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Tiger, Jesse and the best adultery literature of all time

April 1, 2010

Sandra Bullock and a man with no imagination.

Public fascination with the antics of Tiger Wood, Jesse James and other recent marital scoundrels astounds me. Infidelity has been a favorite theme of literature going back to King David and Bathsheba. By comparison, Tiger and Jesse are dull boys, indeed.

In fact, apart from a flash of drama here and there, there’s little in the current crop of scandals that will be long remembered. The best image — Wood’s wife Elin attacking the golf great with a club from his own bag — may not even be true.

The proclivity of Wood and James for porn stars is downright depressing. I mean, how unimaginative can you get? Tiger Wood pursuing adult actresses is like Jeremy Wade fishing a pay pond, or those Ghost Hunter guys investigating a Jaycees Halloween haunted house.

Plus, Jesse — you’re married to Sandra Bullock. What’s wrong with you?

Compared to James and Wood, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford looks like a tower of rectitude. At least he cheated for love, describing his Argentinian lover as his “soul mate.” I did it for love is no excuse, but it’s miles better than I’m a childish buffoon with no self-control.

And Sanford is most likely, among the current malefactors, to bequeath us a lasting addition to the language: “Hiking the Appalachian Trial” will forever have an additional meaning.

Enough of these pipsqueaks. Here’s a list of ten great cheaters from literature. Pick a favorite, or add your own:

1. Helen and Paris, The Iliad. That whole Trojan War thing got started because Helen, wife of King Menelaus, ran away to Ilium with Paris.

2. Lancelot and Guinevere. From Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur to every subsequent iteration, the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is dominated by the affair between Guinevere, his queen, and Lancelot, his greatest knight.

3. “The Miller’s Tale” is just one of the bawdy cheating stories in Chaucer’s classic, The Canterbury Tales.

4. Much of Shakespeare devolves upon adultery, but perhaps most fascinating is Othello, a story of jealousy and murder regarding a false charge of infidelity.

5. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. After all, Mr. Rochester is still married to the Mad Woman in the attic the first time Jane tries to marry him. Do you have to have sex to commit adultery, or is emotional intimacy sufficient?

6. Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert — a personal favorite. The wife of a country doctor seeks fulfillment in the arms of a succession of men not her husband. Poor Emma comes to a bad end.

7. “The Lady with the Little Dog,” by Anton Chekhov. The first time I read this story it seemed to me that no one need ever write about adultery again.

8. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin — a prescient feminist classic, published in 1899. A young wife, Edna Pontellier, realizes her stultifying marriage will never make her happy and falls in love with another man. Like Emma Bovary, Edna can find no place in the world.

9. The Great Gatbsy, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It always amazes me how much there is in this slim book besides Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy.

10. Without adultery, what would John Updike have written about? Among the best: Rabbit, Run, his first novel; Couples, wife-swapping written in the ’60s, as it happened; Too Far to Go, a collection of stories about the Maples and their doomed union (said to be based on Updike’s own first marriage).

This is but a smattering of the great literature inspired by infidelity. Please add some favorites of your own.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    April 1, 2010 11:51 am

    I agree with you Tiger Woods, Jesse James: Bor-ing! Mark Sanford doesn’t have a good excuse, but at least it is a good story. It’s a pretty interesting, and funny, story.

    I think that emotional intimacy is just about sufficient.

    Your examples are all good ones. I finally read “The Lady with the Little Dog” for the first time recently. Here’s my contribution, over and over and over again: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 1, 2010 11:59 am

    Adultery being, perhaps, the all-time favorite indoor sport (and maybe outdoor, too–see Madame Bovary), I know I’ve left out lots and lots and LOTS of great books and stories, but I wanted to keep my list at 10, and leave plenty of room for other people to play. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an adornment to any literary list, including this one. And hey: Would you call Lolita an adultery novel? Think about it. Of course, the BIG one I’ve left out is Anna Karenina, but I’m certain someone will write in to correct that oversight.

  3. rachel permalink
    April 1, 2010 12:10 pm

    But now you’ve already corrected it yourself.

    I would say no to “Lolita.” It’s a lot of things, but not an adultery novel.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 12:11 pm

      But Humbert is married to Lolita’s mother, isn’t he?

  4. Connie permalink
    April 1, 2010 12:21 pm

    I hate to sound like a broken record, but: Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient!” And not that I’m obsessed with Ralph Fiennes movies (much), but I do love Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.”

