The Adulterous Woman
Beyond Practical Purpose
Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1907 and died in a car accident in France, in 1960; remaining best known For The Outsider and perhaps too for the Myth of Sisyphus. He might have been resistant to the label existentialist but he is, in the popular imagination, seen as one of the two exemplars of it, along with Jean-Paul Sartre.
Whether Camus was as incisive or profound a thinker as other existential minds, he was in some ways the truest to an ethos predicated on the body in the world. Camus' fiction and several of his essays (none more so than 'Summer in Algiers') attend to the sensual specificity of the body, and in 'The Adulterous Woman' we might read the work not as a woman coming to consciousness through her thoughts but more through her bodily senses. Janine has been married for twenty-five years and has accepted the marriage perhaps with a hint of hope but with more than an awareness of its practical purpose. In her twenties, she hesitated between an independent life and marriage, and as she started to grow anxious about growing old alone she knew that the law student who would become her husband had always wanted to be with her and there was security in that. He may have been shorter than her, and she didn't much care for his laugh and found his protruding eyes not to her liking, but he possessed admirable qualities, even touching ones, and above all else "she liked being loved."
But Camus, who reveals these details three pages into a twenty-page story, may wonder whether she has lived authentically, in the existential jargon, whether she has settled, in common parlance, for less than she might have wished. If the story goes on to reveal in Janine a yearning for the sensual then we might assume this has always been evident, though repressed, rather than a feeling that overcomes a woman who must be at least in her mid-forties and perhaps fifty. She is childless and the third person narrator, adopting a moment of free indirect discourse, of putting into the narration words we could easily hear coming out of Janine's mouth, says, "No child!". It comes late in the story when Janine wonders why she has travelled with her husband to the Algerian interior. There was nothing to keep her at home, she reflects, and so there she is travelling on a bus in clammy heat surrounded by people as her husband determines to open up the merchandise market after the war. During it, he was rejected for service on health grounds but while he was saved from fighting, business suffered, and now he wants to try and secure trade in the villages of the upper plateaux and the south so Janine travels with him.
However the point of the story isn't Marcel's business interests; that is the practical premise for Janine's sensual, perhaps even spiritual journey, and the story's ambivalence rests on what precisely her journey happens to be. The title may come from the bible (the book of John) but whatever adultery Janine commits it isn't actual. Is this Camus saying like a good Christian there is little difference between thought and deed, as if thinking too of the book of Matthew: You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." That seems unlikely. If Camus rejected existentialism he would have rejected far more strenuously Christian existentialism, a branch that incorporates Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Yet "I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist" Camus insisted in his Notebooks, and no matter the potentially paradoxical nature of the claim, it would seem unlikely Camus is judging Janine for her thoughts, especially when they seem unresolved and tenuous. Early in the story, she notices on the bus a French soldier and when he looks at her with his grey eyes, she starts to blush as she finds herself thinking of her own body. "...she wasn't so fat - tall and well-rounded rather, plump and still desirable, as she was well aware when men looked at her, with her rather childish face, her bright eyes contrasting with this big body she knew to be warm and inviting." But when Janine and Marcel arrive at their destination, and they pass the soldier on the street, he offers no greeting, neither a smile nor a salute. The hint of adultery on the bus, the notion however vague that this man might become her lover, is quickly dashed, even if never manifest than in more than a blush.
But Camus' point might be that her desire needn't be actualised in another man even if mustn't remain virtualised in her head and physiologised in that momentary reddening. Camus instead gives her need to escape Marcel as broad a dimension as possible, one that might be existential; might be cosmic - or perhaps simply a form of sensual existentialism which insists the mind comes to a decision through the body. How political this is we may wonder: at one moment, Janine looks at the land and thinks: "since the beginning of time, on the dry earth of ceaselessly trudging, possessing nothing but serving no one, poverty-stricken but free lords of a strange kingdom....she knew that this kingdom had been eternally promised her and yet that it would never be hers..." This notion of a kingdom promised to her could be read several ways but most obviously as a colonial mindset accepting its limitations. Would Marcel and Janine be there if they couldn't make money; isn't this what they are struggling to do in the post-war years and why Marcel and Janine are travelling through the country trying to get some of that pre-war business back?
By the end of the story, Janine will have surrendered herself to the country rather than assuming it is a land the Pied Noir can exploit; after all "nothing seemed to interest Marcel but business" and Janine would have been expected to share that preoccupation. Camus does not go into much detail about how they ended up in Algeria, how far back into their family the Algerian experience goes. When the narrator tells us that Janine finally decided to marry this law student who always wanted to be with her, she says what she liked about him was "...his courage in facing up to life, which he shared with all the French in this country." The suggestion is that they were both born in Algiers; perhaps accepting their lot while still expecting a lot: people who were both stuck where they were but who still had rights and privileges denied to the local population.
Yet before the story's conclusion, Janine will return to the fort in the nearby desert where she had earlier visited with her husband; her prior excitement during the day all the more evident in the cold night, colder still obviously than in daytime when Marcel said they should return to the hotel: "We are catching our death of cold...You're a fool. Let's go back." Again and again, in the penultimate paragraph, Camus mentions the cold: "the crackling of stones that the cold was reducing to sand", "the dry, cold night", yet "breathing deeply, she forgot the cold, the dead weight of others" and Janine "drowned the cold." Janine's is indeed an odd sort of passion, especially if the imagery constantly invokes crisp aridity rather than warm temperatures. Camus seems to be invoking a crisis that may, often, not be resolved by an affair but is at least acknowledged in one, yet the story indicates that this isn't where even an attempt at an answer would lie. A good sensualist would be interested in showing the importance of desire, and Camus as we have noted isn't averse to its importance. While the sensual usually refers specifically to carnal desire, sensuous concerns more generally the senses. It is this distinction that Camus brings out all the better to show Janine as a woman whose capacity to see and feel the environment opens up to her. If Algeria would have been viewed by Janine and especially Marcel as a place of exploitation, an opportunity for the superior French to take full advantage of what the land has to offer and what the people can be utilised for, Janine's feelings by the end of the story illustrate a woman whose resistance to the country has perhaps broken down as someone else's might in the face of a lover's appeals.
Yet this isn't another living soul but a desert, and perhaps two comments by Camus can help us here. One is from the essay 'The Wind at Djemila', the other from 'The Desert'. In the first piece, he says "there are places where the mind dies so that a truth which is its very denial may be born." In 'The Desert', Camus reckons, "...I call the truth anything that continues." Few things continue quite like the desert and Janine comes up against her mortality in the presence of a landscape so vast that the ambitions of her husband become very puny indeed. After the experience, she returns to the hotel and Marcel wakes, turns the light on and, when he returns to bed, he "looks at her without understanding." He finds her weeping abundantly and as she can't stop crying, she tells him, "it's nothing dear...it's nothing." The story ends on this nothing, as if the emptiness of the desert meets the emptiness that Janine has been feeling for years but hasn't quite been able to articulate or confront. That it takes the form of the desert, the fort, the cold, rather than a person, their home, their warmth, makes the story harder to comprehend than an adulterous tale might, but this is where the sort of solitary existentialism, that knows solace cannot be found in others, becomes evident: that Janine is alone, and this is potentially a source of great sadness but potentially great relief too. Will she be able any longer to see in Marcel a man who "needed her...the only joy he gave her was the knowledge that she was necessary." However, that look he gives her without understanding at the end of the story may be the start of something else, an awareness at least, if not quite a possibility.
© Tony McKibbin