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The famous three

Adultery remains an important subject in a number of 20th Century novels, but these three 19th Century novels, especially ‘The Scarlet Letter’, blazed a trail

October 05, 2018 02:43 pm | Updated 02:43 pm IST

Iconic book: Cover of “The Scarlet Letter”

Iconic book: Cover of “The Scarlet Letter”

The decriminalization of adultery by the Supreme Court of India also addresses the larger issue of women’s agency and independence. The justices are explicit in their opinion that women are not the property of men and men are not their sovereigns when it comes to marital relationships.

The law making adultery a crime first came into existence in 1860 under the Second Law Commission. Interestingly, some of the best novels in world literature dealing with the subject of adultery also appeared around this time but they offer a more nuanced view of the subject. Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” came out in1850, French novelist Gustav Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” in 1857 and Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” in 1878. All three novels present a central female protagonist into a dull and unhappy marriage, who commits adultery but the novelist in each case treats the question of infidelity differently.

Cover of book “Madame Bovary”

Cover of book “Madame Bovary”

Emma Bovary of “Madame Bovary”, an unfulfilled woman married to a dull older man, is caught up in her humdrum provincial existence from which she tries to escape unsuccessfully. Deeply influenced by her reading of romantic literature “she was the amoureuse of all the novels, the heroine of all the plays, the vague ‘she’ of all the poetry books.” She tries to live those moments in real life, “the lyrical legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory”, and she ends up in adulterous relationships with insincere men who offer her no help when she faces trouble in her life. But more than being a study of romantic folly, the novel is a strong criticism of the forces and ideologies that trap Emma Bovary: oppressive social institutions, vulgar materialism of the times, the role of petty bourgeoisie, vulgarisation of religion, and a vacuous belief in science and rationalism.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, a novel of greater canvas, takes up social, philosophical and spiritual themes and adultery is just one of the subjects in the novel. Like most novels of adultery, the idea of marriage is not repudiated in the novel — rather it is highlighted through a study of three different families, Karenins, Levins and Oblonskys – but still “Anna Karenina” does have glimpses of Tolstoy’s last phase when he grew sceptical of the institution of marriage and advocated the idea of spiritual kinship of human beings, an idea which influenced Gandhiji. Importantly, Tolstoy the novelist flows with the wisdom of the novel, refusing to judge his adulterous heroine. Though infidelity is an important issue in the novel, “Anna Karenina” also offers a warning against, to use Joshua Rothman’s words, the myth and cult of love.

Voicing concern

Of the three novels, it is “The Scarlet Letter” which foregrounds the question of adultery in different ways, almost personifying this idea through its heroine Hester Prynne. Made to wear a red letter A on her bosom by the puritan community as a sign of her sin of adultery, Hester refuses to consider herself a sinner. Hester belongs to 17th century Puritan Boston, is created by a nineteenth century novelist, but she, more than any other female character of her time, anticipates many of the concerns that our five-judge bench had in decriminalising adultery but accepting it as a basis for divorce.

It was because of her love for Arthur Dimmesdale, a clergyman, that she refuses to divulge his identity. And it was because of her revulsion for her vindictive husband and her being trapped in a loveless marriage that she remains defiant in her mind. The puritan community tries very hard to instil a sense of guilt in her.

But Hester wears her letter A less like a badge of shame and more like an ornament because in her mind she was questioning the very basis of patriarchal norms and man-woman relationships.

Hester exercised her agency. She was in control of her body and desires despite being very badly stigmatised by society. But she is certainly short of being a real rebel because it is only in her mind that she challenges the puritan social structure. Still the novel has a number of moments which capture Hester’s defiance, her resourcefulness, and her power. She changed the puritan community much more than she was changed by her. “The scarlet letter had not done its office”, as the enlightened narrator puts it memorably.

Many conservative readers of the novel feel uncomfortable about the fact that her husband Roger Chillingworth is portrayed as a villain in the novel whereas he was simply trying to avenge himself on the man who had an adulterous relationship with his wife.

Brought up on the idea of revenge, especially if it is a question of family honour and stealing of one’s wife, it is heroic to take revenge, the argument goes. This argument does not take into account the wife’s independence and choice. Chillingworth is a villain because for him his wife was like his private property and Dimmesdale encroached upon his property. More than attacking the religious position on adultery, it is the kind of attitude that Chillingworth has towards his estranged wife and her lover that is the issue under discussion.

Hawthorne created a character in Hester who is hailed as a feminist heroine. Many later characters in fiction have been modelled on Hester.

More recently Qaisra Shahraz, a British Pakistani novelist, modelled her 2007 novel “Typhoon” on Hester’s character.

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