Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

Adulterers get a bad rap in books. They’re the quintessential sinners against all that’s right and proper, the blackest of black sheep. Sure, their stories begin well – the undeniable animal attraction, the deliciously guilty lust. But the good times almost always come crashing to an end, and the results are fairly predictable. Tears. Torments of jealousy. Handfuls of arsenic. A passing train.

Lily Wilder, the heroine of my novel I Take You, is a week away from marrying the perfect man, but can’t manage to keep her hands off anyone else who catches her fancy. While Lily does feel the occasional twinge of guilt, overall she’s a dedicated and unrepentant philanderer, much more interested in undressing her conquests than in examining her conscience. Below is a collection of similarly merry cheaters – or at least ones who emerge relatively unscathed from the traditional cycle of literary crime and punishment.

1. Abraham in The Bible
The grandaddy of all adulterers – literally. Abraham was also the first cheater to try the excuse “Yahweh made me do it.” And it worked! Can we really say Abraham had fun, though? The Bible is silent on this point, but surely spending time with Hagar was more enjoyable than dragging poor Isaac up that mountain.

2. Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
Zeus: king of the gods, ruler of Olympus, pervy grandpa of the classical world. Zeus’s wife, Hera, was understandably infuriated by his flagrant skirt-chasing. But instead of taking it out on him, she became the original victim-blamer. This pair pretty much deserves each other.

3. Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
The fact that Dante encountered the souls of these two doomed lovers whirling around the second circle of hell might seem to disqualify them from my jolly little band here. But look closely at what Francesca actually says. “Love, that releases no beloved from loving, took hold of me so strongly through his beauty that, as you see, it has not left me yet.” She seems comforted by the fact that Paolo “never shall be parted from me”. He just hovers there bawling, so he may be a bit more regretful about the kiss that started it all. But you get the sense that Francesca feels hell is worth it. The verdict: sorrynotsorry.

4. Nicholas and Alison in The Miller’s Tale by Chaucer
The middle ages were a much sexier epoch than most people realise. You had the birth of amorous love poetry in the courts of France, and young scholars drinking and raising hell at all those new-fangled universities. Case in point: Nicholas, a student at Oxford who falls for his landlord’s wife, Alison, she of the white cap, plucked eyebrows, and body graceful “as any weasel” (to each his own, I guess). Nicholas’s pursuit of Alison is a comedy of erotic errors involving, among other things, a foppish competitor for her affections, a gullible husband hiding in a bathtub, and strategic flatulence. (You have to read it.) Other than a burned behind, Nicholas suffers no punishment. As with the Wife of Bath, Chaucer might be trying to warn us about the perils of mortal sin, but ends up making lust seem like way too much fun.

5. Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Is it just me, or does anyone else think that Austen’s villains are the only characters who would be fun in bed? Wickham versus Darcy? Sure, Lizzie got the bigger house and the guy who’s nice to his serfs, but Lydia surely had more excitement in her life. I digress. Henry Crawford is handsome and charming and a little bit evil. In other words, perfect. True, judgment rains down on him after boring Fanny rejects him and he skips town with the married Maria Rushworth, although the world’s opinion is far harsher toward her than toward him.

6. Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

In this flawless novel, Newland Archer is the vain, self-satisfied scion of a New York family, a Gilded Age frat boy who is bowled over by an all-consuming passion for his fiancee’s dashing and disreputable cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Newland is transformed – suddenly made aware of the artifice and conventionality of his betrothed, his world, and his own life. Adultery – never consummated, although every interaction is written with an intense erotic charge – makes Newland understand what it means to be human.

7. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
On the surface, Edna seems to follow in the tortured footsteps of her full-skirted literary sisters: married woman is lured into concupiscence and bites it in the end. But there’s a vital difference between Edna’s experience and that of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina: choice. Emma is heartbroken and debt-ridden, Anna driven mad by indifference. Edna is a beautiful New Orleans wife and mother who falls for a younger man and awakens to the possibility of erotic love. She chooses death because she knows there’s no way for her to live in the world as she wishes. She walks into the ocean enlightened and at peace.

8. Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
Molly is almost completely silent through most of the novel as a parade of male characters assesses, mocks and critiques her. Finally, she speaks, and much of what we thought we knew about her turns out to be wrong. Yes, she has a dirty mind and an earthy attitude toward sex. Yes, she’s dedicated to the pursuit of her own pleasure. But she’s no heartless wanton. She worries about Leopold and genuinely loves him. Her last thoughts – and the last words of the book – are a memory of his marriage proposal, and of her answer, a passionate and enduring “yes”.

9. Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
We do a lot of things wrong here in America, but I like to think we do adultery right. Take, for example, Rabbit Angstrom, former high-school basketball star and eternal charming loser. He walks out on his pregnant wife one night, and just keeps running. He falls in with Ruth Leonard, a tough-talking, sweetly vulnerable stenographer-prostitute, whose “thighs fill the front of her pseudo-silk pale-green dress so that even standing up she has a lap”. After dallying with Ruth for a few months, he returns to his wife, only to change his mind again. Eventually, tragedy strikes, but because Rabbit’s an asshole, not because he’s an adulterer. Even then, it leaves him largely untouched. Well played.

10. Ada Vinelander in Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
You don’t tend to think of Ada and Van, the lovers at the centre of this novel, as adulterers, because their affair began when they met as children, cousins spending a summer on the family estate. Turns out that they’re actually (whoops!) brother and sister, and their father’s discovery of the affair causes them to break it off. The romance is rekindled after Ada is married, and they plan to run away together, until her husband discloses that he has tuberculosis. Still, love triumphs in the end – if you consider siblings having hot sex into their 80s a triumph. Which, in Nabokov’s hands, it is.


Eliza Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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