Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Children and Childlessness in the Novel of Female Adultery

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Children and Childlessness in the Novel of Female Adultery

Article excerpt

Adultery in the nineteenth-century European realist novel has attracted more critical attention than any other theme involving sexual transgression, but many of the questions it raises still lack adequate definition. There are several possible reasons why so few ideas on the subject have won widespread acceptance. First, adultery itself is fraught with such moral and ideological consequence that any kind of consensus, even about its literary representation, will never be easy. Second, the various theoretical paradigms current and competing in literary studies will always produce different readings, and even different ideas about what is significant. Third, and related to each of these explanations, there is no agreed definition about what counts as adultery in fiction, or indeed about what a novel of adultery is. Tony Tanner, for example, in the most interesting and far-reaching treatment of the theme so far, acknowledges that adultery does not even occur in two of the three literary works he analyses at length. (1) Similarly, in her book The Adulteress's Child, Naomi Segal remarks: 'It is not essential for my purpose for "actual" adultery to have taken place (though it usually has); adulterous desire is enough.' Indeed, Segal asserts that most of the ten examples of the French Romantic confession she discusses as part of her study are also novels of adultery, although adultery takes place in only two of them and is crucial to none. (2)

Tanner and Segal have contributed much to the understanding of the novels they consider, and anyone thinking or writing about those novels is likely to be in their debt. However, a theory of the novel of adultery as a literary form must focus on works in which the committing of adultery is pivotal. Such texts include a number of classic nineteenth-century novels that centre their action and their leading themes on a special form of sexual transgression: female adultery. Obvious examples are Madame Bovary (1857), Anna Karenina (1878), and Effi Briest (1895); others, less widely known outside the traditions in which they originated, are Jacobsen's Marie Grubbe (1876), Eca de Queiros's Cousin Bazilio (1878), Clarin's La Regenta (1884-85), and Perez Galdos's Fortunata and Jacinta (1887). (3) As I have argued elsewhere, (4) and with the partial exception of the last, the basic pattern in each of these novels is the same: a married woman from the middle or upper classes is seduced by an unmarried man of the same class and comes to grief. With the same exception, all seven stories are told in an impersonal narrative voice, and all were written by men. These consistencies, most of which also extend to other fiction of the period centred on the same theme, are so striking that they mark out a subgenre of nineteenth-century European narrative that deserves a distinctive name: the novel of female adultery. (5)

This type of fiction is by definition a gendered form, grounded as it is on the representation of female experience by men. No canonical novel of adultery was written by a woman, and, although male adultery often figures in novels by both male and female writers of the nineteenth and other centuries, it is very rarely their central subject. To identify such a subgenre, and to analyse examples, is not at all to deny the thematic importance of adultery or of other forms of sexual transgression elsewhere in nineteenth-century European fiction. It is, however, to suggest that the flourishing within that cultural tradition of a class of novels pivoting on female adultery is of great significance. Only in the novel of female adultery does the theme determine the whole structure and design of the narrative. The unique importance of the form is that it oilers vital evidence about how leading novelists and many of their readers thought of adultery, and raises crucial questions about the societies and cultures that produced and consume(d) examples. Such evidence is all the more telling because those who contributed to the form did so in clear awareness of their predecessors. …

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