What Is Joyce Carol Oates Hinting at Here?

A Fair Maiden

By Joyce Carol Oates

Katya Spivak, sixteen, comes from the wrong side of the tracks, Vineland, NJ, where she feels unloved and badly used, by a father who deserted her, a mother who neglects her, brothers and sisters who have little to do with her, and a sometimes boyfriend who abuses her. So, you can imagine, working as a nanny for a well-off couple in Bayhead, NJ, a wealthy summer community, would be a welcome escape from her normal life.

However, even here, though she loves the little girl and boy she minds, she feels the mother takes advantage of her and the husband, when around, leers at her. So you can imagine how the attention paid to her by wealthy and refined Marcus Kidder, sixty-eight, appeals to her, at least initially. That is, until their budding relationship, predicated on his belief he knows her, perhaps from another time, and his use of her as a model, for Marcus Kidder not only is rich, he is a painter, sculptor, composer, and writer of children’s books, strikes you as decidedly wrong. It gives nothing away to say readers will almost immediately suspect Marcus Kidder’s intentions, heightened when he tells Katya that she will one day, when properly prepared, assist him on special mission.

JCO’s writing style, here at its most affected, especially in the speech of Marcus Kidder, works superbly establishing character and building the reader’s wariness: something very bad is going to happen. You’ll easily recognize the pattern here, called grooming, and you’ll be even more suspicious of Marcus Kidder, as you observe, along with Kayta, that he has painted and lined his studio walls with numerous young women like her. But things may not be entirely as you fear them to be, and this includes your worst fears.

And, upon reflection, after journeying with Katya and Marcus Kidder, you may discover the seemingly simple tale a bit more layered and complex. This is because Oates, consciously or not, raises questions in your mind regarding moral exceptions for artists and the strictures on one’s personal control of one’s life, not to mention the involvement of others, even on a voluntary basis.

After reading A Fair Maiden, share if you see a subtext in this dark, suspenseful short novel. w/c

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