    Also, I think adultery is the least of Humbert’s problems.

    And another random musing: How is it possible I’ve never read “The Awakening”???

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 12:37 pm

      That’s a good question. Lessee: You’re a woman, you have a college education, you are a book reviewer, for Pete’s sake. And The Awakening is short, you could read it in a single sitting. I think you should resolve to correct this oversight this weekend. There will be a test on Monday.

      Okay, okay. Lolita’s not an adultery novel. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

      But The English Patient most definitely is, and so is The End of the Affair. Excellent suggestions.

  5. rachel permalink
    April 1, 2010 12:27 pm

    Yes, he is married to her mother. But like Connie, I think that adultery is the least of Humbert Humbert’s problems. I would say that there is adultery in the story, not that it is a story of adultery.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 12:38 pm

      All right already. Uncle!

  6. Connie permalink
    April 1, 2010 12:31 pm

    I agree, Rachel!

    Another good novel of infidelity: Josephine Hart’s “Damage.”

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 1, 2010 12:46 pm

    While it scares me a little to see Rachel and Connie in such agreement regarding Lolita, I do have to endorse Damage wholeheartedly. I have not read the novel, but the movie, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliet Binoche, is powerful, tragic and psychologically potent. I wish Jeremy Irons would work more often. He’s great, even in bad movies.

  8. April 1, 2010 12:46 pm

    Tiger is pussy. He should have just told everyone to drop dead and got on with his golf. He proves the old adage that the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits. Now for a really steamy love affair, no pair of illicit lovers beats Francesca da Rimini and Paolo found in Canto V of Dante’s INFERNO. As Francesca says, “Love, that excuses no one loved from loving, seized me so strongly … that … he never leaves my side. Love led us straight to sudden death together.” Now that’s putting it on the line. Her husband caught them and OFF WITH THEIR HEADS.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 12:50 pm

      Strong language, Duff, and thank you for it. I still believe, though, that Tiger’s problem is less stupidity than lack of maturity. He’s simply a spoiled child, having never faced the necessity of becoming a man. Same with Jesse James. Their common philosophy: I want want I want and I want it now. Also, our current culture is almost designed to keep men in a state of perpetually arrested adolescence. I see this in James’ and Wood’s taste for porn stars. Criminy, weren’t any WOMEN available?

  9. Connie permalink
    April 1, 2010 12:47 pm

    I probably wouldn’t say “The End of the Affair” is my favorite of Greene’s books, but it’s in the top three, maybe. The idea of God being the agent that wrecks the illicit romance is novel indeed.

    I guess I’d better start scouring the shelves for Kate Chopin…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 12:57 pm

      Come over to my house, you can borrow mine. Provided I can find it. Dewey Decimal does not live here, more’s the pity. The End of the Affair is not my favorite Graham Greene, either — which raises the question: Well, then, what is? Jeez, Lou-eeze, how to choose? The Power and the Glory? The Third Man? Our Man in Havana? The Comedians? I can’t choose. Refuse to, and you can’t make me.

  10. Connie permalink
    April 1, 2010 1:18 pm

    I’m going with “The Power and the Glory.” After that it gets kind of confusing. Kind of like trying to keep up with Tiger’s girlfriends. To inject a bit of practicality: At least Tiger can still make a living (as if he needed more money). Jesse was living off his wife. Surely that’s over now, and I’m guessing those porn stars aren’t going to provide him the perks he’s used to. IDIOT.

    “Damage” (the novel, though the movie is an excellent adaptation, I agree) actually describes the “I can’t help myself” aspect of infidelity as well as any book ever has. The difference between the guy in the book and these real-life knuckleheads is that his passion is all-consuming, not to be recreated with every woman who happens to have her own porn site.

  11. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 1, 2010 1:41 pm

    Yeah, I’ve mentioned this before, but how has it come to pass that people in the public eye seem to possess no gravitas whatsoever? I mean, compare Jesse James and one of those porn bimbos with, say, Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit.

    As for Greene: I’m a sucker for some of his “entertainments,” too, especially The Human Factor, The Ministry of Fear, or The Honorary Consul. But my absolute favorites have to be those that mixed his fascination with evil, espionage and humor — The Third Man and Our Man in Havana. Hilarious, and terrifying, and both made into terrific, four-star movies — Third Man starring Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins and Orson Welles as a sublimely wicked Harry Lime, and Our Man in Havana with Alec Guinness as Jim Wormold and an astonishing Ernie Kovacs as Capt. Segura. Both directed, no coincidentally, by Carol Reed.

