Adultery in literature

Adultery in literature

The theme of adultery features in a wide range of literature through the ages. This is hardly surprising, as the fact of adultery has been a part of the human existence for as long as there has been marriage. As a theme it automatically brings its own conflict, between the people concerned and between sexual desires and a sense of loyalty; it brings intense emotions into the foreground, and has consequences for all concerned.

As marriage and family are often regarded as basis of society a story of adultery often shows the conflict between social pressure and individual struggle for happiness.

In the Bible, incidents of adultery are present almost from the start. The story of Abraham contains several incidents and serve as warnings or stories of sin and forgiveness. Abraham attempts to continue his blood line through his wife's maidservant, with consequences that continue through history. Jacob's family life is complicated with similar incidents.

In Christian hagiography, Saint Gangulphus (d. 760 AD) was killed by his wife's lover after the Burgundian saint had decided to become a hermit. He was thus invoked against adultery and marital difficulties. [ [ Saint Patrick's Church: Saints of May 11 ] ]

Shakespeare wrote three plays in which the perception of adultery plays a significant part. In both "Othello" and "The Winter's Tale" it is the (false) belief by the central character that his wife is unfaithful that brings about his downfall. In "The Merry Wives of Windsor," an adulterous plot by Falstaff prompts elaborate and repeated revenge by the wronged wives; the comedy of the play hides a deeper anxiety about the infidelity of women.

In "The Country Wife" by William Wycherley, the morals of English Restoration society are satirised. The object of the rake hero is to seduce as many married ladies as possible, while blinding their husbands to what is going on by pretending to be impotent. The scheme is very successful, and it is assumed that he goes on adding more notches to his belt after the final curtain.

The following works of literature have adultery and its consequences as one of their major themes. (M) and (F) stand for "adulterer" and "adulteress" respectively.


*Edward Albee: "Marriage Play" (M, ?F)
*Simon Gray: "Japes" (F)
*Arthur Miller: "Broken Glass" (F)
*Peter Nichols: "Passion Play" (M,F)
*Harold Pinter: "The Homecoming" (F)
*William Shakespeare: "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice" (no adulterers/esses, though the plot revolves around the perception of adultery)
*William Shakespeare: "The Winter's Tale" the suspicion of adultery initiates the plot
*Richard Wagner: "Tristan und Isolde" based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult (F)
*Hugh Whitemore: "Disposing of the Body" (M,F)
*Tennessee Williams: "Baby Doll" (F)
*William Wycherley: "The Country Wife" (F)


*Kingsley Amis: "That Uncertain Feeling" (M,F)
*Malcolm Bradbury: "The History Man" (M,F)
*John Braine: "The Jealous God" (M,F)
*Charlotte Bronte: "Jane Eyre" (M,F)
*James M. Cain: "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (F)
*Geoffrey Chaucer: "The Canterbury Tales" (M,F)
*Kate Chopin: "The Awakening" (F)
*Albert Cohen: "Belle du Seigneur" (F)
*Ivy Compton-Burnett: "A Heritage and Its History" (F)
*F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The Great Gatsby" (M,F); Tender Is the Night (M,F)
*Gustave Flaubert: "Madame Bovary" (F)
*Theodor Fontane: "Effi Briest" (M,F)
*Ford Maddox Ford: "The Good Soldier" (M,F)
*C.S. Forester: "Flying Colours", "Lord Hornblower" (M)
*Ellen Glasgow: "Virginia" (M)
*Graham Greene: "The end of the affair" (F); "The Heart of the Matter" (M)
*Mark Haddon: "A Spot of Bother" (F)
*Josephine Hart: "Damage" (M)
*Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The Scarlet Letter" (F)
*Carl Hiaasen: "Skinny Dip" (M)
*Francis Iles: "Malice Aforethought" (M)
*John Irving: "The World According to Garp" (M,F)
*Milan Kundera: "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (M)
*D. H. Lawrence: "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (F)
*David Lodge: "Thinks ..." (M)
*William Somerset Maugham: "Liza of Lambeth" (M)
*Arthur Miller: "The Crucible" (M,F)
*Nicholas Mosley: "Natalie Natalia" (M)
*Iris Murdoch: "A Severed Head" (M,F)
*Boris Pasternak: "Doctor Zhivago" (M)
*Raymond Radiguet: "Le Bal du Comte d'Orgel" (F)
*Irwin Shaw: "Lucy Crown" (F)
*Rabindranath Tagore: "The Home and the World" (F)
*Leo Tolstoy: "Anna Karenina" (F)
*Scott Turow: "Presumed Innocent" (M)
*Fay Weldon: "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil" (M)
*Edith Wharton: "Ethan Frome" (M)
*A. N. Wilson: "Scandal" (M,F)
*Stefan Zweig: "" (M)
*James Joyce: "Ulysses" (F)


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