Adultery in Literary Fiction

reni potiphar and joseph

Michael Thomas Jones

The primary concern of canonical literary fiction is adultery, or, more loosely, abandonment and broken sexual bonds. This first came to my attention during my attempts to explore well regarded 20th century fiction. To my great frustration, I came to novel after novel that primarily involved the main character whoring around and/or their wife leaving them. Incidentally, this plotline was often paired with a sort of post-colonial fantasy of the main character traveling to some third world country (Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Malcolm Lowry, the list goes on) to continue having adultery there. In any case, I began to compare these books to works of classical literature, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized classical literature revolved around adultery as well.

Gilgamesh – Story begins with the creation of Enkidu because of the people protesting Gilgamesh’s enforcement of primae noctis.
Iliad – Paris running off with a king’s wife sends the world into war.
Odyssey – This story is all about Odysseus and everyone, Penelope and no one.
Greek Myths – almost entirely populated by Zeus’ adulterous sexcapades, and if not Zeus, then others.
Alexander Romance – Alexander is born when an Egyptian sorceror in the likeness of a god sleeps with Philip’s wife.
Aeneid – Aeneas bewitching and ditching Dido.
One Thousand and One Nights – the frame story begins with the king marrying virgins and then killing them because he thinks all women to be adulterous, and the stories come out of Scheherazade’s ability to keep him strung along.
Parzival – Gahmuret’s two sons from his two different marriages reunite at the end; Parzival himself marries and then abandons his wife.
Troilus and Cressida – Cressida pledges her love to Troilus but then ditches him.
Canterbury Tales & The Decameron – just generally sexed up story anthologies.
Arthurian Romance – Lancelot and Guinevere.
Dante’s Divine Comedy – the arc is Dante’s platonic love for Beatrice, a woman who is not his wife.
Hamlet – Hamlet’s mother & Claudius.
The Faerie Queene – plot revolves around all kinds of suspected unchastity and sexual temptations.
Gulliver’s Travels – Gulliver leaves his wife to be at sea.
Moby Dick – Ahab abandons his family to search for the whale.

Anything you’d like to add to the list? Feel free to comment. Sacred scripture, while not fiction, fulfills these narrative requirements as well, often on a down to earth level – so many of the old testament narratives feature adultery and polygamy – but especially on the cosmic level, where Israel’s repeated adulteries are finally resolved by the faithfulness of Christ, the bridegroom.

Now, I won’t bother listing all of the modern fiction that meets these requirements. But I will to try to list the major historical works of fiction that I feel do not involve their premise in adultery (or more broadly abandonment), but I feel like I’m going to have a tough time of it. Children’s fiction doesn’t count, of course, because it seems what makes something children’s fiction is that it isn’t about ‘adult’ literary subject matter, where ‘adult’ is just code for ‘adultery’. My question is whether it’s possible to create proper adult literary work without it just being about the same subject matter.

Don Quixote
Paradise Lost
Pilgrim’s Progress
Robinson Crusoe

I have no doubt there’s other major works I’m not thinking of (certainly in other non-anglophone canons), but still, you get my point. I really do think throughout history fictional narratives without adultery in some form are the exception. So, does this make me want to read more 20th century literary fiction? Hmm…

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