Executing Sentences in Lolita and the Law
by Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
page two of four

Poetical Justice

In the novel's penultimate chapter (part 2, Chap. 35), Humbert considers his actions and finds himself guilty. He does this, moreover, by recounting an episode in which he first projects his guilt onto someone else--Quilty, another child molester who stole Dolores away from him--and then tries, convicts, sentences, and executes that man for offenses he himself committed. In terms of plot, this episode depicts the actual crime with which Humbert is charged. At the same time, it shows how much he has changed since first meeting Dolores; abducting, raping, and enslaving her; losing her; seeking her in vain; and finding her again. Humbert now seems less driven by desire for her than by a need to confess his guilt and symbolically punish himself. He therefore makes Quilty his scapegoat as well as his Doppelgänger.14 Indeed, Humbert's preparations for murder--discovering Quilty's identity in part 2, chapter 29, pinpointing Quilty's whereabouts in chapter 33, and casing the joint in chapter 34--are interspersed with admissions of his own previously unacknowledged wrongdoing:

I reviewed my case. With the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love. [. . .] Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, pp. 282-83)
Such comments suggest that the murder, although essential to the novel's structure in many ways, functions most crucially as Humbert's first attempt to represent his guilt--initiating the gradual psychological and narrative process that culminates in composing and reading his confession. Quilty's murder, the last incident in the novel's plot, thus serves as a rough draft of Humbert's account of his criminality. The "execution," as Humbert calls it, is an instance of vigilante justice in which he proclaims Quilty's guilt, decides his punishment, forces him to "read his own sentence" in the form of a poem, and then carries out that sentence (pp. 293, 299).15 The scene's darkly comic travesty of legal proceedings leads directly to Humbert's subsequent staging of the entire narrative as another mock trial. Reading this episode as a draft of Humbert's written confession seems appropriate, moreover, because he implicitly compares the murder to a Hollywood screenplay, a piece of "fancy prose" (p. 9), and a skillful demonstration of legal or literary rhetoric.16 That is, he represents it as an utterance, not an act.

Humbert opens his kangaroo court by interrogating Quilty about his relationship to the victim--"do you recall a little girl called Dolores Haze, Dolly Haze?" (p. 296)--but then skips over presenting, examining, and weighing evidence to arrive at the penalty phase. Clearly, he follows the Wonderland precedent of "sentence first--verdict afterwards" (Dodgson, 1866/1960, p. 161).17 When Quilty interrupts the questions about Dolores to complain that he is "dying for a smoke," for example, Humbert counters that he is "dying anyway" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 296), adding: "I want you to concentrate. You are going to die in a moment. [. . .] You smoked your last cigarette yesterday" (p. 297). Humbert's nod to the familiar cliché of a condemned man's last cigarette--one of several allusions to death-penalty folklore in this scene--emphasizes that he has already decided Quilty's fate. Indeed, he fires his first ineffectual, poorly aimed bullets at Quilty a moment later. Although the execution is now underway, Humbert still feels that something is missing: "It was high time I destroyed him, but he must understand why he was being destroyed." Only at this point does he simultaneously accuse Quilty and find him guilty: "Concentrate [. . .] on the thought of Dolly Haze whom you kidnapped--" (p. 297).

Throughout this scene, Humbert pretends to follow due process even while acknowledging the illegitimacy of the proceedings. Noticing Quilty's inebriated condition, for example, Humbert observes that it is "evident to everybody that he [is] in a fog and completely at my so-called mercy" (p. 295). The adjective "so-called," inserted into the familiar phrase "at my mercy," emphasizes Humbert's fallacious discourse as well as the trial's fundamental dishonesty. (In judicial terms, "mercy" refers to leniency for a criminal and, more specifically, to a sentence of life imprisonment rather than death as penalty for murder.) Humbert quizzes Quilty about his preferences, in the tradition of the "last meal" and other death-row rituals, but makes it clear that the actual sentence is a foregone conclusion. He even asks Quilty "whether he want[s] to be executed sitting or standing" and "if he ha[s] anything serious to say before dying" (pp. 298, 301). Humbert's adherence to the letter, if not the spirit, of these legal formalities recalls the torturer's insistence on following rules--no matter how meaningless--while interrogating a victim. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that the purpose of such speech is not to elicit information but rather to lend specious legitimacy to the torturer's crude display of power (1988). Humbert's discourse is even more fraudulent than that, however, because it glosses over the very murder that he is using--instead of words--to signify his own guilt.

