Love makes the world go round, 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. Elsewhere, Professor Toohey has also worked up boredom and melancholy; in those books as in this brisk survey, he proposes some benefits of emotions usually considered to be negative: 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.” I am jealous of that woman my husband seems to admire; I envy her ability to walk in high heels. Othello is jealous of Desdemona, but Iago is envious of Othello. Toohey emphasizes that the definition is slippery, but that we usually know one from the other; it’s just that the two are intertwined, a Laocoön psychic trope, with jealousy more often than envy associated with violence—thrown dishes, outraged husbands, women scorned, murder. He details some of the more famous, gruesome modern murder cases, but Othello and Medea are the archetypes. “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 has found some remarkable Egyptian and Greek curses arising from male jealousy, as when a second-century Egyptian asks the gods to
let burning heat consume the sexual parts of Allous, [her] vulva, [her] members, until she leaves the household of Apollonios. Lay Allous low with fever, with sickness unceasing,…insolence, hatred, obnoxiousness until she departs the household of Apollonios.
Toohey begins his demonstration that jealousy is a recurrent subject of art with a discussion of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Vermeer’s enigmatic painting The Concert, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel La Jalousie, three examples of how situations of jealousy are often triangular, involving a rival or a prize. Robbe-Grillet’s novel is about the narrator’s jealous obsession with his wife and someone called Franck, spied on through a jalousie, or shutter. One could certainly quarrel with Toohey’s reading of Vermeer’s peaceable scene, often thought to be about music, for which he imagines something much more vivid:
Perhaps the plainer clavecin player, head apologetically bowed, envies the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.