  12. Candice permalink
    April 1, 2010 2:07 pm

    I love “The French Lieutenants Woman” which is all about adultery even though Charles and Ernestina were engaged but not married yet.

    Fiction adulterers beware: Remember what happened to poor Michael Milton when he was “enjoying” Helen in the driveway in the World According to Garp.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 8:57 pm

      Two excellent suggestions, one of which is hilarious in a really, really cruel way.

  13. neely permalink
    April 1, 2010 2:34 pm

    “the last picture show.” and while the infidelity isn’t quite central, it is a major part of (step back, chilluns!) “love in the time of cholera.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 8:58 pm

      Outstanding suggestions. And one of them was made into a really good movie.

  14. neely permalink
    April 1, 2010 2:36 pm

    also, two things re connie sue. one, i absolutely second “english patient.” two, i do not like the dismissive nature with which she mentions, “every woman who happens to have her own porn site.” i mean, she says it like there’s something WRONG with it, for gods sake.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 9:00 pm

      Yeah, those book critics, they’re all a bunch of moralistic pervs. Or pervy moralists.

  15. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 1, 2010 4:20 pm

    Monogamy sounds okay to me, maybe I’ll try it.

    I thought we were boycotting this Woods fellow.

    Adultery is another one of those “crimes” that makes me wish America still had pillories.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 1, 2010 9:06 pm

      Adultery is sometimes justified, no? Ethologists tell us the human is not among the monogamous animals. We choose monogamy for personal, family, more and social reasons — good ones, too. But who is to say adultery is never okay? That’s one reason it’s no longer illegal.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 1, 2010 10:43 pm

        Is adultery sometimes justified? Well sure, given enough imagination every behavior under the sun is justifiable.. Yes, evolutionary psychology teaches us that (wo)man is not a monogamous creature, we choose to lift ourselves out of the primordial ooze and promise to be faithful against our nature. Is there a more tangible declaration of love possible? (Not to mention the tax breaks.)

        I guess the offended half of the marriage is the only one who has the right to say when adultery is okay.

        I do not think emotional intimacy is enough to be considered adulterous behavior, on the road towards it, yes. But what do I know, I have never been married, and neither has Rachel.

        I still believe that the threat of being pilloried, set out for public scrutiny, derision, and amusement would stop the egotistical and insecure philanderers dead in their tracks. At the very least it would give them pause enough so that more considerate thought would prevail. Of the ones with an excess of either Love or Lust, there is no cure.

  16. April 1, 2010 6:41 pm

    Why didn’t I think of this to blog about? I once tried to create an adultery booklist. I’m not certain why I didn’t complete it. Very interesting topic.

    Before I give a title I have a question of my own. If there’s no sex involved between the two roving eyes, is it adultery?

    Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham is one not mentioned above.

    And just to stir the pot a bit more, when a nun strays, is that adultery?

    I’m looking forward to reading additional comments as posted to this post and if I think of any other titles not mentioned, I’ll be back.

  17. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 1, 2010 9:11 pm

    Maughum is almost always an excellent suggestion. Well, that’s not true, because he lived too long and wrote much, much too much, a lot of it crap. But the good stuff is outstanding.

    According to Rachel, above, emotional intimacy is sufficient to qualify as adultery, with or without sex. Though where’s the fun in that?

    As for nuns: They aren’t married in a legal sense, so no, it’s not adultery. But they are married to Christ in a religious sense, so yes, it is. I hope that helps.

    I also hopeyou think of some more books and more riddles.

  18. John Karwacki permalink
    April 1, 2010 9:34 pm

    Great suggestions all, but I am going to go with “Tender Is the Night”. I know everyone thinks of “Gatsby” as F. Scott’s masterpiece, no arguement, but this story has more layers than grandma’s strawberry shortcake. The main character’s name is Dick Diver for God’s sake. Like many of his heroes this guy gets lost in his own weaknesses, booze, woman, other people’s perception of him and in the end he is destroyed by his inability to deal with life on life’s terms. Ouch. Nicole ends up with Tommy Barban, Rosemary escapes the madness and the whole drunken crowd moves down the street to Hemingway’s pad. At least that’s how I remember it. Thanks for another great blog Chauncey and eveyone else who participates.

