Who Is Not Guilty of This Vice?                                       Diane Johnson – (abridged)


Love makes the world go around, says the poet, while the cynic says it’s money; and Peter Toohey, professor of classics at the University of Calgary, constructs an entertaining argument for jealousy being the wellspring of a much greater part of our emotional lives, and of a larger proportion of literature, law, and daily existence, than we may have thought. According to Professor Toohey jealousy is “a potent means for the assertion of individual rights and the encouragement of cooperation and equitable treatment.”


To distinguish jealousy from its relative, envy, he quotes Peter van Sommers’s succinct definition of the two: “Envy concerns what you would like to have but don’t possess, whereas jealousy concerns what you have and do not wish to lose.” Othello is jealous of Desdemona, but Iago is envious of Othello. Toohey emphasizes that the definition is slippery: the two are intertwined, a Laocoön psychic trope, with jealousy more often than envy associated with violence—thrown dishes, outraged husbands, women scorned, murder. “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4).


It goes way back. Classical, biblical, mythical, literary, and historical accounts of jealousy begin with the ur-myths of creation, with Cain and Abel, or Homer—the Judgment of Paris, prompting the jealous goddesses Hera and Athena to incite the Trojan War.


Toohey begins his demonstration that jealousy is a recurrent subject of art with a discussion of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel La Jalousie, about the narrator’s jealous obsession with his wife and someone called Franck, spied on through a jalousie, or shutter.


In the du Maurier novel, the woman narrator is certainly jealous because her husband, Maxim de Winter, seems to have loved his first wife Rebecca more than he loves her, his new bride. But Rebecca is a good example of how hard it is to distinguish jealousy from envy; since Rebecca herself is dead, one could argue that the narrator merely envies the qualities of beauty and gaiety people are always telling her Rebecca had. Jealousy is so nuanced that we have no words for some of its twists, for example the emotion the narrator probably feels when she learns of Rebecca’s violent fate.


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. 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.


Toohey examines the discoveries of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychology by Freud and his colleagues. One of his most 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.


There are regional fashions in jealousy; northern societies might think of Latins as expressing it more vividly or violently. There are changes in jealousy’s form and provenance over time and within cultures; Toohey looks at those island paradises, like Samoa, where people seem to be free of jealousy, though some anthropologists think they just were pretending so as to fool Margaret Mead. And what about the Eskimos and their traditions of hospitality, which are said to require the host to loan his wife to the visitor?


Eskimos apart, Toohey contends that jealousy, especially sexual jealousy, is to an extent innate, a function of our instinct for “genetic replication.” It is also, he thinks, an integral part of normal human development arising from an individual’s fear of being excluded from “the circle of love and esteem” that humans crave. Fear of exclusion in turn can prompt us to devise forms of cooperation and growth, a positive result. Unattractive or disagreeable people, more likely to be excluded from friendships and groups, are more apt than the successful to feel jealousy and to act on it.


If all this seems intuitively true, even obvious, the psychological literature to “prove” it can produce remarkable stretches[ to convince us of what we already know: Toohey finds one scholar, seeking to explain the agitation of  three-month-old babies excluded from their mothers’ attention. 


However, we hardly need scholarship to tell us that babies cry when their moms go away, and everyone has seen the mean gleam in the eye of a toddler when he looks at the new baby. Dog owners and parents of small children will all have noticed how the little creature hates it when you talk on the telephone. Darwin believed jealousy to be an innate survival mechanism—each individual seeks preferment and is probably hard-wired to do so, like kittens in a litter nudging their fellows away from the nipple.


Toohey mentions studies of dogs and monkeys who sulk and refuse rewards if other animals are getting more or better rewards for the same effort.


Though we read all the time of murders by jealous lovers, usually men who can’t deal with the fears of loss and inadequacy that generate jealousy, most of us learn as we go along in life to bear the unfairness.



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