Adultery as a Literary Theme Analysis


Discussion of adultery in literature must recognize a far-reaching network of terms and categories into which the term “adultery” fits, and in which it must be differentiated. On the one hand, there are terms such as “desire,” “passion,” “sexuality,” and “sexual liaison.” Taken by themselves, such terms could be encompassed by a category such as the erotic in literature, or even pornography. The identity involved is the individual’s alone. On the other hand, however, lie such terms as “marriage,” “family,” social contract and “religious covenant.” These point to the fact that adultery (sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse) is a social act, and literature deals with the social or socioreligious repercussions of unfaithfulness in marriage as well as with questions of individual identity. Shifts in the social identity of the adulterer or adulteress are ultimately shown to be of more significance than the personal in certain literary genres and historical periods.

Historical Background

It has been claimed that adultery is central to Western literature. For example, Tony Tanner, in his groundbreaking study, Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (1979), suggests that it is “the unstable triangularity of adultery rather than the static symmetry of marriage that is the generative form of Western literature as we know it.” This is too large a claim: The classic nineteenth century novel, for example, deals with an unmarried hero or heroine and the revealing of a true identity in marriage. It is certainly true, however, that the plot of adultery has been mythically generative from ancient times: The Trojan war, centered on Helen’s unfaithfulness, inspired Greek epic and drama. The Arthurian cycle contains as a central feature Guinivere’s adultery with Sir Lancelot, leading to the fall of the Round Table. Such transgressions are heroic not only in that are they of highborn heroes and heroines but also in that they cause their society to become tragically uprooted.

Several other literary traditions have developed and form part of the ongoing treatment of adultery in literature. One is the comic tradition of the cuckold, often an older man with a young wife, as in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) or in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1351; English translation, 1620). These are tales in which adultery has relatively little moral, religious, or social implication. Some of...

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American Identity

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.


Suggested Readings

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1962.

Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Translated by Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.

Rougemont, Denis de. Love in the Western World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

Tanner, Tony. Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.