Among the speech acts in a criminal trial, Humbert particularly emphasizes sentencing. He not only predetermines Quilty's punishment, decides what form it will take (death by gunfire), and makes it "the main item in the program," but also insists that it be verbally expressed (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 299). His pronouncement of Quilty's sentence is rhetorical in more ways than one, however. To begin with, it fails as a performative declaration because both speaker and circumstances are illegitimate.18 Consider Sandy Petrey's illustration of a similarly "infelicitous" utterance--"An escapee from the adjoining jail who steps in front of the judge's bench and pronounces court in session" (1990, p. 12)--or, better yet, Judith Butler's--"when I say, 'I condemn you,' [. . .] if I am not in a position to have my words considered as binding, then I may well have uttered a speech act, but the act is, in Austin's sense, unhappy or infelicitous: you escape unscathed" (1997, p. 16)--or, best of all, Timothy Kaufman-Osborn's examples of individuals who might tell him "I sentence you to death," but are not authorized to do so (2003, p. 26). In Humbert's case, at any rate, uttering the sentence seems a mere formality because he has already begun carrying it out. He uses its pronouncement, in fact, to "fill in the pause" while he catches his breath, checks his ammunition, and ensures that his pistol is "ready for use on the person" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b pp. 299, 301). Finally, he adds to its rhetorical force by deciding that Quilty should "read his own sentence" and literally pronounce it aloud (p. 299).

Humbert therefore hands him a "neat typescript" of the sentence rendered into verse, telling the reader, in a painfully obvious pun, that "The term 'poetical justice' [. . .] may be most happily used in this respect." In its "poetical form" (p. 299), Quilty's sentence recalls two poems from the trial in Alice: the charge against the defendant, expressed in rhyme, and the anonymous doggerel that constitutes the evidence against him (Dodgson, 1866/1960, pp. 46, 158-60). It also parodies T. S. Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday"--a litany that pleads for God's mercy--and thus underscores the mock trial's literary derivations and pretensions.19 Humbert's poem is not a prayer, however, but a first person singular accusation directed toward Quilty in the second person: "because you took advantage of my disadvantage" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 299). Given this grammatical construction, the fact that he makes Quilty read it aloud--as if he were Humbert--emphasizes the convoluted rhetorical situation whereby Humbert uses Quilty to signify his own guilt.20 The sentence's ending makes such doubling even more explicit:

because of all you did
because of all I did not
you have to die (p. 300)
However, Quilty does not respond to this utterance as a threat, accusation, or death sentence, but as a poem--a kind of speech that Austin claims cannot be performative (1962, p. 104). After reading the sentence aloud, interjecting critical comments such as "Didn't get that," "A little repetitious, what?" and "Getting smutty, eh?" Quilty even pronounces judgment on it: "Well, sir, this is certainly a fine poem. Your best as far as I am concerned" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 300). He ignores the fact that it sentences him to death.

Throughout this scene, in fact, Quilty refuses to heed Humbert's warnings, follow his orders, accept his blame, or stick to the script of his "pistol-packing farce" (p. 301). Quilty pointedly remarks that he is "not responsible for the rapes of others" and that "really, my dear Mr. Humbert, you were not an ideal stepfather, and I did not force your little protégée to join me" (pp. 298, 301). He denies Humbert's literary authority and brags about his own superior writing skills: "My dear sir, [. . .] stop trifling with life and death. I am a playwright. I have written tragedies, comedies, fantasies. [. . .] I'm the author of fifty-two successful scenarios. I know all the ropes. Let me handle this" (p. 298). And when Humbert invites his last words, Quilty produces a torrent of boasts, bribes, puns, threats, and jokes, culminating in the offer of an unusual reward for sparing his life: "moreover I can arrange for you to attend executions, not everybody knows that the chair is painted yellow--" (p. 302). Defiantly, he refers not only to the death penalty but to electrocution, in particular--also evoked in Humbert's description of the sun "burning like a man" (p. 293)--which was the most common form of capital punishment in America at the time.21 He refuses to acknowledge that Humbert is already attending, and attending to, his own execution.

