That day we read no further in the book.” So go the last words uttered by the notorious 13th-century adulteress Francesca da Rimini in Dante’s Inferno, in the second circle of which, reserved for the Lustful, Francesca and her married lover, Paolo—the handsome brother of her crippled husband—are consigned to everlasting damnation. Locked in an eternal embrace, destined to waft for all eternity through the air of Hell together (just as, in life, they were carried away by waves of passion), the lovers pause for Dante while Francesca relates how she and Paolo came to consummate their illicit passion.
Long attracted to each other, she recalls, the pair were sitting and reading the romantic tale of Lancelot and Guinevere when, at the very moment that the story’s adulterous characters finally kiss, Paolo finally kissed Francesca too. (The moment is captured above in an 18th-century painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.) As for what happened next… Well, you know what the two got up to after they “read no further.”
Whether a work of fiction can spur real-life adultery is anybody’s guess, but the way the Paolo and Francesca episode ingeniously entwines romance and reading makes one thing clear: Although it may not be good for the soul, adultery has been very good for literature.
And good, above all, for the novel, a genre that is unthinkable without matrimonial disaster. Straying husbands and wives have, of course, been great subjects since long before the printing press was invented.
Western literature begins, on the one hand, with a Biblical marital crisis (Abraham, the first Hebrew, sleeps with his wife’s maidservant) and, on the other hand, with the famous act of Greek adultery commemorated in Homer’s Iliad, the plot of which is set in motion by the mad affair between the Trojan prince Paris and Helen of Troy, which ends up destroying an entire city.
Adultery would continue to haunt the Greek imagination in the Odyssey, whose hero finds time to hook up with an array of goddesses on his way home to his wife (who, for her part, is beset by 108 hormonal suitors), and in the heroines of the tragic stage, such as Medea, who, when her husband decides to leave her for a younger woman, contrives a vengeance that makes boiled bunny look like an appealing option.
But as Dante’s encounter in Hell suggests, it isn’t until the invention of the long-form fictional prose narrative that adultery finds its ideal genre. In part, this has to do with subject matter—with the way adultery and its associations (fidelity, betrayal, trust, unity, domesticity) became useful metaphors for larger issues. And, in part, the ideal match between adultery and fiction had to do with form—that is, the tantalizing way in which both narrative and passion unfold.
From the start, the novelist’s ability to silently shadow a character’s thoughts and feelings (“free indirect discourse”) was perfectly suited to adultery, an act that provokes an intense inner turmoil that, necessarily, can’t reveal itself. Most scholars agree that the modern novel starts with a tale of adulterous temptation: Madame de La Fayette’s The Princess of Clèves (1678).
The book takes Dante’s raw material—there’s a young woman who has been married off to a man she doesn’t love, and she falls in love with a dashing aristocrat—but innovates ingeniously by preventing the two lovers from ever consummating their passion. (La Fayette’s heroine is the opposite of Dante’s: While Francesca goes to hell for satisfying her urges, the Princess of Clèves ends up in a convent, having never scratched her itch.)
This choice—and the author’s scrupulous avoidance of the improbable twists and turns that characterized the plots of earlier romances—allowed her to explore instead the characters’ mental states in exquisite detail.
The two and a half centuries that followed The Princess of Clèves constituted the great period of the adultery novel. With the rise of industrialization at the end of the 1700s and the triumph of bourgeois status hunting and morality throughout the 1800s, marriage and property became more important than ever before—and, for that reason, became the source of anxieties that could be teased out exhaustively at the length and with the detail that the novel permits.
The adultery novel could be a vehicle for societal critique, from Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons (1782), in which the aristocratic characters’ sinister marital and sexual games can be read as a parable of cultural corruption in the ancien régime, to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), in which the title character’s longing for another man’s wife becomes a symbol of the inchoate yearning that seems central to the American character itself.
The adultery novel could also serve to investigate the costs, particularly to women, of belonging to bourgeois society, with its empty consumerism and oppressive morality. These elements are foregrounded by authors ranging from Jane Austen, at the beginning of the 19th century, whose shimmering fantasies of ideal matches are always shadowed by the possibility of unfaithfulness and social disgrace, to Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 masterpiece Madame Bovary, the bored provincial heroine of which, like Dante’s Francesca, has her life destroyed when she succumbs to the romantic fantasies she finds in books.
While the social conventions remained rigidly in place—which is to say, while the battle between convention and desire had a place to rage—the adultery novel flourished: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton’s sardonically titled The Age of Innocence, and the work of mid-20th-century authors such as Fay Weldon, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark.
Times have changed. It’s no surprise that, in the morally more easygoing 21st century, the novel’s great subject has shifted from adultery to identity: race, class, sexuality, gender. Something else has shifted too. Most of the hefty tomes of the 19th century, from Dickens to Tolstoy, first appeared chapter by chapter in weekly reviews and magazines. (Bovary came out over the course of three months; Anna Karenina over five years.)
One effect of this parceling out was that reading the novel of adultery began to resemble committing adultery: the slow unfolding of a stranger’s character, the agonizing sense of being at the mercy of another’s whims. This structural overlap between the subject and the form may also explain why, at the beginning of the current century, adultery has migrated so successfully away from the novel into television, a medium that is experimenting with form the way the novel once did. The Affair, for instance, with its unsettling multiple points of view, embeds the problematics of “he said, she said” into the structure of the drama itself.
And so the marriage between fiction and adultery, at least, has been a successful one. As with the works, so perhaps with their authors. Any writer knows that when you’re in the zone, working really well, it’s like having a lover: You can’t think about anything else, and spending time in any other activity feels…well, like cheating.
Can anyone wonder why Marcel Proust—whose sprawling In Search of Lost Time, a work that is obsessed with adulterous passion and that famously concludes its 4,000 pages with the narrator realizing that he can finally write the great novel of memory and time he has long had in mind, the novel that in fact you have just read—eventually sacrificed everything for his “mistress,” and wrote the whole book in bed?
From: Town & Country US