She is sitting on a bus crossing the wintry Algerian desert, seated tight up against her slumbering merchant husband and surrounded by Arabs tucked deep into their burnooses to ward off the cold and the fine grains of sand that find their way through cracks in the vehicle. Suddenly, she notices a French soldier across the aisle who gives her a glance, carrying just a tinge of suggestion.
That glance and a couple of other feeling states to follow are about as far as the “adultery” in this story’s title ever goes, but it sets in motion a long and impassioned emotional storm inside our protagonist, with the reverberations extending far beyond this story and her life.
What transpires from there in Albert Camus’s 1957 short story, The Adulterous Woman, speaks in profound and enduring ways to the human condition. Which is why its mere 30 pages and few scenes carry such resonance for this and every other time.
The woman’s name is Janine, and she and her husband Marcel are French-Algerians in Algeria near the end of World War II. Marcel runs a small “dry goods” store in the Arab street, which he inherited from his parents after giving up on law school. He and Janine have been married 25 years, no children, living in three rooms above the shop. There is no mention of friends or much else in this life where for Janine:
The years had passed in semi-darkness behind the half-closed shutters. Summer, the beaches, excursions, the mere sight of the sky were things of the past. Nothing seemed to interest Marcel but business.
So on this bus, after all the years in this alien, though also too-familiar environment, Janine entertains a glance from a soldier, and her world goes into a spin.
Later in the journey, the soldier silently offers her a losenge which she accepts with a simple thanks. The next and last time they lay eyes on each other, he passes without eye contact as the bus disembarks. But that hardly ends the turmoil leading to Janine’s “adultery.”
That evening on the way to dinner, she convinces her sullen and resistant husband to climb some stairs to an old fort that the hotel manager had suggested offered nice views of the expansive desert. When she beholds it, something stirs inside her as she gazes down upon the few scattered figures moving across the sand, and Camus provides this extraordinary passage regarding the resonance of time and its passing:
Since the beginning of time, on the dry earth of this limitless land scraped to the bone, a few men had been ceaselessly trudging, possessing nothing but serving no one, poverty-stricken but free lords of a strange kingdom. Janine did not know why this thought filled her with such a sweet, vast melancholy that it closed her eyes. She knew that this kingdom had been eternally promised her and yet that it would never be hers, never again, except in this fleeting moment perhaps when she opened her eyes again on the suddenly motionless sky and on its waves of steady light, while the voices rising from the Arab town suddenly fell silent.
These “free lords of a strange kingdom,” hard-scrabbled lives though they lead, represent, for Janine at least, “another”—another life, another setting, another option unconstrained by the conventions of her own straight-jacketed existence. She longs for something and somewhere else, anywhere but here and this humdrum life.
Camus’s purpose is not to explore garden variety slinking off to a motel on the edge of town with the neighbor’s spouse. He is instead sounding the depths of the cry for freedom that is so often dormant in the human heart until some impetus crashes meteor-like into the sleepwalking that often passes for our everyday lives.
Who hasn’t felt that at one time or other in the warp and woof of long relationship, whether marital or even with oneself? Who doesn’t, in the dark unfettered depths of soul, hear there a longing for complete freedom, abandon, a break with all the convention and conformity that impose themselves upon us via the invention of culture and its prescribed traditions?
We are born unformed and wild, utterly dependent on a great Other who will nourish and protect us at the cost of tamping down our own will, our own baseline longings to exert ourselves in the ways our primitive nature commands.
“Me, ME DO IT!!” the toddler shrieks. “ME!”
And thus the battle is truly joined.
Although the boredom of an almost inert long marriage in a stifling environment sets the stage for The Adulterous Woman, Camus is after far bigger fish in this tale. Sure, every long-term marriage has to contend with familiar and well-charted peaks and vales. Adultery wasn’t new when Camus wrote this story—nor was it new thousands of years before. Complete fidelity always has and always will carry its trials. (Witness the divorce rate around much of the world.)
What long-term partner doesn’t occasionally, in quietude, wonder about exploring other flesh, other expressions and exchanges of love and ardor? We would hardly be human—or else living in deep denial—if it weren’t so. This is true even as we subjugate those urges—most of us, most of the time, that is—to the commitments and obligations and deep care for another that we have willingly taken on in this one life we have been granted.
But Camus is getting at something much deeper here than physical adultery and the longing for different eyes and touch and sensations than those we have become so used to. His purpose is not to explore garden variety slinking off to a motel on the edge of town with the neighbor’s spouse. He is instead sounding the depths of the cry for freedom that is so often dormant in the human heart until some impetus crashes meteor-like into the sleepwalking that often passes for our everyday lives.
The “adulterous” woman’s cry here is only partially for release from her narrow set of personal horizons. The more profound issue is the urge for freedom that lives in and fuels life for all of us, dormant or subjugated as it often is (only to seize us as it will, and if we are fortunate, not compelling any illegal or life-ruining activity).
It is the primitive cry for more intense and connected and deeper and more lasting freedom, shorn of every convention but its own naked and wholly expressive need. It reflects the desire for eternal, ecstatic, soul-enhancing affirmation, and though that desire is at least partially the basis of adultery and various other forms of betrayal, adultery is a bare hint, just a shard, of its far larger scope.
On the one pole of life and our psyche, writ large: I need to be free!
And on the other: Hold me tight, and never let me go.
Janine’s final and most intense “adultery,” after her glance with the soldier and revery on the rooftop, sees her actually awaken in the dead of night and slink off from beside her husband. It occurs after this feverish round of self-reflection in bed, listening to Marcel’s breathing:
She drew back from Marcel. No, she was overcoming nothing, she was not happy, she was going to die, in truth, without having been liberated. Her heart pained her; she was stifling under a huge weight that she suddenly discovered she had been dragging around for twenty years. Now she was struggling under it with all her strength.
A moment later, she slips out of bed and heads into the night, her destination the fort where she had earlier stared into the very maw of eternity. But she is frantic, running for unknown purpose toward an unknown fate, answering a siren call whose origin she is just barely becoming aware of.
What transpires upon her arrival can be seen as both a brief experience of liberation under the night stars and a final surrender that seals her fate. Whichever it is, she has tasted the bittersweet draught of freedom and then, for better and worse, returns to the bed besides Marcel—where she bursts into tears and insists, when he is awakened and inquires about what is wrong, “It’s nothing, dear. It’s nothing.”
Expressive freedom within tight discipline and form is the hallmark of all great art—exemplified in the lush and ever compelling Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
The entire text of The Adulterous Woman can be found here.
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