Adultery in 19th-Century Literature

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Leopoldo Alas

  • La regenta [as Clarín] (novel) 1884

Charlotte Brontë

  • Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. 3 vols. [as Jane Eyre, edited as Currer Bell] (novel) 1847


  • Les Bourgeois de Molinchart (novel) 1855

Kate Chopin

  • The Awakening (novel) 1899

Gustave Flaubert

  • Madame Bovary, mours de province. 2 vols. [Madame Bovary: A Tale of Provincial Life] (novel) 1857

Theodor Fontane

  • L’Adultera [The Woman Taken in Adultery] (novel) 1882
  • Cécile (novel) 1887
  • Effi Briest (novel) 1895

Benito Pérez Galdós

  • Fortunata y Jacinta (dos historias de casadas). 4 vols. [Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women] (novel) 1886-87

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  • Die Wahlverwandtschaften. 2 vols. [Elective Affinities] (novel) 1809

Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (novel) 1850

Auguste Luchet

  • Le Nom de famille. 2 vols. (novel) 1841

Edgar Allan Poe

  • “The Purloined Letter” (short story) 1845; published in journal Gift

Eça de Queiróz

  • O crime do Padre Amaro [The Sin of Father Amaro] (novel) 1876
  • O Primo Basílio [Cousin Basilio] (novel) 1878

Mary Robinson

  • Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself. With Some Posthumous Pieces. 4 vols. (memoirs) 1801

George Sand

  • Indiana. 2 vols. (novel) 1832

Eugène Sue

  • Les Mystères de Paris [The Mysteries of Paris] (novel) 1842-43; published in Journal des débats

Leo Tolstoy

  • Anna Karenina (novel) 1875-77; published in journal Russkii vestnik

Mason Locke Weems

  • God’s Revenge Against Adultery (essay) 1815

Émile Zola

  • La Faute de l’abbé Mouret [The Abbé’s Temptation] (novel) 1875


The societal shifts of the nineteenth century–particularly the examination of religious beliefs, the expansion of women’s roles, greater amounts of free time among the middle classes, and the novel-reading phenomenon among women of leisure–prompted a mass cultural anxiety about the state of the family and especially the state of marriage.

Although romantic sensationalism remained a force in fiction-writing of this time, a new school developed–realism–in which writers sought to portray life not as it should be but rather as it actually was. Generally, authors depicted the individual’s struggles against forces that were beyond his or her control, whether natural, political, social, or psychological, and focused on the realities of daily life. Realism’s focus on the middle classes made it the ideal medium in which to explore family matters, including marriage and the prospect of adultery.

Although adultery had been a subject in oral and written literature for centuries, it was not until the development of the realist novel that the experience and its ramifications could be fully explored. With middle-class women in the precarious situation of having neither independent wealth nor practical working skills, the belief among writers such as Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and Kate Chopin was that marriage, often regarded as a means of negotiating a difficult social and economic landscape, was in fact stultifying to women who might have preferred to explore their sexuality and independence.

Consequently, authors sought to engage readers in a political discussion about the role of the state in dictating morality, both in the domestic realm, with debates over marriage, adultery, and divorce, and in the literary sphere, with the government censoring novels that were considered scandalous. The publication of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in a French periodical in 1856, along with Flaubert’s subsequent publication of text that had been cut by the periodical’s editors because they feared censorship, drew the ire of government prosecutors, who put Flaubert on trial for obscenity.

Likewise, an earlier novel by Auguste Luchet, Le Nom de famille (1841), was the subject of censorship, and Luchet was similarly tried. But while Luchet was convicted on obscenity charges for his novel in which adulteresses escape punishment, Flaubert was acquitted; the protagonist in Madame Bovary suffers a miserable decline and death. Emma Bovary is a woman enamored of the Romantic ideal who soon tires of her marriage to a dull country doctor and engages in flagrant affairs, first with a wealthy neighbor and later with a lawyer. Flaubert’s highly detailed explication of Emma’s daily life, including its many outward signs of bourgeois success, is set in stark contrast to her dramatic love affairs, substantial indebtedness, and eventual suicide. A harsh critic of the middle classes, Flaubert essentially maintains that it is her grasping pursuit of the bourgeois lifestyle that causes Emma’s downfall. Madame Bovary was published in novel form in 1857 and went on to become one of the most celebrated European novels and the quintessential novel of adultery.

Furthering their depiction as women with serious character flaws, adulteresses are commonly portrayed in nineteenth-century literature as inept or disinterested mothers. Emma Bovary is abusive to her daughter, while Anna Karenin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-77) and Edna Pontellier in Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) both treat their children fondly but keep them at a distance and ultimately feel overwhelmed by their care. Money is another common symbol in these stories: Emma Bovary obsessively pursues the financial resources she lacks; Anna Karenin, a member of St. Petersburg’s highest social echelon, loses her status and wealth as a result of her affair with Vronsky, who is an officer in the military and thus beneath her socially.

Adulterous women tend to meet unfortunate ends in the literature of this period. Emma Bovary, Anna Karenin, and Edna Pontellier all commit suicide, while the title character of Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895)–considered by many critics to be the greatest realist novel in German literature–dies of tuberculosis after her affair is discovered.

Of the major novels about female adultery published during the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) has been said to feature the least accusatory tone against its protagonist, Hester Prynne. She is depicted as a victim of ruthless Puritanical judgment who suffers the death of her lover and the loss of her daughter but is permitted to live out her natural lifespan.

Also Read:  Mothers in Short Fiction

While Anna Karenin is treated with sympathy because she is an intelligent and sensitive woman who suffers deep regret over her actions and Effi Briest is presented as childlike and incapable of making moral decisions, Emma Bovary is considered a deliberately unlikeable character. In the case of Edna Pontellier, it is she who is the realistic one in her affair with Robert. As critic Cynthia Griffin Wolff has noted, Edna’s “awakening” means she is no longer bound by social conventions; when Robert expresses his desire to marry her, in Wolff’s words, “She wants a new paradigm; he merely wants to rearrange the actors of the old one, and Edna firmly rejects his falsifying, custom-bound notions.” Ultimately, Edna drowns herself not out of shame or guilt but as a final means of escape from her situation.

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