  19. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 1, 2010 10:23 pm

    I’m impressed, John, and I have to agree that Tender is the Night, though not a small perfect jewel box like Gatsby, is in many respects the superior novel. I’m sure you know that Fitzgerald based Dick and Nicole on his rich friends, George and Sara Murphy. Great suggestion.

  20. Ariel Gonzalez permalink
    April 1, 2010 11:08 pm

    This is the saddest omission I have ever commented upon. Ford Maddox Ford’s Good Soldier. Here are a few more:
    1. Dom Casmurro (Machado de Assis)
    2. Laughter in the Dark (Nabokov)
    3. A Handful of Dust (Waugh)
    4. Dangerous Liaisons (Laclos)
    5. Talking It Over (Julian Barnes)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 2, 2010 12:19 am

      Ariel, thanks for joining the conversion. Your eclectic list is most welcome — exactly what I’d expect from you.

  21. John Karwacki permalink
    April 1, 2010 11:19 pm

    Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” is a sad tale of depression. I remember the men in that novel as serial adulterers, one a rapist, all seemingly clueless about the damage they create.

  22. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 2, 2010 12:22 am

    John, sorry, I can’t go with down Wally Lamb lane. I gave up on She’s Come Undone about 100 pages in. The authorial manipulation was too much for me. Lamb piled everything up against this poor girl. Of course, I’m aware this is a much-loved book, so maybe I’m wrong. And if you enjoyed, well, that’s all that matters.

  23. Connie permalink
    April 2, 2010 3:00 pm

    As far as it being strictly an adultery novel, I’d say She’s Come Undone doesn’t qualify; that’s not really what it’s about. (Chauncey, I swear, The Hour I First Believed is much better than She’s Come Undone!)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 2, 2010 11:17 pm

      Life is too short. Wally lost his chance with me, like he has any reason to care…

  24. April 3, 2010 5:31 pm

    Read 6 of your 10; Bovary is on my list and the other 3 are headed there now.

    Sanford should have kept his mouth shut, but I feel for him. Wood and James, however, are nothing short of ludicrous.

    Wholeheartedly second ‘The English Patient’ (and shamelessly admit to an obsession with Ralph Fiennes movies).

    My additions:
    ‘Here on Earth’ by Alice Hoffman
    ‘Forfeit’ by Dick Francis. (This one answers that question about whether adultery can ever be okay.)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2010 4:11 pm

      I always say, reading is the world’s second favorite indoor sport….

  25. April 3, 2010 6:39 pm

    Agreeing with Rachel that emotional intimacy can be adultery…I call it adultery of the heart. IMO it is a breach of trust, the marriage contract and may do harm to the relationship whether or not the other partner knows.

    You asked for another riddle. Should the cheating spouse confess? or kiss and tell, so to speak.

    I haven’t read this yet, but Solar by Ian McEwan is about whose fifth marriage is crumbling due to his many infidelites. His wife is straying also. Can any good come of this? I’m betting McEwan has produced another riveting read!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2010 4:17 pm

      As faithful readers of this blog now, I cannot abide Ian McEwan, so do not anticipate reading Solar. But Connie Ogle, at the Miami Herald, a long McEwan advocate, doesn’t much like it. (That low chortling you hear is, yes, me, gloating).

      Of course emotional intimacy can be adulterous (but is it always?), I’m surprised anyone would think otherwise. Should the cheating spouse confess? Well, no hard and fast rule applies, but I think in most cases — no. Confessing to an unsuspecting spouse would inflict unnecessary agony, mainly for the benefit of the cheater (who gets his conscience clean). I believe Dear Abby agrees with me on this one.

      Remember: You have no complaint. You are what you are, and you ain’t what you ain’t. Listen up, Buster, and listen up good. Stop wishin’ for bad luck and knockin’ on wood. (John Prine, “Dear Abby”).

  26. April 7, 2010 5:09 pm

    As someone new to your blog, I truly didn’t know that you abhorred McEwan. I hate to take a second bet but I’ll chance it and say I shall not forget your dislike of McEwan. Perhaps if I stick around long enough I’ll get the picture!

    I haven’t read Solar as of yet. One review I read called it draggy while another gushed and gushed. Win some, lose some…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 23, 2011 12:21 pm

      I despise Saturday so much I doubt I will ever read McEwan again. Fortunately, the world is full of books by other writers.

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