When one thinks of pedophilia, great literature does not often come to mind. Pedophiles are the subjects of shocking news exposés, featuring unkempt prisoners spouting incoherent drivel or protesting their innocence. The idea that this topic would predominate not one, but two, works by well-respected, even world-renowned authors is surprising. Such is the case, however, with the book Lolita, written in 1955 by Vladimir Nabokov, (Nabokov, 1955), and the novella A Fair Maiden, by prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates, published in 2009 (Oates, 2009). Each book addresses the topic pedophilia in dramatically disparate ways, but with certain similarities in circumstance.

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In both works, a sophisticated older gentleman (Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Marcus Kidder in A Fair Maiden) are drawn to young teen girls with somewhat coarse tendencies (although under age 16 neither are virgins) and blunt aspects: Dolores Haze and Katya Spivak, respectively. Humbert, after a series of unsuccessful attempts at fulfilling his desires, entered a doomed marriage to a woman he initially considered attractive because of “the imitation she gave of a little girl” (Nabokov, 1955, p.29). Eventually he married Charlotte Haze, his landlady, in order to be close to her budding daughter, Dolores (known as “Dolly,” “Lo,” or exclusively to Humbert “Lolita”) (Nabokov, 1055, p. 79). Coincidentally, Kidder and Katya happened upon each other while shopping in an upscale seaside community in New Jersey, where he was part of the old-line society and she was a nanny for nouveau riche “mayflies,” as Kidder termed them (Oates, 2009, p. 10).

A startling coincidence for each of the older gentlemen was the striking resemblance their “nymphets” bore to lost loves of their youth. Humbert recalled with sadness how much Lolita resembled his first real love, “my little Annabel” Leigh (Nabokov, 1955, pp. 9 et seq.), who perished at age fourteen from typhus, a not-so-subtle allusion to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” (Poe, 2014, p. 1). For Kidder, conversely, Katya discovered in one of his books an enigmatic “dedication: To My Lost Naomi (1939-1956)” (Oates, 2009, p. 74). She noticed immediately that she and Naomi shared similar appearances, but Kidder refused to comment about Naomi or the circumstances of her death (Oates, 2009, p. 65). Thus a distinct overlay of melancholy, of the attraction of youth hoping to be recaptured, underlies both of these works and possibly provides at least partial motivation for the aged suitors.

Beyond this aspect, however, Humber and Kidder differ tremendously. Humbert is a self-acknowledged pervert, attracted uncontrollably to girls of a specific age and type. He defined “’nine’” and “’fourteen’” as the boundaries—the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks—of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 17). Humbert lurks on park benches and strolls beaches. He begged for others “to leave me alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 20). He even arranged, unsuccessfully, with a mother/pimp to engage in a liaison with such an alleged nubile creature (Nabokov, 1955, p. 24). Kidder, on the other hand, revealed no overt intentions toward young girls other than Katya, although there was a gallery of females who had posed for his artistic efforts about which Katya inquired and he failed to respond (Oates, 2009, p. 65), just as he was silent regarding Naomi. Humbert in Lolita described the intensity of his passion for these “nymphets,” but such self-confession is missing in Oates’ work. This may be due in part to more than just substantive preference of each author. Nabokov’s book is written in first person with Humbert as narrator, hence much personal insight is revealed toward his peculiar proclivities and tastes. A Fair Maiden is penned from the third person viewpoint of Katya, so less attention is given to the thoughts and inspirations of Kidder, and more to the reactions and responses of the inconsistent, erratic young girl.

The fact that Humbert narrates “Lolita” not only provides for more introspection on his part, it allows the reader to partake in the evolution of Humbert’s feelings from enchanted lust towards Lolita to what may be described as sacrifice-producing devotion or even genuine love. Toward the end of the book, when Humbert was reunited with Lolita after a lengthy, unwanted separation, he still desired her, and implored her to come live with him. “Come just as you are. And we shall live happily ever after,” he insisted (Nabokov, 1955, p. 303). He did this despite the fact that she not only had passed the age that would qualify her for his “nymphet” status, but she was married and cumbersomely pregnant with another man’s child. After failing to persuade Lolita to join him, Humbert sought out the man who initially came between them, confronted him and made him aware by reciting a poem, of the reason for his death. After a struggle, Humbert finally shot and killed the man. The murder was conducted in a dramatic, prolonged fashion, as Humbert noted that “the whole sad business had taken more than an hour” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 330).

