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Jealousy and Literature

Pet Van Sommers explains his feelings about analyzing jealousy through the lens of literature; from his 1988 book Jealousy.

It might seem obvious that some of the best material on jealousy should be in literature, so let me say a word about fiction. Readers may be disgusted to learn that I have never been a great fan of Othello, nor of the Medea of Euripides, at least in their written forms. Academically I find fiction to have distinct strengths and limitations, and I identify the split as lying between theory and evocation. Plots of novels and plays can be suggestive, but unless they are actually disguised biographies, they are doubtful sources of evidence. Take one of the great literary treatments of jealousy: Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata. From the point at which the narrator, Pozdnychev, awakes at night in the county with an overwhelming feeling of rage and dread, to the moment where he is trying to face the reality of having murdered his wife, the description is riveting. But the material in that same story about the relationshup between youthful debauchery and later jealousy I found inauthentic, and a reading of Tolstoy's own Epilogue confirms that that part of the exercise is quite artificial and didactic. But to read Swann (I nearly said Proust) trying to extract information from Odette, or Anna Karenina's final struggle to rescue her relationship with Vronsky before she kills herself, or the introspective passages dealing with alienation and exclusion in Simone de Beauvior's novel L'Invitée can't be passed over, any more than the eloquent letters and diaries that tell us how people like Betrand Russell, Vita Sackville-West or Freud himself felt, day by day, about their passions.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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