Humbert, meanwhile, is so eager to finish the job that his bullets cut short Quilty's last words. He chases him through the house, firing repeatedly as the other tries "to talk [him] out of murder," until he determines that Quilty is dead (pp. 301, 303). Humbert discovers, however, that his sense of guilt has only increased: "Far from feeling any relief, a burden even weightier than the one I had hoped to get rid of was with me, upon me, over me" (p. 304).

Accordingly, Humbert tries once more to rid himself of that burden. Hearing distant voices and music, he realizes that others have "arrived and [are] cheerfully drinking Quilty's liquor" (p. 304). He goes downstairs, enters the crowded drawing room, and announces: "I have just killed Clare Quilty" (p. 305). This statement clearly acknowledges Humbert's culpability.22 If reported by a credible witness during his trial, it would implicate him and make a guilty verdict likely; the fact that he reports it himself suggests a probable guilty plea. As a performative utterance, then, this confession should lead to various consequences: arrest, indictment, trial, verdict, and either punishment or absolution. Within the novel, however, Humbert's announcement is utterly misinterpreted: "'Good for you,' said the florid fellow. [. . .] 'Somebody ought to have done it long ago,' remarked the fat man. [. . .] 'Well,' said another [. . .] 'I guess we all should do it to him some day'" (p. 305). In Austin's terms, the declaration misfires because circumstances are wrong (in the drawing room, there is no evidence of Quilty's death) and other parties don't respond appropriately.23 The house guests refuse to take Humbert's confession any more seriously than Quilty took his accusation. And as it turns out, Quilty is not quite dead--an allusion to Rasputin's protracted assassination that might remind contemporary readers of how hard it is to kill Jasons or Freddies in horror movies. Indeed, because he dies only after Humbert's confession has been uttered and misunderstood, he seems to get the last word.24 Humbert even imagines, in one final instance of double talk, that it was not himself but his rival who scripted the mock trial: "This, I said to myself, was the end of the ingenious play staged for me by Quilty." Humbert's wrongdoing thus remains unexpressed and unacknowledged, and he leaves the crime scene still burdened with "a heavy heart" (p. 305).

Quilty's murder serves, then, as a rhetorical device by which Humbert tries to articulate his own guilt indirectly. In other words, he crudely represents his rape of Dolores with another crime that is more final, absolute, and universally condemned. Humbert claims, of course, that Quilty deserves to die. Nevertheless, the fact that he depends on a murder, planned and carried out under similar circumstances, to approximate Dolores's rape suggests his awareness of how much she suffered.25 And although he depicts Quilty's death as farcical and belletristic, it is actually quite violent--thus suggesting, by analogy, the cruelty, savagery, and relentlessness of his own assaults on Dolores, even as he punishes Quilty for those very deeds.

The murder also enables Humbert to confess his guilt aloud, although he cannot bring himself to identify the initial crime. In this chapter, then, he acknowledges his wrongdoing at two removes: first, he accuses, sentences, and executes Quilty for what he himself has done; second, he admits to Quilty's murder, but not the crime that precipitated it. In one instance, he names the right crime but the wrong criminal; in the other, the right criminal but the wrong crime. Nevertheless, this sequence indicates progress (from violently "acting out" guilt to expressing it aloud), suggesting that he is now ready to become the narrator who has recounted the novel from the beginning. Indeed, Humbert's subsequent arrest leads to another rhetorical situation--the necessity of recording his version of events for an attorney, at length and in writing--which prompts him to compose his memoir and, at last, directly acknowledge Dolores's rape. This slow, spasmodic, agonizing effort to represent and assess his own criminal behavior anticipates the difficulties that confront readers when they, too, attempt to judge Humbert at the novel's end

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14. A Doppelgänger, according to a literary convention exemplified by Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is an antagonist who embodies an aspect of the protagonist's divided self. Thus Humbert seems to split himself in two: Dolores's protector, who says "I am her father" and "She was my child" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 296), versus her rapist, this "semi-animated, subhuman trickster who had sodomized my darling" (p. 295). Earlier clues suggest that Humbert and Quilty resemble each other (pp. 69, 218). Now, in this scene, Quilty wears a purple bathrobe much like Humbert's; views Humbert as a "familiar and innocuous hallucination," such as a mirror image; and mistakes him for another man's brother, although "the resemblance is not particularly striking" (pp. 294, 295). When they come to blows, Humbert compares them to "two large dummies" that are almost indistinguishable, as his shifting pronouns suggest: "he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us" (p. 299).

