I have a habit of making an absurd joke, overthinking that joke, and finally realizing that the heart of the joke is some latent but unironic sentiment. This was the case when sometime last year, I turned to a co-worker and said, “if you had to describe one work in the canon of classic literature as NTR, what would it be?” And because this person entertains my whims way more than a normal person would or should, he helped me mull it over. For the purpose of a one-off joke I landed on Doctor Zhivago.
Oh, right, NTR. So NTR is short for netorare, can most closely be translated as cuckold, but in the shameful, weeb pit from which I’m typing, it’s usually used to describe a notorious genre of hentai. In these stories, the reader is meant to empathize with the protagonist’s feelings of betrayal, rage, and jealousy when s/he is cheated on. The crux of the genre is that sympathetic pain. Understandably, many hentai fans don’t like NTR because most people don’t seek out vicarious experiences of distress and hurt when they want to get off. Just a theory. Sometimes anime and manga fans will mislabel NTR and this has become one of those stupid hills I will absolutely die on. To be NTR, there has to be a sense of empathizing with the hurt and consequences of cheating. If you are woo-hoo rooting for the cheater, it ain’t NTR.
All this is to say that thinking about the canon of great literature and film in terms of “should this be tagged NTR” has become a sincere thing that I think about. The visceral disgust leveled at the NTR genre for simply existing seems to come from the same place as a lot of internet comments on advice columns involving infidelity. Read any Ask X about a cheater or a cheated on or a could be cheater and you’ll find plenty of comments proscribing cheaters as irredeemable partners – often, as worthless people.
This phenomenon always bothered me for reasons that were, until recently, hard to articulate. I am not pro-cheating, though I’ve done it more than I want to admit. It’s usually not the best way to solve problems in a relationship, and being cheated on would devastate me. And yet! How can we as a culture condemn cheaters as worthless while so many of our beloved stories are about them? We have understanding and even fondness in our hearts for Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Daisy Buchanan, Newland Archer, et al. Nobody likes Hester Prynne’s husband. We mourn their frustration, we root for their happiness. Most people who recoil at the very idea of a cheater have probably been empathizing with them through fiction for most of their adult lives. Infidelity transforms into beautiful tragedy and star-crossed love when it suits us. Why that doesn’t extend to recognizing real people as a collection of messy, probably misguided humans I don’t know.
One exception to the literary trend, and one of my favorite books, is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The nonlinear story takes us through the lives and deep into the psyches of three characters: intellectual and womanizing Tomas, his younger, sensitive, and devoted wife Tereza, and one of his lovers – the independent-minded Sabina. There’s something genuinely moving about each of them, but Tereza is my favorite. Despite being given enough insight into Tomas’ mind to know that his love for her is real, we are still forced, over and over, to share Tereza’s distress at being “weaker” than her husband. We are being NTR’d. It’s fitting in a book that makes you confront a lot of impossibly hard questions. I imagine some people don’t like accepting that Tomas and Sabina are also complex characters with the same better angels of our nature as the rest of us. Even as we shout (just me?) STOP BEING HORNY GOD at Tomas, he’s still a fully realized character and our sympathy with Tereza means we have to take her unwavering love for him seriously.
Despite the real pain and anger Tereza’s story causes in me, the book is perhaps the best example of compassion for all sides of a situation that’s ultimately pretty common. But I suspect that many with hard line convictions about the character and worth of a cheater aren’t interested in compassion, and as such it’s a more difficult book to just…like. I think it’s difficult for people to even admit they think about cheating beyond “it’s bad and I wouldn’t do it” and “I wouldn’t forgive it.” So fiction forcing us to think about these things might be like having your brain plumbed for something we’ve mostly agreed to not acknowledge.
We cheer and cry at doomed love affairs and we hate NTR. Is it because the latter makes us confront the hypocrisy of the former? I’m actually curious. I wonder if people hate NTR because they can’t cope with the whiplash after indulging in fictional infidelity. Ostensibly the disgust is because most readers want to avoid pain they can’t control, but is there any element of guilt? With such a wide chasm between our empathy for characters and our empathy for our fellow man, the recoil from NTR can come across as compartmentalizing. Instead of sensitivity to individuals and unique situations, we decided somewhere along the way to side with cheaters in fiction and the betrayed in real life. We want to live out stories of epic love and longing, of people who dared to ask for too much, even as we throw out callous adages like “once a cheater, always a cheater.” We don’t want to deal with the heartbreak of betrayal – to ourselves or others – in our fantasies. Art imitates life, I guess.
I’m not even confident in my conclusions, here. In fact I’m probably entirely off-base but unsurprisingly there aren’t a lot of opportunities to do deep-dives into NTR in my day to day routine. I’m just really interested in why most of us land in the boxes we do regarding infidelity in fiction and life.Find me on: