Reading List: Adultery In Literature


Annie Leibovitz’s photoshoot for Vogue inspired by Edith Wharton.

As much as we love reading about how Jane Austen’s heroine’s find the perfect husband, we seem to be just as obsessed with marriages gone sour. For many writers, illicit affairs are where the real romance is. Two people throwing caution and society’s judgment to the wind because they simply cannot contain their passion anymore – what could be more thrilling than that? But what if it turns out to be a huge mistake? Is it worth the risk?

The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne

The door of the jail being flung open, the young woman stood fully revealed before the crowd. It seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom that she might conceal a certain token which was wrought or fastened to her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush and yet a haughty smile, looked around at her townspeople and neighbors. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.

Madame Bovary (1856), Gustave Flaubert

Before her marriage she had thought that she had love within her grasp; but since the happiness which she had expected this love to bring her hadn’t come, she supposed she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to imagine just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “rapture” – words that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

Anna Karenina (1877), Leo Tolstoy

‘Don’t I see how you have placed yourself with your wife? I heard you discussing as a question of first-rate importance, whether you should go away shooting for two days or not! That’s all very well for an idyll, but it can’t last a lifetime. A man should be independent – he has his own masculine interests. A man must be manly,’ said Oblonsky, opening the door. ‘Is that to say, he should court the maid-servants?’ asked Levin.

The Awakening (1899), Kate Chopin

You have been a very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontelliere’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.

The Age of Innocence (1920), Edith Wharton

‘Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress – since I can’t be your wife?’ she asked.
The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. He noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had a recognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible life she had fled from. Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.
‘I want – I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that – categories like that – won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.’
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. ‘Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there?’ she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: ‘I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayward stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo – and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.’

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), D.H. Lawrence

There’s lots of good fish in the sea…maybe…but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.

The End of the Affair (1951), Graham Greene

I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.

The Once and Future King (1958), T.H. White

‘[Your hair] is like… I don’t know what. Not like silk. It is more like pouring water, only there is something cloudy about it too. The clouds are made of water, aren’t they? Is it a pale mist, or a winter sea, or a waterfall, or a hayrick in the frost? Yes, it is a hayrick, deep and soft and full of scent.’
‘It is a nuisance,’ [Guenever] said.
‘It is the sea,’ [Lancelot] said solemnly, ‘in which I was born.’

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Milan Kundera

From tender youth we are told by father and teacher that betrayal is the most heinous offence imaginable. But what is betrayal?…Betrayal means breaking ranks and breaking off into the unknown. Sabina knew of nothing more magnificent than going off into the unknown.

This Is How You Lose Her (2012), Junot Díaz

You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak – It was the book! It was the pressure! – and every hour like clockwork you say that you’re so so sorry. You try it all, but one day she will simply sit up in bed and say, No More, and, Ya, and you will have to move from the Harlem apartment that you two have shared. 

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