As husbands went, Zeus was a tart. Sure, he had the whole “King of the Gods, ruler of mankind” thing going for him, but the constant philandering was pushing Hera to the brink. The other goddesses she could handle, but the nymphs were an insult. And don’t even get her started on the mortals! As she said to Hestia, “You try living with a man who’d turn himself into a swan just to bed a socialite.” True, Hera knew what he was like when she married him (they were brother and sister, after all), but after he ate his first wife, she had figured Zeus’s womanizing would calm down. No such luck. And now she was stuck with him for all eternity.
And so begins the history of adultery in literature, a tale that is as old as human civilization itself. Even the Bible, our foundational text, is a bit confusing on the subject. First it commands us not to do it, then it turns around cheerfully and gives us a bunch of examples of guys who did, from Abraham and Hagar to Jacob and his wife’s handmaiden. As soon as people could communicate, we were compelled to tell stories about love. But there are only two basic love stories when you get down to it: The one about the star-crossed lovers that ends in “happily ever after” – and the other one. The one about what happens next.
That narrative, as dark and agonizingly complicated as the nature of desire itself, is a story that has long obsessed writers, from Chaucer to Joyce to Updike and beyond. To speak of “the literature of adultery” is to speak of literature itself. As a subject matter, infidelity spans era and genre, stretching from the melodramatic (Bridges of Madison County, Gone With the Wind, anything by Candace Bushnell) to the magnificent (Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, The Great Gatsby).
Tolstoy’s masterpiece, which tells the story of a married Russian aristocrat who destroys her family and herself for the love of a rich young cavalry officer, has just been released in its 13th feature-film adaptation to date. Our enduring fascination with the tragic Russian love triangle has stood the test of time, and for good reason. On a basic level, we are all Anna: Conflicted creatures, anxious to fit in with our peers, yet slaves to our deepest desires. The struggle to balance our collective and individual selves gets to the very root of what it is to be human. When the two urges come into conflict, as happens in any extramarital affair, all hell breaks lose. And from this hell a basic quandary arises: Can I have my wedding cake and eat it too? The answer, for Anna and most fictional adulterers like her, is a clear and decisive no.
And yet we persist in trying.
Sorting through my own library for examples of adultery lit, I plucked almost half the fiction off the shelves. Here is a random selection the books I found, in no particular order: Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates), Any Human Heart (William Boyd), Black Swan Green (David Mitchell), The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford), The Sportswriter (Richard Ford), Loving Frank (Nancy Horan), Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), The World According to Garp (John Irving), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera), The Moons of Jupiter (Alice Munro), and I could go on. A more diverse selection of books you’d be hard pressed to find, and yet all of them hinge on a marital betrayal as either the central inciting incident or the dark secret at the heart of the plot. Studying my shelves, I realized that when it comes to fiction, it isn’t so much a question of whether it concerns adultery as how or why.
So what is it, then, that makes adultery so endlessly irresistible to novelists?
While realists like John Updike, Philip Roth, Richard Ford or Alice Munro use infidelity to strip their characters bare, reducing otherwise controlled men and women to quivering puddles of desire, hawk-eyed satirists like Kingsley and Martin Amis employ adultery like a knife, cutting through all pomposity to reveal the vulnerable animal beneath.
Just think of Martin Amis’s Richard Tull in The Information, who discovers his wife has been secretly supporting him by pimping herself out to his best friend and literary rival. Or Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom in any situation ever. Nancy Mitford, interestingly, is one of the few female writers who takes an unsentimental approach to extramarital love. When Polly Hampton, the protagonist in Love in a Cold Climate, is disappointed by her marriage, she doesn’t leave it, but sensibly takes a lover instead.
Stories of affairs are not just a modern phenomenon. Infidelity is central to many of the seminal works of English-language fiction starting with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The drunken Miller tells his story of “harlotrye” (an erotic triangle that puts Fifty Shades of Grey to shame) as a bawdy rebuttal to the pretentious and highbrow Knight. Here again, the story of adultery offers an earthy antidote to the chaste archetype of the star-crossed lovers. The tension between these two versions of love – the idealized and the “real” – is what makes adultery-as-subject-matter so fascinating. And the most enduring narratives strive to have elements of both.
Madame Bovary is the greatest novel on adultery ever written (some would argue the best novel ever written, period, but that’s another essay). Flaubert takes the prize, in my view, because he invented a brand-new literary style to express the infidelity’s inherent psychological conflict. The free, indirect voice takes the reader deep inside the tortured and feverish mind of Emma Bovary and then cleverly pulls us out again, so we can see her in all her bourgeois self-absorption. She is at once the tragic heroine and a melodramatic housewife having a tawdry little fling. This mixture of the first- and third-person narration, now widely used in fiction, was radical in its time. It dovetails perfectly with the spectre of extramarital relations – an act at once romantically courageous and pathetically lewd – and makes Flaubert’s novel a sublime marriage of subject and form (if you will excuse the metaphor).
Marriage is the foundation of contemporary Western society; no wonder novelists like to chip away at it. People who refuse it, or worse, knowingly disrupt it are viewed with suspicion at best and outright hostility at worst. That is why, in many countries, adultery (for women) is still a crime punishable by death. It’s also why, as a society, we can accept gays who wish to marry, but apparently not generals who screw around on their wives.
One thing is certain, adultery isn’t going anywhere. It’s the inside story of modern family life. The thing that’s happening everywhere, all the time, underneath the strained smiles and polite small talk of our public and private lives. Adultery is the thing we can’t see – unless, of course, we are doing it ourselves.
If there is one thing we should learn from its omnipresence in literature, it’s that cheating is as common as muck. We can fear it (and what happily monogamous person doesn’t?), but we might as well accept it – or at the very least try to understand how it works. Thankfully, we can do this by reading great works of fiction, which might save us the trouble of having to throw ourselves under a train when, invariably, it all goes wrong.