Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The title "The Adulterous Woman" is chosen to convey the inner turmoil which is so common in human existence. It projects an expectation in the reader of a physically adulterous woman; the twist is that Janine's struggles are inner ones, not physical ones.
As the story opens, Janine and her husband, Marcel, are traveling by bus for Marcel's business. From the beginning, the third-person-limited focus allows the reader to grow increasingly aware of Janine's feelings regarding her husband:
With wisps of greying hair growing low on a narrow forehead, a broad nose, a flabby mouth, Marcel looked like a pouting faun. . . . His heavy torso would slump back on his widespread legs and he would become inert again and absent, with a vacant stare. Nothing about him seemed active but his thick hairless hands, made even shorter by the flannel underwear extending below his cuffs and covering his wrists.
These are not the observations of a woman passionately in love. Instead, they reflect a passionless marriage in which Janine is simply existing with the choice of partner she has made. Janine isn't kind with her own self-analysis, either. She longs for the strength she had two decades before, when she was a gymnast. She knows that she's a bit too heavy. Janine has settled into a life and marriage that is now passionless.
On the bus, Janine reflects on the years of her marriage. Marcel has provided for her—telling her that, if something happens to him, she will be taken care of. She has borne no children, seemingly not by choice; throughout the story, Janine seems to press or touch her stomach symbolically. She reflects that she needs to be needed.
The bus temporarily breaks down, and a soldier notices Janine and offers her a lozenge. The reader is led to believe that this is the instigation of the adulterous relationship reflected in the title as Janine seems to notice key details of the soldier—the way he smiles and his stare. However, the narration is only planting a seed of suspense here, as the relationship never goes any further.
After going out with her husband, who tries to do some business on the streets, Janine asks if they can take the hotel manager's advice and climb up a terrace to see the desert around them. Marcel reluctantly agrees. The view is stunning and meticulously described, and it seems to awaken something in Janine's soul:
She knew that this kingdom had been eternally promised her and yet that it would never be hers, never again, except in this fleeting moment perhaps when she opened her eyes again on the suddenly motionless sky and on its waves of steady light, while the voices rising from the Arab town suddenly fell silent. It seemed to her that the world's course had just stopped and that, from that moment on, no one would ever age any more or die. Everywhere, henceforth, life was suspended—except in her heart, where, at the same moment, someone was weeping with affliction and wonder.
When Janine slips into bed beside her husband that evening, she longs for more. She tries to symbolically and literally cling to her sleeping husband in the dark, but she is eventually propelled out of bed, out of the room they share, and out of the hotel. She breathes in the cold of the desert night, letting it fill the core of her being.
When she returns to her husband, Janine is in tears; ambiguously, she tells him "It's nothing."