Vladimir Nabokov (of the Lolita fame, which I assume you may have heard) wrote a short story called A Nursery Tale. It was a bit rough on the edges but entertaining nonetheless. I cannot upload a copy of the story but you can buy the Collected Stories here. Here is commentary on the short story. Also check out Goethe’s Faust for some similarities in the idea of the devil making an offer to a man. The story should make an interesting lesson for students of operations research and game theory.

(Spoiler alert!) The starting point is a young, sexually frustrated, extremely shy man Erwin (which sounds unassuming) who “collects” women he meets outside by filing them in his memory. At some point, the devil, in the form of a middle-aged woman named Frau Monde (possibly, a reference to her worldly nature with French and German undertones) who has to somehow exit from his/her/its role, decides to give this man the ultimate “having your cake and eating it too” moment. The deal: Collect as many women as you want in your mind and by the strike of midnight the devil will lead him to his harem containing all the women he selected. The mathematical catch: There should be an odd number of women.The devil assured him that no soul-taking will take place.

For anyone, this should be the grandest deal of all. In fact, the devil makes no attempt to foil Erwin’s collecting. Erwin initially settled for 5 women and went home to rest until midnight. However, his mind began to wander to the other women he could have had. His imaginings dragged him out of the bed to collect more deep into the night. So far he got 12 women with some more time for one more to get an odd total. He finally finds one more but cannot see her face. So he chases her that it thrills him and somehow the wind and the smells of the night was conspiring to let him chase this last woman. He finally finds her and adds her to his collection just in time for the midnight meetup with the devil.

At the end, the devil reveals that he only collected 12 women, not 13, because the last woman was the first woman he saw whom he eloquently described as:

He saw her so clearly, with such piercing and perfect force of perception, that, it seemed, nothing new about her features might have been disclosed by years of previous intimacy.

Erwin then kisses the hand of the devil and the devil disappears into darkness. Erwin goes home depressed.

That’s the story. Let me change it a bit. The devil clearly is not the antagonist here. Erwin’s human failings, suitably anthropomorphized, are the antagonists. The devil kept its word until the very end. In fact, the devil lets Erwin know that it knows the women he chooses (through some subtle hints–which are artfully done).

In my ending, I would let Erwin change the devil’s mind by adding the devil in whatever image it desires into his collection. To me, being with the devil for eternity is a small price to pay for short-run excessive greediness. I think he will be able to convince the devil to accept his proposal. The important thing is not to bore the devil. Erwin has to make an equally valuable exchange. In fact, the story is a game theory and optimal stopping problem. Which brings me to my question: When should Erwin have stopped?

My answer is that if it is true that the first woman is as beautiful and as mysterious as he described in the quote above, he should have stopped there. Of course, this is not the correct mathematical solution which somehow ignores human failings. He actually could have stopped at the five and went to sleep (or jacked off to take his mind off things). In most works of literature, I think the devil is most honest–in fact literally too honest. Human failings seem to be at the core of human suffering.