In the light of this discussion, certain key American texts stand out in their unique development, especially of this last tradition. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) has an unremitting Protestant and patriarchal society as its setting. There is no interest at all in Hester’s physical act of adultery: The whole romance is quite unerotic. The stress is on the inner states of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. The attempt to flee society by going into the forest or overseas is thwarted by the sense of inner violation rather than social pressure. In the end, confession, death, and atonement are the necessary price to be paid for redemption. In romance, the hope for a less legalistic, more graceful social identity for the sexually fallen is a common theme.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) likewise appeals to a society in transition from patriarchy to female self-determination. A contemporary, Henry James, uses traditional American themes of innocence in What Maisie Knew (1897) to make a child’s identity central to the novel of adultery. The ironies generated are rich and complex: What Maisie knows is not the knowing of a sophisticated adult society accustoming itself to adultery and divorce, but its falsity, its breaking of all its vows and promises. Adultery becomes, as in much of the modern American novel, a sign of a society losing its values and descending into meaningless personal relationships. John Updike’s Couples (1968) is a good example of this: In the novel, the social and sexual games of the Restoration comedy returns. In an attempt to find new plots, the old games are constantly replayed.
Arthur Miller makes perhaps the last expression of family values, in which adultery is significant transgression. In Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), single acts of adultery form defining moments, not in their action, but in their confession or denial, making protagonists take on new authentic or inauthentic identities that, for Miller, become American archetypes. Pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud pointed out that the price of civilization is repression; much modern American literature prefers the anarchy of undifferentiated sexual libido, with the result that adultery in literature no longer signifies.