Adultery in Literature of the Late Nineteenth Century

The Late Nineteenth Century

Upon a rapidly changing scene of the late nineteenth century—one characterized by the Industrial Revolution and the disintegration of Christian thought—a rash of novels appeared about whose theme was based on repetition of adultery, in novels like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Tolstoy’s Ann Karenina, and Hawthorne‘s The Scarlet Letter. These are only some of the many such novels. Indeed, adulterous heroines appeared to people world literature in the 1800’s. A proper understanding of this theme that reflected society’s ideas on adultery during this period of necessity involves an understanding of society’s ideas on marriage.


In this regard, one can say that laissez-faire prevailed in every sector of the economic life of this period, everywhere that is, except in middle or upper-class marriage where the importance attached to the dowry put a stranglehold upon it. This was especially true in countries like Spain, France, and Russia in which the heavy hand of the parent or guardian in the selection of a suitable partner usually occasioned unions of young wives and older husbands and a vast number of loveless marriages. And social mores in the marriage situation restricting the woman more than the man, it was entirely upon the woman that the arranged marriage was a true hardship. Moreover, any thoughts on her part to seek love outside of the bonds of matrimony usually resulted in a conflict between love and duty, freedom, and obligation. A concern for the woman in her plight was brought to the forefront in the feminist movement of the late nineteen hundreds. Hence, the theme of woman—in particular, the adulterous one—was a very dominant theme in the literature of this period.

Anna Xarenir

A desire to compare heroines of the novels of adultery of a similar situation but of a dissimilar culture occasioned the interest in Ana of Calvin’s La Regenta (1884—5), Anna of Tolstoy’s
Anna Xarenir (1873) and Hester of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) which represent Spanish, French, Russian, and American cultures, respectively. These literary adulteresses created within a thirty—five year period though alike both in their transgression and the circumstance of marriage to older men are nonetheless distinct in that they are the literary creations of cultures diverse in social, religious, and moral backgrounds.

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