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.

So the novel, like bourgeois marriage, its central theme, has its emotional limits. Within them, it will enact the themes of property and family, the great contracts and their transgression. This is the apparently simple programme of Tanner’s book: but it does not stay simple for long. For he finds the analogy between the history of the novel and the history of its subject to be very complex. The novel is a ‘transgressive mode’: it broke the contracts offered by earlier genres and offered new ones. Locke argued that relations of contract were substitutes for family dependence; Tanner applies his words to fiction, for the shift in marriage arrangements is paralleled by a shift in the novel to ‘individual obligation’ and a perpetual change in the terms of the contract, the constant incursion of new and transgressive forms. In marriage as such there is no narrative; especially in bourgeois marriage, so long as it is stable, there is simply nothing to do and nothing to say. Adultery alters all that by introducing a pseudo-contract between incompetent parties. The novel mimes this change, grows ever more problematic, flouts and violates the contracts, tells the story that could not have existed before. Its method, like its material, involves the intrusion of false contracts into the stability of true ones.

Tanner makes this opening point with much energy and fertility of illustration, but we have still to learn the scope of his ambition and his power. For this is an extraordinary book, which may well be seen as marking an epoch in the criticism (that is, the reading) of fiction. It has many faults, mostly related to his own transgressive effort. It is monstrously long – the section on Madame Bovary alone runs to some seventy thousand words – and one often has the impression that the glosses and aperçus are coming out under such high pressure that the writer cannot spare the time for the more menial task of organising them, or even splitting them up into paragraphs. He often seems to be breathlessly reminding himself of where he has got to ‘at this stage’, and announcing what it is he proposes to do next, or after he has said just a few more things about what he has just been saying. The text is sprinkled with polyglot misprints – I counted over fifty without trying hard – as if there were more important matters to think about than getting individual words right; and they look odd in a book that attends so intimately to puns, slips, metatheses and homophones.

Yet somehow these lapses seem natural to the enterprise. Interesting as the general argument is, readers are, I think, bound to attach more importance to the brilliant assault on three great novels – La Nouvelle Héloise, Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) and Madame Bovary – which Tanner reads as it were to destruction, tearing at them with every instrument he can lay hands on, and pausing only to pursue, in dozens of digressions and excursions, notions about other books which come up in the course of the main action. Roughly speaking, any thinker can become an instrument in Tanner’s hands as long as he isn’t primarily a literary critic – Locke, Vico, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, De Rougemont, Bataille, Foucault. The poaching is done with any light and any net that comes to hand, and I cannot think these streams ever yielded so much to a single transgressor.

At this stage (as Tanner would say) I should offer some account of what kind of achievement this is, but before I do so I want to make some remarks about its significance. It studies marital contract and transgression as these are represented and mimed in novels; and in doing so it reminds us of another contract, and transgresses it. I mean the old contract between critic and reader (here suggested by the title, the blurb, and all the amenities of scholarly publication), which was founded on the assumption that although the writer was likely to be better-informed on the particular subject, he and the reader were essentially the same kind of person, similarly educated and likely to be brought to agreement, or left in informed disagreement, by a familiar, sanctioned mode of discourse: ‘This is so, is it not?’ It is an assumption of likemindedness, of literate community, of the possibility of consensus. Outside that community stood the largely indifferent army of the less competent – of those who might, in an understandable sense, be regarded as unable to read in any adequate way Madame Bovary, The Golden Bowl, or whatever. But the community of the competent was still of a certain magnitude: works of literary criticism were and are published in the ordinary way, and not as xeroxed manuscripts or microfiches.

And here is the transgression. Tanner signals it by his refusal to consider what has formerly been said, by other literary critics, about these books. He moves out of the consensus with its familiar ways of arguing, and offers a manner of reading which will seem bizarre even to some readers whose manners of reading already seem bizarre enough to ‘general readers’. It is not ‘academic’, being at odds with the normal criticism of the academies; indeed, it represents a violation of the institutional consensus and suggests the break-up of that consensus. There are even stronger signs of the break-up in the United States, though it is possible to see the American transgressor as a sect with a programme (suggested in Deconstruction and Criticism, the new collection of essays from Yale), whereas Tanner has no firm theoretical base. He can observe the contract if it suits him (for example, he will ask whether the subtleties he is considering are ‘deliberate’, consciously arranged by an author – a question unlikely to be asked by most of the Americans). Like Birkin in Women in Love, he feels there is no such thing as pure accident: he reads every word of the text, not skipping great tracts of it as an ordinary reading unwittingly does, because it is in the unread places that one finds the intimate consonance, the surprising secret, the significant transgression. (Indeed, one may see in such criticism the ultimate conquest of modern interpretative method by Freud.) Thus Tanner violates the old contract, does virtually as he pleases, digresses, speculates, pursues some fugitive sense across the frontier into silliness, or what the consensus would call silliness.

