Jealousy Causes Friction and Frisson in Fiction

Literature can be riveting when authors have their characters experience primal emotions such as love, hate, fear, and…jealousy.

This post will be about memorable instances of envy in fiction — a topic I thought about last month while reading Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian’s first Aubrey-Maturin novel. Jack Aubry is a ship captain, and his first lieutenant James Dillon not surprisingly wishes he had that position.

Edmond Dantes, a sailor promoted to captain at the start of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, is framed by men jealous of his promotion — and of his engagement to Mercedes Herrera. Dantes languishes in prison for many years before escaping and taking his epic revenge against the men who put him there.

The handsome, quietly charismatic title character in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is liked by his sailor peers but hated by sinister Master-at-Arms John Claggart — and that hate is at least partly caused by jealousy.

Not sure how I ended up discussing three novels in a row with sea elements, but envy of course also appears in many other kinds of books.

Examples include some novels by Indiana authors, who are on my mind because I recently attended a great National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Indianapolis — where one of our “field trips” was to the very interesting Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

For instance, Terre Haute-born Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy focuses on Clyde Griffiths and that character’s envy of wealthy people with the seemingly “perfect” life he doesn’t have. Indianapolis resident Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons depicts some jealousy when the unlikable George Amberson Minafer sabotages the relationship between his likable widowed mother and the father of the woman (Lucy Morgan) George loves. Envy also rears its head when the Amberson fortune wanes and the Morgan fortune grows.

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is full of all kinds of jealousy — including the envy Edgar Linton feels when his wife Catherine is thrilled to see Heathcliff when he returns after a long absence.

Romantic jealousy in other novels? Three of many examples include the insufferable Rev. Edward Casaubon of George Eliot’s Middlemarch being envious of the interactions between his young, admirable wife Dorothea Brooke and his young, idealistic cousin Will Ladislaw; Miles Coverdale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance being jealous of Hollingsworth’s relationship with Priscilla; and Lady Booby, the employer of the title character in Henry Fielding’s 18th-century comic novel Joseph Andrews, becoming jealous when she can’t seduce Joseph because he wants to stay chaste until marrying Fanny Goodwill.

In modern fiction, a rich criminal’s nasty son is envious of Jack Reacher’s relationship with (female) police officer Roscoe in Lee Child’s debut novel Killing Floor. Then the second Reacher installment, Die Trying, finds Jack feeling a bit jealous of the man with whom FBI agent Holly Johnson is involved.

In Joan Barfoot’s Duet for Three, the widowed Aggie and her divorced daughter June wish they had had better marriages — as well as a better relationship with each other. One poignant scene has June seeing how close Brenda (a fellow teacher) and her husband seem to be, and another scene shows Aggie being envious of her granddaughter Frances’ more fun and less isolated life.

There’s also envy of popularity, looks, success, and riches. For instance, the mischievously immature kid Davy is at times jealous of well-behaved “old soul” kid Paul Irving when he sees how much Anne Shirley admires Paul in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea. Even the stoic, philosophical Santiago feels a bit envious when other fishermen catch more than he does for 84 long days in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. But on the 85th day…

Then there’s academic jealousy, such as Howard Belsey’s envy of more prominent professor/author Monty Kipps in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.

Envy can arise even over relatively trivial matters — as when Amy March, jealous that she can’t go to a play with her older sisters, burns the only copy of a manuscript Jo March worked on for countless hours in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

In the realm of plays, I would have to say that Iago is a bit envious in Shakespeare’s Othello. 🙂

What are your favorite examples of jealousy in literature?

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