Begayal - Alienation of Affections in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Stewart O’Nan’s Everyday People

Seminar Paper, 2006

23 Pages, Grade: sehr gut



About this Paper Page

Adultery as an Entrenched Crime – Introductory Remarks

Scarlet Letters – Adultery in the Novel

“All right, yes, he could admit it: another man.” – Same-Sex Adultery

“I felt, somehow, elated.” – Reasons for Same-Sex Adultery

“It was like someone else completely” – Breaks of Identities

“Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden” – The Significance of Places and Settings

“You keep your dirt out of my house” – Conclusion


About this Paper

My paper on adultery in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Stewart O’Nan’s Everyday People and their adulterous characters David and Harold was commenced by a seminar on the representation of adultery in the novel. Even though the discussions in class touched upon various aspects of the crime of infidelity, such as different historical and literary periods or cultural aspects and developments, however, to my understanding it lacked an important facet. Out of convention, probably, adultery was only discussed in the constellation of heterosexual extramarital affairs, that is, either a husband was unfaithful to his wife with another woman, or a wife with another man. Apparently, the awareness of the two novels that I will discuss in this paper and their specific rendering of the issue of adultery contributed to or even nourished my feelings of missing the essential aspect of same-sex adultery. In my research for this paper I realized that my opinion was justified, for homosexual affairs outside of heterosexual marriages have also concerned jurisdiction, legislation, and public opinion on a larger scale and still do. In this paper, however, I will only discuss these aspects marginally, for the focus lies upon the examination of adultery in literature.

Adultery as an Entrenched Crime – Introductory Remarks

Apparently, adultery has been part of human existence since there was marriage. Instantly, these binary oppositions are set on the agenda. As is typical for binary oppositions they evoke the idea of two antagonistic concepts, one being considered better than the other. Vital for the relationship between marriage and adultery is their dependency upon each other, or rather the dependency of adultery upon marriage; without marriage there cannot be adultery, whereas the concept of marriage may exist without infidelity. Not only this one-way dependency suggests a distinctive value judgment, but also cultural conventions and ideals. In terms of law enforcement and jurisdiction adultery, throughout the past, was clearly seen as a crime and prosecuted respectively. Cut off limbs and noses and stoning to death were probably the most extreme punishments which are, for instance, presented in the texts of the Bible, but life-time imprisonment, for example, was among the standard measures of penalties and, to some extent, still are today. In ancient Greece, for instance, a man was allowed to kill his wife and to penalize the adulterous man as he wished; if the adulterer was killed or maimed was in the hands of the betrayed husband. Today, at least in Western cultures, there are no more official punishments of that kind. Legislation, jurisdiction, and, as is a very important aspect, public opinion concerning the crime of adultery, however, can not only be distinguished by historical developments, but also, if not inevitably, by cultural backgrounds. In old-testament Judaism a man, in his own marriage, cannot commit adultery, that is extra-marital sexual relationships of the husband were ignored. On the other hand, “a married woman engaging in sexual intercourse with another man does count as adultery, and in this case, both the woman and the man are guilty.” (Wikipedia 2006) Also in the old Napoleonic Code it was articulated, that a man was able to divorce his adulterous wife, but adultery committed by the husband was no reason for his wife to legally divorce him.

In my research for this paper I found out, that in quite a few countries adultery, up to this day, is still illegal. Among those are, for example, Austria, Switzerland, Asian countries such as Taiwan and Korea, and Islamic countries. Interestingly, it was highlighted, that law enforcement, where applicable, may vary largely. Women, in that respect are sometimes punished more harshly then men when it comes to the verdict; allegedly, in Nigeria and Pakistan women that had been raped were even punished for committing adultery (Wikipedia 2006). Such inconsistencies of law enforcement, which do occur, even if not to such an extreme extent, demand an explanation. I, myself, may not come up with an adequate and comprehensive clarification of the issue, but I believe that cultural contexts and conventions, but above all gender roles and social/societal expectations upon the genders are an important aspect in trying to understand why adulterous spouses may be treated so differently. This not only holds for jurisdiction, but also for any society in which adultery is no more illegal. Instantly, the important role of public opinion and social, not legal, conventions and standards, as I mentioned earlier, become evident. Even if men and women are treated equally by law concerning their crime of adultery, societal reactions and social sanctions will differ fundamentally.

In that respect, it is helpful to try to outline social gender roles, at least for the Western cultures. The woman, as the weak gender, is very much defined in corresponding to the role of being inferior to the man, being a loving, “darling” housewife, and a caring mother of her husband’s children. Her sphere of action is connected to the house, the family, the private. Of course, this assumption of the role of women in society is quite stereotypical and may not be in accordance with the latest inquiries, but even in modern times of female emancipation this specific notion is still immanent in today’s society, and its perceived values. The man, on the other hand, is responsible for representing his wife, and his family respectively, outside of the home and is expected to economically care for them: he is supposed to be the bread winner. As already implicated, his sphere of action is basically the political and economic environment of his family. Those stereotypical ideas of the gender roles allow for an additional characterization of male and female dispositions: women are caring, loving, understanding, pacific, emotional, lenient, and dependent to only name a few characteristics that, ultimately, undermine her weak nature. On the opposite, man are widely considered as being belligerent, tough, rational, independent, severe, and strong. “A man had obligations. A father had responsibilities.” (O’Nan 2001: 216). Conclusively, society does not as easily, if at all, approve of a woman committing adultery as it may do in the case of adultery committed by men. It is not appropriate for a woman to engage in adulterous relationships, whereas men, constantly struggling their animalism, might not know any better. Those differences in social acceptance seem to be bizarre but are quite clear when considering the fact that society has no other way to react in that particular way, since its frame of reference, namely the self-imposed, established categories of gender, only allows such distinctly subjective and conventionally disparate responses in the first place.

