everything than surrender her” (Nabokov 235). He had never given up on a woman before, especially Lolita for whom he had been searching for years. It is hard to believe that he would finally decide play the hero in this scene and let Lolita go so easily, especially since he claims that she, nymphet or not, is the love of his life.
This falsified scene provides precisely what is needed for Humbert to finish his story. After visiting Lolita at her new home with her new husband, he says he has to leave to head to Readsburg (Nabokov 273). He can write the ending to his story now that he knows the identity of the man who stole Lolita away from him is Clare Quilty. It is time for Humbert to create the finale to his imagined story.
Humbert Humbert has set himself up to end the story with the murder of Clare Quilty. After Lolita tells him the identity of her kidnapper, he writes:
I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along. There was no shock, no surprise. Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment; yes, with the express and perverse purpose of rendering . . . of rendering that golden and monstrous peace through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my most inimical reader should experience now. (Nabokov 272)
Humbert directly admits that his whole story was a setup, a ruse. He wrote his own story and determined his own fate. As much as he tried to convince the reader that this part of his life is an “ingenious play staged for [him] by Quilty,” it is untrue (Nabokov 305). From the beginning of Lolita, Humbert has decided his own ending. The character of Quilty was not there to be his antagonist or to steal Lolita away from him, but to be his double, someone that he could pin blame onto for Lolita’s devastating life.
Like Humbert’s visit to Lolita’s new home, his murder of Clare Quilty is disjointed and bizarre. Everything about the scene feels hazy and disorganized. Humbert walks directly into Quilty’s house through an unlocked door. It seems almost too easy right from the start. He begins a conversation with Quilty, who is unbothered by Humbert telling him “you are going to die in a moment . . . Try to understand what is happening to you” (Nabokov 297). Humbert attempts to shoot at Quilty’s foot in order to force him to understand the gravity of the situation. The following scene is an exact replica of Humbert’s description of an earlier dream:
Sometimes I attempt to kill in my dreams. But do you know what happens? For instance I hold a gun. For instance I aim at a bland, quietly interested enemy. Oh, I press the trigger all right, but one bullet after another feebly drops on the floor from the sheepish muzzle. In those dreams, my only thought is to conceal the fiasco from my foe, who is slowly growing annoyed. (Nabokov 47)
This is almost precisely how the encounter with Quilty plays out, a possible clue at the inaccuracy of the scene. Humbert aims at Quilty’s foot and pulls the trigger, but no bullet comes out. His second try hits the rug. Quilty does not appear to care and continues to play off the encounter as if it is not a matter of life or death. Next in this unusual spectacle, Humbert reads a poem he wrote about how Quilty must die for what he did to Lolita. The whole time Humbert is speaking, Quilty is making casual comments. He even compliments the poem at the end (Nabokov 299-300). It is a curious reaction for him towards someone that has just shot at him and told him he is going to die. The scene continues to get more perverse and comical. Several bullets are needed to mortally wound Quilty, who all the while is stumbling around, trying to make conversation with Humbert. After Quilty falls to the floor, Humbert begins to leave. He tells the guests who have entered and congregated in the living room, oblivious to what has happened upstairs, that he has “just killed Clare Quilty” (Nabokov 305). The guests joke about it, ignoring Humbert as he quietly gets into his car and leaves. The reactions, along with how everything has played out, feel too nonchalant and strange to be true.
If the chapters with Humbert’s visit to Lolita and his murder of Clare Quilty are invented, it begs the question of what the truth of the story is. Lolita most likely died in the hospital in Elphinstone, so Humbert’s reunion with her is a lie, created in order to give him motivation for killing Quilty. If Quilty does exist, Humbert has forged his perverse and unusual personality in order to justify his death. However, if Quilty does not exist, what can the readers make of these scenes? If Quilty was never killed, why is Humbert in jail? It could be possible that Lolita told the nurse at Elphinstone who was so suspicious of Humbert about his abuse. While this seems less likely, Humbert Humbert’s faulty narration makes it so any outcome is possible.
The conclusion appears to be that Clare Quilty does exist. However, his personality, his actions, and his death, as written by Humbert Humbert, do not. Humbert curates Quilty as his double. Humbert writes, “one had to choose between him and H. H.” (Nabokov 309). They could not both coexist in Humbert’s solipsized world. As the double, Clare Quilty excuses Humbert’s actions — while they both took advantage of a young girl, Humbert loved her and Quilty is nothing but a deviant pedophile. Quilty’s death provides Humbert with an ending to his pretend story. Ultimately, Quilty does not exist for any reason in Lolita other than as a means to Humbert’s ends.