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Top 10 novels about jealousy

December 9, 2009

Tis the season of lists, part 14. Novelist Howard Jacobson has compiled a fascinating list at the Guardian, his selection of the top 10 novels of sexual jealousy. “Tales of innocence and wonderment leave me cold. Black obsessiveness is what the novel does best. And jealousy is its natural domain.”

Jacobson, the author of 10 novels, most recenlty The Act of Love, confesses the very first story he ever wrote described “a bout of jealousy I had suffered.” Writing was the only way, it seemed, he could gain any mastery. “It was as though the shame associated with jealousy needed to be expiated in prose.”

No. 1 on Jacobson’s list: Tolstoy’s great short novel, The Kreutzer Sonata, “a crazed story of desire, rage, real or imagained adultery.” No. 2: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. No. 3: The much loved, much hated experimental novel Jealousy, by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

In selecting Joyce’s Ulysses, Jacobson comes close to cheating. “The fact that Leopold Blood has learnt to live with, and even love, his wife’s infidelities, does not exclude this great comic novel from the jealous category.” Um, yes it does.

Jacobson’s most penetrating insight comes at No. 7, Persuasion, by Jane Austen: “Sexual jealousy is not normally what we think of as Jane Austen’s terrain. But her novels are full of jealousy’s tragic potential.”

For all its delicious provocation, Jacobson’s list is a bit high-falutin’, somewhat obscure – which is good in its way. Maybe now I’ll get around to reading Venus in Furs (N. 9), by Leopold Von Sacher Masoch. But a list of more familiar, more handled titles would be useful too.

Maybe I’m particularly stupid this morning, but for all the novels I’ve read in my wastrel life I cannot readily think of any — any!– that make sexual (or romantic) jealousy a dominant theme. More common, it seems to me, is sexual longing. Is The Great Gatsby a novel of jealousy, or Anna Karenina? How about Of Human Bondage? Madame Bovary? The Sun Also Rises?

Maybe a little, I think, but mostly these are stories of longing, of desire, of romantic frustration or sexual impotence. Okay, then, surely the distinguished history of crime fiction is filled with jealousy. The Postman Always Rings Twice? Nope. The Talented Mr. Ripley? Negative (in more ways than one). The Big Sleep? Unh-huh.

Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair can be said to be a little about jealousy – but the hero loses his lover not to her husband or another suitor but to God. Surely, I wrack my brain, jealousy abounds in the work of John Updike, the great chronicler of the sexual revolution in suburbia. But all I come up with is Roger’s Version, very good but lesser novel, and it’s God-haunted, too.

Mmmm. How about classical literature? Jacobson includes Othello on the grounds it’s not a novel only “because novels weren’t going form yet.” So: Aha! Medea! She  murders her children after Jason betrays her for a younger, more politically useful woman. Jealousy, indeed. Sort of.

And after that, I’m dry. I could cast my failure into a smarty-pants critique of jealousy as an inferior trope for fiction – it’s a crude emotional motivator, doesn’t stick in the mind, and usually appears as a minor theme – but this would certainly be bogus. Indeed, jealousy is a primal human experience. Literature must be replete with it.

So instead of trying to justify myself, let me appeal to you. Help me out. What are your favorite novels of jealousy?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 9, 2009 4:02 pm

    Madame Bovary is the first one to come to my mind. You’re right though. It’s not only about sexual jealousy.

    Let me think on it and get back to you.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 11:33 am

      I’m finding it a tougher nut to crack than I would ever have imagined.

  2. Tommy permalink
    December 9, 2009 4:29 pm

    Candice, I had in mind “Sentimental Education” also by Flaubert. Then rejected it on the same grounds you discarded “Madame Bovary”. Sentimental Education would never be classified as one of my favorites. What a chore to read!

    After I re-read Chauncey’s blog I saw he was asking what was my favorite novel about jealousy, not strictly sexual jealousy.

    Quickly I came up with “The Seven Minutes” by Irving Wallace. A novel I really enjoyed however poorly written it may be. In “The Seven Minutes” fictitious author J.J. Jadway has written a book ( a fictitious book within a book) that centered on what was running through a young woman’s mind during seven minutes of intercourse. Banned for 35 years for indecency the book is published in America. The opening chapter describes a book store owner being arrested on charges of peddling pornography. On the surface “The Seven Minutes” is part legal drama, part love story, part cautionary tale while asking the question what is pornographic.

    So there is the sex.

    That’s good but now for the jealousy. The real tension, the real reason for the book being banned is not fear of young kids getting a hold of this novel and being transformed into lust crazed rapists. The men in the story are jealous of the effect this book has on the women in their lives. They feel inadequate and will (with the exception of few) stop at nothing to have it silenced.

