Archive for the February 09 Critical Paper Category

Rituals in Adultery. Critical Paper.

Posted in February 09 Critical Paper, VCFA Critical Papers (For Jess) on February 26, 2009 by Richard Farrell

Rituals in Adultery

Ritual: B,2, b… “A series of actions compulsively performed under certain circumstances, the non-performance of which results in tension and anxiety.”  (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993)


In Andre Dubus’ novella Adultery, rituals are used to establish tension, tone, setting, and character as a married couple seek to transcend traditional concepts of marriage.  Rita and Hank develop under the constraints of both secular and sacred rituals.  They live just outside the prospect of their freedom, of a release from tedium, of the direct experience of life itself, but they must leave the routines and mundanity which their rituals support.  Dubus created a fictional world where the sensibility of his characters is both supported by and ensnared by their devotion to actions compulsively performed.  Indeed, the more the characters transcend these ingrained habits, the more likely they will experience madness and terror and lapse back into the safety of those same actions.  Dubus efficiently created a fictive world that is at once familiar and constrictive, a world that challenges the very foundations which support it.  But in using the ritual as a device, was Dubus pointing towards a solution?  Was he saying that rituals are more important than freedom from them?   

The story opens with Edith clearly locked in ritual common to many families.  She’s finishing dinner, asking her daughter to brush her teeth and put on pajamas.  This scene of domestic routine immediately establishes the story instantly.  It’s after dinner, in any typical American kitchen, and while Dad sips his coffee, Mom cleans up and their daughter goes upstairs to prepare for bed.  In one paragraph framed by a simple ritual, we launched into the scene directly.   Then Dubus shatters the calm with a one line revelation of the wife’s adultery: “I’m going to see Joe.”  By creating a comfortable, familiar space then instantly disrupting it, Dubus relies on both the ritual of family life and the destruction of it to do the work.  The reader can experience comfort and doom within a very confined space.

The main characters in this story labor under constrained, ritualistic, lives.  Hank follows obsessive patterns to jumpstart his writing.  “He did not want to spend the night with her.  It was a matter of ritual, he told her.  It had to do with his work.”  Then later: “He first made his bed and cleared his desk of mail and books, then while he made his coffee and cooked bacon and eggs on the hot plate he read the morning paper.”  He spoke of this time “seriously, almost reverently, about making a bed, eating some eggs, and reading a newspaper.”  For Hank, these rituals define his life as a graduate student and a writer.   And while they support his ability to deal with the chaos of creation, they also limit his relationship with the real people in his life, especially his wife. 

Edith also relies on ritualistic behavior to gird her life from loneliness and isolation.  Her life falls into well established routines that require little thought.  Only when she begins to suspect that Hank is cheating does she step outside this safe zone.  She takes this step by violating their normal patterns.  “He sat at the kitchen table, talking to her while she cleaned the kitchen.  It was a ritual of theirs.  She asked him for a drink.  Usually she didn’t drink after dinner, and he was surprised.”  After this violation, she asks Hank about his affair.  What follows is the realization that there is a life outside the ritual.  “All day she knew what madness was, or she believed she was at least tasting it and at times she yearned for the entire feast.”  The ‘entire feast’ is a life lived outside their rituals but that type of living invites chaos and disharmony as well as freedom.  So what immediately follows the escape in the story is not freedom but a rapid return to the familiar.  After her yearning for freedom, she slips rapidly back to the routine.  I am beating the eggs, she said to herself.”  Further down in the same section, she says, “I am talking to Sharon,” then, “Always scramble eggs in a saucepan.  Only when her most inviolate ritual (marriage/monogamy) is broken do these italicized character thoughts appear in the story.  This is significant.  They indicate a psychic break for Edith because her world has been upturned, but they also clearly deliver her back to the routines of her daily life.  This break signals both possibility and regression, for what she is doing now is using the rituals to support the growing discomfort she feels without them.  She returns to the action to avoid thought about its futility.  “At breakfast, Hank read the paper.  Edith talked to Sharon and ate because she had to, because it was morning, it was time to eat.”  The rituals support her unsteadiness but they are severely damaged.  “Hank’s betrayal had removed her from the actions which were her life.”  Notice how action becomes life. 

Dubus also used ironic juxtapositions of rituals to manifest their inherent conflicts.  Two significant cultural sacraments and their opposites stand out as primary examples of this: marriage/ adultery and the celibacy of a priest/the breaking of his vows.  Often in the same scene, these established rites are places side by side to build tension and disharmony.   Edith’s need for domestic order and routine keeps her locked in a marriage that she cares about but can’t accept outside traditional definitions.  Hank, her husband, opposes monogamy and convinces his wife to try an atypical arrangement, yet for all their attempts at openness, even their adultery takes on ritualistic patterns. “Always the unspoken agreement with Hank was that for the last part of the night and the breakfast hour of the morning the family would be together under one roof.”  The position of the ritual and its opposite work to drive both scene and character forward.  We see this same pattern clearly at work in one of the secondary characters too.

When the Catholic Priest Joe, who has ‘loved the Eucharist since he was a boy,” decides to break his vows in order to experience intimacy with a woman, we encounter the apotheosis of this construct.  Joe and the Church embody the inherent conflict between the ritual and the spiritual, between thought and action, between matter and energy.  No where is this more evident than in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the merging (in Catholic theology) of the spirit and the body.  For Joe, the Eucharist becomes the conflict between what he feels for Edith (he thinks it’s not a sin) and the tenets of his faith.   Edith has other affairs, but only Joe comes into focus.  Edith sleeping with a virginal ex-priest is the most extreme example of the inherent conflict between freedom and control. 

Dubus seems to be making a clear case for the stultifying effect of ritual on the human spirit, especially as we watch the main characters drift apart from the order which has supported their lives, yet he undercuts that case by forcing each character back into the rituals, however transformed, before the story’s conclusion.  Only Edith gestures at the possibility of breaking free but such freedom must be found off the page as the story ends with her promise to divorce her husband.  Was Dubus saying that these rituals were more important than freedom?  He seems to be, at least from the mouth of the dying priest.  “It’s what the ritual is for: nobody has to understand.  The knowledge is ritual.  Anyone can listen to the words.”  This justification fails though, because each of these characters has struggled against the constrictions of life.   Earlier in the story, he describes Edith’s marriage this way:  “Until now her marriage had been a circle, likes its gold symbol on her finger.  Wherever she went she was still inside it.  I had a safe, gentle circumference, and mortality and other perils lay outside of it.”  Aren’t the ‘other perils’ exactly what each of these characters seek?  Did Dubus, himself a lifelong Catholic, really believe that the rituals of life are more powerful than the freedoms those rituals sometimes evade? 

From a craft perspective, rituals are an efficient device to render scene.  Their familiarity and comfort act as a lure, drawing the reader onto a hook that the writer has cast.  Though the variance in rituals is complex and diverse, it seems reasonable to assume that most readers would respond in a similar fashion; it would be the rare person who has lived outside the effect of the familiar.  Yet on a closer examination, the restrictions create the conflict in the world of character which comfortably drives the story forward.