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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Excellent! I have experienced the exact feelings of the urge to rush for freedom when in a dull marriage. After 5 years of my first marriage, we were sinking into dull routines and lost love. A professor of mine patted me on the shoulder the last day of class telling me I did a good job and I felt a flush of passion. I started fantasizing about him and picturing meeting at a hotel. I never saw him again nor acted on that, but it is the context of not being free to explore in all ways that we are forced to look at the real source of our freedom. This professor never had any idea of my feelings he ignited but I was forever changed. I could not live like this anymore, but I did not know how to bring my passion into a marriage that was in a deep rut, so I got a divorce. With the freedom to date anyone, I only wanted to be married again.
Great job Andrew of stating in words what Camus was getting at and what we feel in our own lives. Ambrose Bearce describes love as: “a form of insanity curable by marriage.” Janine seems to blame Marcel for her rut, but when she breaks away for the one evening, she captures her own freedom without bothering him. Good for her. I would wish for her to bring that passion to Marcel, he might enjoy it too. Janine might say, “I tried but he is not interested.” That means maybe she did not do it in the right way or the right time for him.
After blaming a second husband for dull marriage, I again divorced only to wish I was married again. Once single , looking at marriage from a distance, I realized it was my job to put happy energy into these marriages, if and when I want that. There lies the freedom…the freedom to create fun and life in our own marriage. I used to wait for the spouse to do it and then I was only sad, lonely and whiny. Oh I pretended to be a big person, but actually I was blaming the partner.
Then I prayed and prayed on it and found God as my partner, looking at the beauty and excitement he creates with every sunrise and sunset. Then I quit expecting my partner to be God and let God be God, then I could let the husband be the husband. With God’s partnership, and expressed freedom to run through the night and explore, Janine could conceivably now play and enjoy what God has created for her and share it with her husband.
In modern day, this is the purpose of a weekly date night. Never give up dating. We are all free to create the date. No excuses. No dating is a recipe for a dull marriage in a rut.
Thanks for listening.
You remind me how much I love Camus’ work. Some of my profs in Aix knew him. I enjoyed your comments, Andy.
Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain. – Jack Kerouac
I needed to fight in Vietnam before I could understand the kind of freedom Camus seems to be talking about in The Stranger, and I suspect in most of his other works. Losing faith in everything you’ve ever been taught, ever believed, brings a special kind of “freedom,’ though it also implies the most frightening loss of Self that most of us will ever have to endure. It means having to define your own truths, not blindly accept Society’s truths.
Layne, my Camus reading group’s choice of biography is “Camus, A Romance,” by Elizabeth Hawes. It’s deeply personal and therefore unconventional, drawing on her own “love affair” through his books, even though she never met him, to sketch an intimate and engaging portrait. She traveled widely through France and interviewed most everyone who was still alive who knew him, so perhaps she talked to one or another of your old profs! Highly recommended for Camus lovers if you haven’t read it!
Dennis: Camus & Kerouac—you’ve just given me an idea for a blog post. Would be a fun exploration, but off the top of my head, methinks Camus would have looked askance at much of what Jack was up to. On the other hand: they might’ve made fine drinking buddies—Camus’s moral seriousness tends to obscure the reports that he was a pretty serious partier, and we all know about Kerouac in that regard…
Mary, I’m so pleased & appreciative that you shared your own story in such depth here. I love that Bearce quote, really puts the challenge out there for what long-term relationship is about. Plus, I’ve been listening to a bunch of tapes on existentialism with the title, “No Excuses,” one of Jean Paul Sartre’s pet phrases for getting on with your life and taking responsibility for your choices and ultimately, your happiness, and that’s exactly what you’re alluding to here with such grace and perspective.
Loren, Camus’s pivot points in his own truth-finding were also war-based—the Second World War in which he was a hero in the French underground, and the Algerian war of independence from France, in which he took a moderate view and was utterly reviled by many of his former friends and allies. It was lonely and very difficult for him, but it was authentic and true from where he sat. That would very well fit with your emphasis on “defining your own truths,” I think…
I don’t really know Camus’ end, but Kerouac died of an esophageal hemorrhage while…..no surprise
here…drinking. He was with his third wife and living in his mother’s house. Maybe that represented freedom for him. I’m going to tend to doubt it. Real freedom is hardly living out the fantasy of doing everything exactly as we wish. And the discussion of how free our will and the power to act on that supposed freedom is at least a couple book-lengths of discussion. Maybe a whole literary shelf’s worth. Can we boil it down? Maybe it’s an absence of longing…..a Buddhist non-attachment. Contentment. Which is quite different than happiness. Mandela was, by many accounts, a spiritually free man at Robben. Because he forgave his captors? Was he content where he was because he accepted his lot in that moment? It all gets tricky…..this talk of ‘freedom.’ Camus, Kerouac, and a bottle of wine might inch us closer.
The Buddhist reference is spot-on, Dennis, because existentialism is quite akin to it from the standpoint of emphasizing that we can’t necessarily control our circumstance, but we can always control our response to it. So it posits “existence precedes essence”—we make our meaning in life rather than it being gifted to us with a pretty little bow on it—but also “mind over matter”—that at some level, however constrained our circumstance, we always have choices we can make, and within those conscious choices lies our freedom. Kerouac’s drinking himself to death represented a terrible choice, of course—there went all his freedom, right into the casket!