Obviously the book is not an easy read, but there is hardly a page that lacks some original and enriching perception. Let me mention some of his observations on Goethe’s novel. Mann called it the most daring novel about adultery, though in fact nobody in it actually commits adultery (the same is true of Rousseau’s book, in which the rejection of adultery as disastrously subversive is almost hysterical). What happens instead is a quasi-adulterous act between married partners, each substituting (in fantasy) house-guest for spouse. On the relations between these four people Tanner exerts all his ingenuity. He studies anthropologically the relations between host and guest. He asks why three of the characters involved have closely related names (Charlotte, Otto, Ottilie), and why the child born of the central and rather louche sexual act should resemble not its parents but the lovers for whom they were surrogates, and why it should be named Otto rather than Edward, after its father. The running-together of names is a denial of the separations proper to marriage. It is echoed in other breakdowns of separation, as when Charlotte allows a blot to run together the words of a letter; or when a plan is formed to alter the features of the landscape by deliberate flooding; or when we learn of a count and a baroness who have a liaison but live separately. The fixities of marriage, and the fluid forces that may wash over them or erase them, are represented in other ways – for instance, by the topography of the house, which has a woman’s wing with locked door, but has also secret spiral staircases: ‘for every door expressing a taboo of no-passage, there is some other architectural feature suggesting possibilities of other modes of entry ... every consciously arranged separation suggesting new combinations by another route ... The house is like a code in which the inhabitants can formulate different messages according to where they position themselves, the syntax of their arranging ...’

The ‘central act of non-adulterous adultery’ is for Tanner a critical moment in the history of the European novel because in it adultery and licit sex completely overlap: the monstrous intrudes into the normal, the contractual; law turns into its opposite; the child ‘begotten in double adultery’ separates the parents it ought to bind together. And the central figure of the book is separation/relationship. The title suggests it, for Verwandtschaften are family relationships, and not elective; to call them so is to establish the thematic paradox on the title page. It is a paradox reflected in every marriage, which by means of a contract turns a voluntary non-blood relationship into a binding blood relationship. All this is reinforced by the chemical figures, represented in the narrative by the experiments of a visiting English virtuoso lord, and in the language by repeated allusion to affinities.

I have given the merest hint of the complexity of Tanner’s observations. He persuades Goethe’s novel to represent, in great depth, most of his theories about the nature and necessity of transgression in bourgeois marriage and in the novel. Madame Bovary, a much more highly wrought work, is, I suppose, his real test piece. He undertakes to ‘open up the text in a way that will lay bare some of its most important lines of force, its most energetic intentions’, beginning with a marvellously minute study of Charles’s cap and his first day at school. The cap is a random assemblage of sexual and uterine puns, the school desk the first in a series of ambiguous containers that includes the box used in the operation on Hippolyte’s foot and the carriage in which Emma rides with Léon. The significance of the new boy’s need to yell out his name (‘Charbovari!’) takes pages to unravel; he is stampeded, like Emma later, into a neglect of the necessary gaps between words (or persons, such as husband and lover). Most of the characters have punning names: Binet is ‘save-all’ and ‘duplicate’, and his lathe produces an endless line of identical napkin-rings, emblems of the bourgeois marriage Emma must escape; the labels of Homais are also emblematic, establishing with arbitrary precision the boundaries between one thing and another. All this is reinforced by Tanner’s endless ingenuity in the detection of pun and metathesis, as well as his ability to take a much longer view, to see the novel as a whole in relation to other novels and to the other forms of discourse proper to its historical moment and ours.

It remains a question whether this remarkable book, or others of its kind, will ever make much contribution to the common wisdom – whether the rest of us will in future learn to read more of a novel than we are inclined or encouraged to do by prevailing contracts, and whether we shall come to understand the powerful analogy between the history of the form and the history of marriage. I suggested at the outset that there is an aspect of adultery (roughly, the aspect of pollution) which the novel registers only inadequately. Yet it is true, I think, that there is an analogy. The history of marriage and that of the novel could both be told in terms of the progressive waning of authority: the disappearance of the omnipotent father and the omnipotent author, the invasion of contract by transgression. If the contractual fixities were never threatened by change there would be nothing to say of a marriage, and a meagre future for fiction. But just as many marriages still resist adultery, and many readers resist novels that too manifestly ignore the old contracts, so will there be resistance to this new transgressive criticism. We may have here an avant-garde that will never be joined by the main army – happy enough behind the lines and content with its familiar rations.