Kidder’s real intentions towards his protégé are far more difficult to ascertain, as they are revealed through second-hand recitations of Katya, and fraught with ideological references and archaic allusions. Kidder told Katya that they were “soul-mates.” He asked her “Do you believe in soul mates, Katya? That some individuals are fated for each other? No matter the differences between them. No matter the vagaries of external circumstance” (Oates, 2009, p. 62), meaning, to his regret, that they were born during disparate eras. He referenced many times a destiny or purpose that he had in mind for her, which she equated often with some deed for money (since he paid her for her presence), yet contrasted with his devotion and urge to love and protect her. She seemed to jump back and forth between these extremes both in thought and deed (Day, 2010, p. 1), for at some times she was accommodating (when she returned time and again to Kidder’s house to pose for him) and at other times aggressively hostile towards the old man (such as when she and her cousin beat and attempted to rob him). The nature of this relationship seems either more complicated than Humbert’s and Lolita’s, or more erratic and fanciful, since much of it took on a mythical quality due to Kidder’s lapses into fairy-tale language of kings and queen bride/widows. In describing his final wish to Katya, he said “so it came to pass that the aged King died happily in the arms of the Fair Maiden; and the Fair Maiden, who was both bride and widow on her wedding night, came to be known through all the kingdom as the King’s soul mate, and revered and envied by all for the remainder of her life” (Oates, 2009, p. 127).

The greatest disparity in these works, despite their common theme, are the expectations and outcomes of these assignations on the part of the four main characters, especially the older men. That both men are pedophiles is without doubt, although neither book contains explicitly graphic descriptions of rape or sexual violation. In “Lolita” there is admittedly plenty of lustful gazing and daydreaming, but sordid details are absent. Humbert reported kissing his stepdaughter, but spared the readers details of their actual intercourse. Even Lolita refused to go into lurid detail concerning an offer to star in a pornographic film. When Humbert pressed her for vivid descriptions, she responded:
‘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.’ (Sade’s Justine was twelve at the start.)
‘What things exactly?’
‘Oh, things… Oh, I—really I… (Nabokov, 1955, p. 301).
Part of this reticence on Humbert’s behalf to reveal blatant details may be due to the fact that the writing was intended as a posthumous homage to his beloved Lolita. In fact, both of them are dead by the time the book reaches its readers, according to his final directive, wherein he announced that “I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive. Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book” (Nabokov, 1955, p. 335).

In marked contrast, despite his language about being soul mates, Kidder had no intention of spending his life with Katya. Just the opposite: as described in the fairy tale about the King and Fair Maiden, his great purpose for her was to assist him in committing suicide, in essence being complicit in an act of euthanasia (Oates, 2009, 127), for which she would be well compensated. As mentioned previously (Day, 2010, p. 1), throughout the narration Katya experienced extreme reversals of opinions and feelings towards Kidder—at times believing “He is the only one who loves me. And I love him” (Oates, 2009, 122) (italics in original); then alternatively hating him. “What—what did you do to me? It was more than just wine, wasn’t it! Made me fall asleep, so you could do nasty things to me! I—I hate you—” (Oates, 2009, 127). The latter view predominated especially after he drugged and seduced her in more explicit terms than ever appear in the recollections of the more visually-active and descriptive predator/pedophile Humbert:
A man’s wet lips were on her breasts, he was sucking her breasts; Katya could not see his face, she squirmed in protest, tried to speak but could not speak, she was laughing because it tickled so, there was a sudden sensation in her belly, between her legs, a kind of tickling yet quivering tight; the man’s breath was warm against her belly, his breath was warm against the crinkly hairs that sprouted between her legs, of which she was embarrassed, the fuzzy little bush… he was kissing, licking with his tongue, between her legs he was licking with his tongue and sucking and Katya tried to push him away but could not…she began to whimper, like a young child whimpering, helpless and thrashing from side to side, as if impaled, yet slowly, for she could not wake herself fully… (Oates, 2009, p. 125).
Despite these contradictions between love and hate, Katya, acquiesced in the end. She joined a frail Kidder in bed as his child-queen, and fed him a lethal dose of pills in between sips of wine.

In sum, both Nabokov and Oates have tackled a societally sensitive subject, pedophilia, without sinking to the level of sensationalism or smut. Indeed, Nabokov’s work has been hailed as one of the best pieces of literature of the 20th century, indeed ranked fifth best overall by Newsweek (2015), based on its complicated syntax, clever multilingual puns, and overall excellence in composition. Oates’ work seems less remarkable, particularly due to the convoluted ending where reality is overshadowed by fairy tale, which heightens the improbability of the situation. Of course, Oates is writing a relatively short novella whereas Lolita is a full-length novel, with room for character development (at least of Humbert) and multitudinous artistic phrasings and devices.

Perhaps the bitter irony of the two works is the identity of the only character left alive after all is completed. Sophisticated, devoted yet self-acknowledged pervert Humbert had perished by the time his work was published, as had the object of his devotion, Lolita. Kidder’s death was a significant, if somewhat twisted, part of the storyline in A Fair Maiden. The sole survivor of this unlikely quartet is Katya Spivak, who is at times sympathetic and other times irritatingly opportunistic. Her assisting Kidder in terminating his life may be seen as some sort of redemption for her “bad habits” (Oates, 2009, p. 12), in particular the attack and attempted robbery of her benefactor; yet she remains for many the least compelling of any of these characters. In literature as well as in life, it is not necessarily the good, or even the thought-inspiring, who remain, to possibly flourish.