Many of us have fixed ideals that we believe in and that guide our lives. Honesty. Selflessness. Fidelity to one’s significant other. When we see these values being violated (especially when we are the ones being violated, we are the ones who have been lied to or taken advantage of or cheated on by a partner) we feel outrage or sorrow. We immediately point to the culprit and say something like, “How awful of her to hurt my friend Ben by sleeping with another man behind his back. He trusted her. How will he ever trust someone again?” And yet, when we consume media, when we read a book or watch a story, oftentimes the story suggests that we set aside these ideals in favor of new ones. Below I consider some examples of stories and the values they seem to espouse, as well as the ways in which the stories manipulate audiences to reconsider their own values. (Spoilers for all the works listed!)
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
In this work, Edna Pontellier finds herself unhappy in her marriage and with her duties as the mother of two boys. She begins flirting with a young man by the name of Robert Lebrun to give her life some excitement, but he fears entering a relationship with a married woman. Edna then tries to find sexual satisfaction with a third man and begins removing herself from the responsibilities expected of a wife and mother at that time. Eventually Robert confesses his love for Edna but refuses to be her lover since he realizes they can never make it work. In despair, Edna drowns herself.
This story engages the sympathy of the reader for Edna because Edna clearly has difficulty communicating with her husband. She feels misunderstood and she does not desire to fulfill the duties expected of a wife and a mother. She wants to find herself. It has become a classic feminist text as it portrays a woman not content with her lot in life and wanting something more. Teach this book in a classroom and many students will embrace an interpretation calling Edna’s adultery “liberating.” “True love” should come before a loveless marriage.
But would many of these same students react in the same way if someone they knew in real life cheated on their husband and began to neglect their children? Is it also problematic that, in Edna’s time, this cheating could also reflect poorly on her entire family, perhaps resulting years later in men refusing to marry their daughters to the sons of an adulterous woman? If Edna were real, if she were a friend or a neighbor or a relative, would we see her sleeping around and shout “Freedom!” or would we wonder instead why she didn’t at least try marriage counseling before she committed adultery?
And does it matter that Edna is female? If her husband were unhappy in their marriage and found himself a mistress, would we celebrate him for putting his own emotional needs before those of his wife and family? Would we feel sorrier for a spouse who has to deal with an unfaithful partner if the one being cheated on is a woman?
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (14th century)
In Canto V of the Inferno, Dante famously depicts the two lovers Paolo and Francesca being whirled about by winds as punishment for their lust. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, but, she explains, she and Paolo were reading the tale of Guinivere and Lancelot one day and as a result ending up sleeping together. Dante swoons after hearing their piteous tale.
Dante depicts the sinners very sympathetically (though it’s worth noting that he’s not celebrating their lust since they’re in hell for it and that Virgil rebukes him for feeling pity for sin) so it’s easy for readers to get caught up in the romance of it all. Francesca, we can infer, was in a loveless marriage. So why shouldn’t she sleep with a guy she’s actually attracted to?
Well, that narrative seems all right on paper. Everyone wants a happy ending. But would we respond to Francesca with similar sympathy if she were real? If a best friend were married to Francesca and he found out she was sleeping with his brother, would we say to that best friend, “Well, she wasn’t happy with you, so good for her! True love comes before marriage vows!” or would we be sorry that their marriage was breaking apart? Would we see her adultery as wrong? Would we find it problematic that she swore before witnesses to be true to him till death–and then slept with his brother?
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
This one is not a film, but it represents particularly well how so many stories get readers to sympathize with adultery. In this story, married William Shakespeare falls in love with an engaged woman (Viola) and their steamy affair inspires him to write Romeo and Juliet.
So how do stories get audiences to cheer for unfaithful partners? Typically, one of the partners in the original pairing has to be undesirable. The woman nags her husband a lot, meaning that he can cheat on her with a woman who’s less critical. The man is sexist or controlling, so the woman can cheat on him with someone who respects her. Shakespeare in Love follows this same formula. Viola’s betrothed is arrogant, rude, and violent, and expects Viola to behave like a proper upper-class woman. No one wants her to be paired with him, so they root for her love affair with Shakespeare. Shakespeare meanwhile is married with kids but his wife isn’t in London, so clearly she’s a non-entity with no feelings and no one has to worry about her.
Again, let’s consider how we might respond in real life. If a partner is absent or far away, does that give the other partner license to have an affair? If someone isn’t perfect, if they whine a lot or they don’t appreciate the other, does that make adultery acceptable? Or do we, in real life, expect couples to remain faithful to their partners even when separated or even when their relationship is in a rough patch? Do we expect couples to try to solve their problems before they break their marriage vows of fidelity and begin sleeping around?
Stories often provide us with perspectives we may not have considered otherwise. They can bring out the nuances and complexities of a situation. Reading a story like Paolo and Francesca’s may make us consider why someone proves unfaithful to their spouse–maybe it wasn’t sheer spite or maliciousness, but the act of a hurt or lonely individual. But that raises the question of whether sympathy for a person means that we should change our moral standards for them. Why do we feel bad for characters who perform acts we would condemn if people in real life did them to us or to those we love?