Does Jealousy Make The World Go Round?


Peter Toohey’s new book, Jealousy, puts it at the center of our emotional lives. Musing over his arguments, Diane Johnson runs down the many ways it’s informed art, especially in the last few centuries:

Toohey tells us that beginning in the late nineteenth century, painting and literature would see an “explosion” of treatments of the subject, with obsessively jealous characters like Tolstoy’s Pozdnyshev in The Kreutzer Sonata, or, later, Dickens’s Bradley Headstone—the reader will think of dozens of instances—Emma, or la cousine Bette, or the hero of Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, who dies of it, or Così Fan Tutte, much of Verdi, “Frankie and Johnny”—jealousy is all over the place.

In painting and sculpture there’s a whole iconography of jealousy—ears, husbands listening behind doors, cats with their big green eyes, the color yellow. As the twentieth century approaches, artists begin reaching for means to express what jealousy feels like; here he points to the paintings of Edvard Munch and of August Strindberg, the playwright, who seems to have found painting to be more directly expressive of his jealous state of mind.

Toohey examines the discoveries of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychology by Freud and his colleagues. He doesn’t mention but we might think of Freud’s friend Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Novel, the inspiration for the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which details the psychic revenge fantasies of a husband whose jealousy in all its Freudian complexity is aroused by his wife’s erotic fantasies. One of Toohey’s more interesting findings is that a morbidly jealous person (as opposed to “normally” jealous) is especially zealous in seeking “visual evidence to confirm the truth of the way they are feeling”; Othello must see Desdemona’s handkerchief. This visual element makes film a particularly suitable medium for expressing jealousy. He suggests that stalking also arises from the visual need.

(Image: Jealousy and Flirtation by the 19th century French artist Haynes King, via Wikimedia Commons)