Adultery is a great evil. This is an inescapable conclusion. And it is not a new conclusion to me—every reading of the Ten Commandments, every discussion of marriage, every clear-sighted scrutiny of our culture’s signature ills serve to drive home the point. Never mind how many times I had heard, from all sorts of sources, that if you really love someone nothing else matters—I knew better. Or so I thought.
To be clear, it was not a personal experience that showed me just how much I had been affected by the inattention to fidelity that floats around modern life, but a book. In Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope, one of the main characters is in an intolerable condition. She loved a poor young man, but was convinced by her family to marry a dry politician who does not love her, and who shows her no tenderness to encourage her love. She has not even been able to have a child, which could win his attention. The narrator freely admits that she was wrong to marry as she did, that she could have cured the poor young man of his wild ways. What is this young woman to do? Her former lover is still wild with love for her, and would run away with her in a moment; she is still desperately in love with him; if she left, her husband would be free to find another wife, who would behave with propriety fitting his station and who could bear him a child. Everything is in favor of her leaving—except the vows that she swore to be faithful to her husband. What is she to do?
When I was presented with this situation, I was stunned. In one blow it revealed to me how little my intellectual regard for fidelity translated into emotional support. My feelings all clamored for the young woman to dash away with her beloved, to experience tenderness for once. How important unthinking assumptions are to shaping our minds! Adultery, made sweet by countless fictional examples, urged my approval.
How many TV shows have you seen where the greatest proof of love is moving in with someone, and marriage is just the excuse for a huge, perfect wedding day? How many books have you read that end with the proposal, as though once one is safely engaged all temptations and strife simply melt away? In saying this I do not mean to be the crotchety, grumpy critic who scolds “modernity” unthinkingly; even Jane Austen, who was firmly moral and decidedly not modern, was more attentive to the importance of falling in love with a morally praiseworthy person than to the importance of being oneself morally praiseworthy after the wedding. It makes sense, of course; the delights of young love are much more gratifying to read about than the trials of middle-aged spouses. And love is important, to make a vast understatement. However, our focus on love alone has made it difficult for us to recognize situations in which it is not, in fact, the highest virtue.
What other vices are sanctioned, or virtues obscured, by uncritical enjoyment of art, popular or not? A thorough search would doubtless reveal many. And yet, it is not my intention to encourage censorship or a cold-hearted refusal to be touched by the pleasure of good literature and good film. That would be ridiculous. Instead, I enjoin you to be critical of what you let yourself be moved by. All art necessitates you to step into another world, to become, for a time, other people, governed by rules sometimes strikingly different than our own. Be aware of this. Even as you read, keep your mind open. In the world that you have put yourself in, does virtue tend to be rewarded? Is virtue even talked about? What sorts of characters are painted as ridiculous? What sorts of characters, even if they fail in their ambitions, are painted as admirable? Above all, in what respects does the world that you are moving through differ from our own? This is not about genre; The Lord of the Rings, to take one example, is quite clearly fantasy, and yet the moral underpinnings of the action—the value of virtue in the face of hopeless danger, the unexpected strength of the weakest of us, the sudden joy of victory in the teeth of defeat—are the same as our own. On the other hand, Zola’s L’Assomoir, although the quintessential naturalistic novel, is striking unrealistic in its insistence that the material plane is the only one that is important and all things end in ignominious death. An attention to the underlying assumptions of the books that we read is vital to keeping ourselves from stumbling into holding those assumptions ourselves.