So far, I have talked about conventions of Western cultures which need to be considered in the context of adultery and its ramifications for society and the individual. As I already pointed out, adultery in most Western countries is not illegal anymore. Adultery in the US, however, is being treated separately by each state. In Pennsylvania, for instance, adultery, technically, may be punished with a verdict of almost two years of imprisonment. In practice, though, this so called “blue law” is hardly applied; in the United States, “no one has been tried and convicted of adultery since the 1920s or 30s” (Smith 1998). An important issue that constantly comes up in the discussion of legislation, the process of defining and re-defining adultery and its components, and the urgency to update adultery laws is the aspect of infidelity with a same-sex partner. Partially, in the United States extramarital homosexual affairs are not considered as being adulterous, which is also due to the antiquated statute. “If your spouse is having an affair with someone of the same sex [...] it could be hard, if not impossible, for you to get a divorce in some courts” (Smith 1998). Taking into consideration that same-sex adultery might not be committed as infrequently as one may think, the revision of the law in terms of phrasing and terminology should not remain disregarded. As holds for this paper, homosexual infidelity is equally considered adulterous as are extramarital affairs with partners of the opposite sex.

In conclusion of my introductory reflections and remarks, I would like to point out what else I relate to when talking about adultery. Basically, there are distinctions between two forms of adultery, namely the act and the thought, which are already presented in the Bible. The first form clearly represents the most common notion of adultery: a man or a woman have sexual relationships to another woman or man other than their own spouses. The proper punishment for such transgression of one of the Ten Commandments is death. Undermining this great sin, in John 8: 1-11 it is alluded to the common practice of this sin before the downfall of Jerusalem (Easton 2006). The other aspect of adultery is the thought. As revealed in the Bible, even the thought of wanting another man or woman outside the boundaries of one’s marital union is regarded to as sin and adultery as well. However, the “thought” has to correspond to a lustful desire (Comfort 2006). The adequate punishment in this case can only be death as well. Orthodox thinking and opinion have it that even adultery is committed when a marriage is divorced on the grounds of changed affections and the separated spouses re-marry. However, this form of adultery, not only because of my own religious beliefs, but also due to its inadequacy in discussing the two novels, is not being considered in the context of this paper.

For the different constellations in Baldwin’s and O’Nan’s novels, it has to be said that there is only one genuine case of adultery, namely Harold’s affair with the young and attractive Andre, basically the two characters in Everyday People I take interest in discussing in this paper. David’s and Giovanni’s affections for each other in Baldwin’s novel can only be regarded as adultery, according to the definition, in the case of Giovanni, who, as it turns out, left behind a wife and a dead child before coming to Paris. Since David and his fiancé Hella are about to get married, the relationship between Giovanni and David should be considered, too, as adulterous from David’s perspective; in the end, the novel itself suggests this by also portraying triangulation. Thus, in the context of my paper, I will consider the character of David as adulterous as well.

Scarlet Letters – Adultery in the Novel

Indicated in the preceding chapter, adultery is a phenomenon since there are human bonds and marriage. Thus, it becomes clear that unfaithfulness has vividly been discussed throughout different literary periods and genres. Thematically, adultery brings forth its own conflict, highlighting an immense amount of emotions that are implicated: people involved are torn between their reasoning and passions, are confronted with the social pressure and the ever-lasting struggle for individual happiness. This, basically, projects the conflict between the Freudian concepts of the reality and the pressure principle. While the pleasure principle guarantees an immediate fulfillment of desires, the passionate adulterous affair, the reality principle constitutes the striking factor in the equation of infidelity: norms and conventions, a social contract, set to enable life in a society, disapprove of adulterous acts even before they are committed. Since adultery, as treated in this paper, is an act of consent, it becomes clear that while knowing about the social consequences and the wrongness of their actions, adulterers are quite aware of their transgression and vividly confronted with its repercussions. Additionally, marriage and family are considered as being the cornerstones of society. However, threatening these institutions, incidents of infidelity and sexuality/passion respectively, reveal their immense force on society. Laws to regulate wrongdoings of that sort are the most obvious efforts of the state to control these malevolent passions for the well-being of the family and, therefore, the community or state. One of the most eager societies in which this was pursued was probably the Puritan community. As an example of adultery in fiction in this context the adulterous pilgrim Hester Prynne comes to mind. The conflicts between pleasure and reality, or transgression and contract (cf. Tanner 1979), are essential to the discussion of adultery in the novel and will surface throughout the analysis of Baldwin’s and O’Nan’s novels.


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Begayal - Alienation of Affections in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Stewart O’Nan’s Everyday People
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Amerikanistik)
sehr gut
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Begayal, Alienation, Affections, James, Baldwin’s, Giovanni’s, Room, Stewart, O’Nan’s, Everyday, People
Quote paper
Matthias Groß (Author), 2006, Begayal - Alienation of Affections in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Stewart O’Nan’s Everyday People , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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