15. Humbert plans a similar "execution" of Dolores's young husband, even conducting target practice at which "The carrying out of the sentence was a little marred by [. . .] a certain stiffness in the play of the trigger." He refers to the target--a piece of his own "dead" clothing--as "the corpse of the executed sweater" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 267). Dolores's husband is "instantly reprieved," however, when Humbert realizes that he is not the man who stole her away (p. 270).

16. This view of Quilty's death reflects Humbert's indifference, but it also echoes Nabokov's other attempts to explain death in rhetorical terms. The narrator of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight describes a novel in which, "By an incredible feat of suggestive wording, the author makes us believe that [. . .] the truth about death" is written on the world, like a "page in a book where these mountains and forests, and fields, and rivers are disposed in such a way as to form a coherent sentence" (Nabokov, 1941, pp. 178-79). In Bend Sinister, the narrator says of his hero's murder:

I knew that the immortality I had conferred on the poor fellow was a slippery sophism, a play upon words. But the very last lap of his life had been happy and it had been proven to him that death was but a question of style. (Nabokov, 1947/1989a, p. 241)

17. Most readers of Alice recall the Queen's response to anyone who annoys or contradicts her: "Off with his head!" During the trial, however, the King is equally eager to pronounce sentence: he asks for a verdict as soon as the charges are read and tells the first witness, "Give your evidence [. . .] and don't be nervous, or I'll have you executed on the spot" (Dodgson, 1866/1960, p. 147).

18. Quilty dies a few minutes later--but not because of this pronouncement. That Humbert knows his declaration is illegitimate qualifies it, in Austin's terms, as an "abuse" (1962, p. 18).

19. Eliot's poem is a fitting subtext because it borrows, in turn, from Catholic prayer, repeating words and phrases in a series of apologies, explanations, and pleas for merciful judgment:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us (1930/1967, p. 84)

20. These ambiguous referents recall the obscure pronouns in the nonsense verse introduced as incriminating evidence in Alice, as illustrated by its last stanza:

Don't let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me. (Dodgson, 1866/1960, p. 158)

21. These images of electrocution suggest Humbert's pervasive guilt and anxiety about his fate. He makes other odd allusions to capital punishment, describing a man who "eliminated" Dolores' mother in a car accident as "looking like a kind of assistant executioner" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 102), speculating that his next-door neighbor might be a "retired executioner" (p. 188), and comparing his own wish to revisit the hotel where he raped Dolores to "that swooning curiosity which impels one to examine with a magnifying glass bleak little figures--still life practically, and everybody about to throw up--at an early morning execution" (p. 262).

22. Humbert has already made a similarly stark admission to his readers, emphasizing that he alone is "responsible for every shed drop" of Quilty's blood (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 304).

23. He is arrested soon afterwards for running red lights and driving on the wrong side of the road: "since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 306). Perhaps Humbert repeats his declaration--"I have just killed Clare Quilty" (p. 305)--to the police, and this time, in other circumstances, it is taken seriously.

24. His last appearance is heralded by "a sudden noise on the stairs. [. . .] Quilty of all people had managed to crawl out onto the landing, and there we could see him, falling and heaving, and then subsiding, forever this time, in a purple heap. 'Hurry up, Cue,' said Tony with a laugh. 'I believe, he's still--' He returned to the drawing room, music drowned the rest of the sentence" (Nabokov, 1955/1989b, p. 305). Still what? Tony probably means that Quilty remains drunk from the night before, but the word also connotes both his persistent animation and his final stillness. The metaphor of drowning, meanwhile, links Tony's unfinished sentence with death.

25. Since the murder signifies Dolores's rape, it is fitting that this scene's framing, sequence, setting, and imagery echo elements of that crucial night at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel.

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