Novels about Adultery

Frank Kermode

  • Love and Marriage by Laurence Lerner
    Edward Arnold, 264 pp, £12.00, August 1979, ISBN 0 7131 6227 9
  • Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression by Tony Tanner
    Johns Hopkins, 383 pp, £9.75, April 1980, ISBN 0 8018 2178 9

It calls for no great acumen to spot a connection between adultery and theft. According to Dr Johnson, ‘the essence of the crime’ lay in ‘the confusion of progeny’, for by imposing bastards on her husband the adulterous wife diminished the inheritance of his legitimate issue. Since his infidelities were without this material consequence, they counted for much less – a tumble with a chambermaid was ‘mere wantonness of appetite’. Boswell says that this opinion showed Johnson’s usual solid judgment and knowledge of human nature: but he was moved to ask whether it wasn’t a little hard that ‘one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman.’ Not at all, said Johnson. ‘It is the great principle she is taught. When she has given up that principle she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue.’ Like Eve before her, she has by one wicked act disordered the entire fabric of social happiness and stability, of which property is only another aspect.

Female honour is so narrowly conceived because of its simple, intimate relation to male inheritance. Male honour, much more complicated, has nevertheless the responsibility of protecting that same inheritance: it must react to any challenge offered to name, station, or the honour of the female who has been given that name and that station. Duelling codes are an extension of legal and theological bans already imposed by society, presumably because these bans seem insufficient. But when marriage changes and considerations other than property grow important, the law grows gentler and ideas of honour, after reaching a climax of punctilio, tend to decompose. Duelling dies out and adultery grows more interesting; it produces more varied narratives; in fact, it becomes a central theme in a new form, the novel.

That’s too glib, of course. The novel may have benefited from the dissociation of the notion of adultery from that of property, but there are other associations less easily dissolved. What about jealousy, an atavism no doubt, but still painful, and also having to do with the family, but not the family as a financial corporation? We are all early acquainted with this ugly passion. Yet, curiously, it is not a prominent feature of the novel. I’ve been trying to compile a list of novels which show a lively interest in it, and can think of very few: Gissing was a bit obsessive about it. Tolstoy describes a rather special case in The Kreutzer Sonata and Graham Greene another in The End of the Affair. There is Herzog, and there must be more. But it seems almost as rare as duelling, which, still important in Richardson, crops up anachronistically in Flaubert, and even more so in Wyndham Lewis. Wronged spouses in novels mostly seem to be miserable rather than furious or sullied – the Prince de Clèves, for instance, and Karenin, Ford’s heroes and Tony Last. The drama seems better suited than the novel to the treatment of the pathology of jealousy, perhaps because it has a primitive association with pollution; after Shakespeare, it’s hard to know what more could be said on this subject.

Laurence Lerner, in his book Love and Marriage, develops Weber’s point that marriage is threatened by too high claims for sexuality, finding in the literary tradition an inarticulate wisdom, an awareness that no social arrangement can bear the intensity of demand represented by Tristan and Othello, Lancelot and Phèdre. Jealousy is an erotic excess; the novel in its nature as the genre corresponding to a more domesticated sexuality condemns this excess, as Madame Bovary is in itself a condemnation of Emma’s reading. And certainly Tony Tanner’s book on adultery hardly as much as mentions jealousy. In a second volume, he proposes to discuss Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter, The Good Soldier and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, among other books; they will hardly afford him opportunities to say much more.

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