    Another winning blog, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 11:35 am

      I have not read The Seven Minutes, but in my hippy-dippy youth I did read some Irving Wallace, I confess, and some other best sellers of the day. The one I best remember is 1972″s The Word, a novel about the intrigue surrounding the discovery of a lost Gospel that says Jesus survived the Cross, married and had children. In fact, it has most of the major themes of The Da Vinci Code. Nothing new under the sun, I reckon.

      • Tommy permalink
        December 10, 2009 1:49 pm

        “The Seven Minutes” may be a stretch for this list. I blame my wanting to participate for the reaching. Best part of Wallace’s tale is at the end (spoiler alert) is that the book within the book that causes all the trouble is really written by a woman. Up till that disclosure I was disgusted with Wallace claiming that a male writer no matter how brilliant could get so deep into a woman’s mind.

  3. rachel permalink
    December 9, 2009 5:00 pm

    “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. Now, I read this book quite a while ago now. So I cannot talk specifics. But I remember it being very much about jealousy and trying to live with jealousy and trying to not feeling jealousy and instead manifest it in a different way. I remember it very much being about what jealousy (sexual and romantic) does to people, how it changes them.

    And the book that first came to mind, “The Bad Girl” by Mario Vargas Llosa. A book I almost didn’t read because of the title. It is about a man who falls in love with a woman when they are both young and stays in love with her throughout their lives no matter how many wretched things she does to him. He is at times insanely jealous of the attention she shows others, attention she will not show him and yet it is upsetting to read because of the amount of shame you feel for him. I found this book a bit frustrating and a bit hard to get through but I am also really glad that I read it and it has certainly stuck with me more than other books have. It left a lasting impression. Jealousy.

    Strange Chauncey Mabe, while you are having difficulty seeing jealousy in fiction, I am seeing it everywhere. .

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 11:37 am

      Something to discuss with your therapist. But your two suggestions are excellent. I’m shocked I did not think of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s about much more than sexual jealousy, but that is most definitely one of its central themes. Another: Men are dogs.

      • rachel permalink
        December 10, 2009 12:22 pm

        Yes they are.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 9, 2009 9:06 pm

    Jealousy is EVERYWHERE. It’s very human. Maybe that’s why I can’t detect it as a central theme in anything other than “Othello” and “Madea”, as Chauncey says.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 11:38 am

      It’s like the color white.

      • Tommy permalink
        December 10, 2009 1:52 pm

        Jealousy is learned, not natural. I think. I hope. Gives me reason to believe I can un-learn this defect of character. I looked under the couch cushions for jealousy but found none. A quick glance in the mirror revealed more than I could handle

  5. December 10, 2009 9:01 am

    No reason you’d know of this, since it was only published in the UK and Italy and sold a total of about 4 copies, but my third novel, Love You Madly, was precisely about jealousy and the destructive effect it can have on a young marriage. Like you, I was struck by the relatively few novels there are about what is such a powerful and destructive force that lies (latent or not) within each of us. Anyway – my apologies for referring to my own book, which seems rather obnoxious, but you did ask:

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 11:40 am

      Alex, please, no apology necessary. We here in the greatest nation on earth are remarkably insular in our reading interests. It’s always good to hear from the rest of the world. Maybe you’ll find a publisher here someday. Or, once the Google Book settlement is finalized, we can all access it digitally. Not that I think that’s necessarily a good idea. At any rate, Alex — thanks for writing. I’d love to hear from more writers in general, and you in particular, any time.

      • December 10, 2009 2:16 pm

        Thanks for your kind words. I am a Brit, although I have lived in Columbia, MO, for the past six years (long story.) I do have an agent in NYC as well as London, and in fact Love You Madly was submitted to various US publishers back in 2002. People were very complimentary about it, but the general consensus appeared to be that it was, as one editor wrote, “too English”. I’m still trying to work out what on earth that means. Anyway, I’m glad I found your site. Looking forward to reading more.

  6. June 7, 2010 7:26 pm

    Top 10 Greatest Novels by Genre @

  7. Maria permalink
    January 10, 2011 11:22 am


  8. Tracy permalink
    February 9, 2011 1:37 pm

    Stumbled across this site looking for more current works than Othello on the theme of jealousy and so glad I did! One of the recommendations here will definitely make it to my book group. I am intellectually curious about the nature of jealousy (is it specific to the situation or is it a character trait of the jealous? does it affect men more than women? younger people rather than older? is there a correlation between one’s tendency to be jealous and one’s educational level/social status? ). But personally I find jealousy extremely demeaning and one of the most destructive of human emotions. Is it an emotion? Maybe a disorder or a syndrome?

  9. Patrick Walker permalink
    June 10, 2012 5:31 pm

    Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes.

  10. joki schermer permalink
    August 17, 2013 9:19 am

    I’m looking for novels about jealousy, was also thinking about Les Liaison dangereuse, bt Choderlos de la Clos. It is ofcourse not specifically about being jealous, although – after playing games with peoples feelings, it does take over and destroys them…

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