Apr 3 2014 8:30am

Man Meddle Not with Me: Onscreen Cheating

Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre

Cheating—is it ever excusable?

Many romance readers have reading dealbreakers, and one of the most mentioned dealbreaker is cheating in romance novels.

But (and you knew there was a “but”!), sometimes cheating is accepted by the reader because of its context. We had a post on adultery in romance, specifically historical romance, and we've also covered cheating heroes in contemporary romance.

Many of those close-to-acceptable situations have extenuating circumstances (in the historicals, the heroines are trying to have children, for example), but what if there is nothing close to a noble circumstance? Is it still possible to root for the cheaters?

It seems as though it is, especially on television. On the late, lamented Deadwood series, honorable lawman Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) began an affair with the widowed Alma Garrett (Molly Parker). This would be fine, if Seth weren't married—to his brother's widow, with the promise he would take care of her and his late brother's son.

Seth's personal moral agony during the course of the affair for doing what he knows is wrong, but doing it anyway, makes it seem less reprehensible. And then, of course, when his wife arrives, the affair is over because Seth cannot dishonor his wife while she is in the same town. The repercussions of their actions reverberate throughout the remainder of the series, so it isn't just something that happened, and then it's over.

On the BBC series Ripper Street, Inspector Reid (played by Matthew Macfadyen) is married, but he and his wife have become entirely emotionally distanced from one another following the death of their daughter. In the first season, Reid's investigative efforts send him to an orphanage for abandoned Jewish children, and he kisses the woman in charge of the orphanage, Deborah Goren.

By the second season, Reid's wife has left him, but of course he is still married. He meets the first female councillor for the City of London. They have a lot in common, and he ends up kissing her, as well.

Reid's character, like Seth Bullock's, is absolutely moral; he is a police inspector who wishes to solve crimes and make the city a better place. He comes up against a lot of corruption, and fights against it when he is able. His struggles to maintain his morality aren't as apparent as Seth's (the series is not as nuanced and deep, which likely explains that), but his character is clear. During the first season, we see him trying to forge a relationship with his wife again, but it becomes impossible. He's got scars—physical and emotional—and when he does cross an adulterous line, it seems as though it is a last desperate measure to feel connected with another human being. If Reid weren't vulnerable, he would be far less easy to relate to—he IS always doing the right thing, he is moral, and he can seem like a moralistic automaton. Except when something arouses his passion, whether it's for justice or a woman.

Scandal's entire premise is built on the fact that a married president is having an affair with the woman who owns a consulting firm that solves crises—including getting that same president elected into office. Is it wrong that some fans of the show want Olivia and Fitz to be together? Is it wrong that the president's wife (SPOILER!) is now getting in on the adulterous action? Why do we root for these characters when what they are doing is a dealbreaker for many of us?

The original justified cheater is Mr. Rochester, from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. He was tricked into marrying the first Mrs. Rochester, and has been hiding her (and her madness) for years in the attic. He hasn't been tempted to cheat on his insane wife until he meets his ward's governess, Jane. When he does propose—after teasing her in the worst possible way—he says:

God pardon me!“ he subjoined ere long; “and man meddle not with me: I have her, and will hold her.”

In hindsight, it's easy to see that he is trying to justify his actions to himself, even though he knows he's tricking Jane into a situation he knows she would not willingly do if she knew the truth. He is in love enough, and feels as though he has suffered enough, to grab happiness, even though it is bigamy. Of course, Jane herself is too moral to abide by this, so she leaves him, even though it breaks her heart.

Thankfully, Jane is too moral to accept the loveless—and legal—relationship offered by St. John Rivers, so she is free to return to Mr. Rochester when their moral impediments are cleared.

So—marriage of convenience, permanent estrangement, political motivations, or insanity—is cheating ever justified?

Deadwood gif via Giphy; Ripper Street gif via

Megan Frampton is the Community Manager for the HeroesandHeartbreakers site. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and son.

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1. Beret
So many times infidelity is a deal breaker for me. If the spouse of the character cannot trust them, how can I as a reader? I've read books where the narrator or other characters were untrustworthy, liars or crazy. They tend to be mysteries or literary fiction. In romance, I need the intimacy between the characters to be honest. I feel like I have a horse in that race. The reason I read romance is so that I can view that journey between those two people as they build a life together.

The biggest example of infidelity (it resonates in my mind even years after reading it) is *SPOILER * Jondalar & Ayla in the last book of the "Earth's Children" series. The infidelity in that book made me physically ill. It ruined the entire series of books for me and I had been reading them since 1987.

Great post!
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
This is such an interesting topic because in real life cheating is absolutely a dealbreaker for me, but in fiction I've found a way to get past it in instances like the ones you've described. I feel bad's fiction!
Megan Frampton
3. MFrampton
Of course real-life cheating is untenable, but in these situations I usually excuse them, especially in Deadwood and Ripper Street (I wouldn't excuse Scandal, but that's just the situation that opened the series, that they're cheating, and I don't watch anyway). @Beret, your reply directly relates to our bad ending post of the other day! I wouldn't like that kind of ending, either.
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