In a recent article in the Virginia Quarterly Review,
I was reminded of a very publicized instance of the exchange
of books as gifts from the not so distant past. The exchange
in question involved Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. As
the Starr Report details, Clinton gave Lewinsky Walt
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (which as it turns
out he also had given to Hillary), and in turn Lewinsky gave
Clinton Nicholson Baker’s Vox. For Salon.com
columnist Jack Hitt, the exchange of these books in particular
For a liberal-arts dilettante like Clinton, “Leaves
of Grass" is the book that yokes the sacred and the
profane into meaningful union. It's what you give your lover
before you move on to a Henry Miller novel or James Joyce's
letters to Nora from the winter of 1909. And what is the book
Monica gave Bill -- Nicholson Baker's phone-sex tour de force
"Vox" -- but a Gen X attempt at signaling the same
complex of spiritual longings bound up in physical desire?
Yet, the differences are interesting. "Leaves" is
hopeful, even defiant, while "Vox" has an almost
tragic quality to it, an acknowledgment that the real world
will never allow the couple's profanity to bloom into holiness.
The book ends with the woman hanging up the phone because
"I have to put a load of towels in the laundry."
(Knowing now of the DNA-stained dress, one wonders if Monica
ever finished the book.)
The books exchanged symbolize the givers themselves, and
signify to the recipient the giver’s hopes, desires,
But, these days, almost seven years since the Clinton and
Lewinsky scandal emerged, it seems our only publicized versions
of celebrities (political or not) and the books associated
with them is by way of the American Library Association’s
Read posters that advertise the likes of Orlando Bloom holding
(you guessed it) Lord of the Rings, or Ani Difranco
posing with Woodie Guthrie’s A Life, and less
predictably, Kim Bassinger donning butterfly wings and the
book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and L.L. Cool J.
with The Children’s Health Cookbook, and, most
recently, Ice Cube standing with (and like), The Greatest:
Muhamed Ali. These we most often see hanging in libraries.
Rarely do such images of celebrities and their books make
it to the cover of popular news, music, or fashion magazines.
The Clinton and Lewinsky gift-exchange did make it to the
cover of The New Republic, which was titled, in that
October 9, 1998 issue, “Leaves of Crass," and
featured an image of a romance novel titled the “Starr
Report" with a caricature of Clinton and Lewinsky embracing.
A cartoon of a nude Clinton reading Leaves of Grass
was featured in The New Yorker and a drawing of Whitman’s
book with a zipper down its spine appeared in Reason
magazine. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the not so scandalous
ALA Read posters aside, it is quite rare to encounter such
attention in popular culture and mass media given to the exchange
However, a scene of book-giving in the movie Unfaithful
(2002) is one such rare instance. The movie, directed by Adrian
Lynne and starring Diane Lane, Richard Gere, and Olivier Martinez,
is similar in plot to Lynne’s earlier Fatal Attraction.
Yet, this movie was, as New York Times editorialist
Maureen Dowd wrote, “hyped as a bold gender-bender because
it had a manizer instead of a womanizer." Dowd argues
that the two movies reproduce the same message (and its message
is not one of gender-bending): “Mr. Lynne’s bookend
movies are driven by the same dynamic: men fearing that women
will challenge their manhood, topple them from their perch
as lord of their cave. When male supremacy and territory get
threatened, things get bloody." Indeed, things do “get
bloody" in this movie, but the straightforward dynamic
Dowd critiques is a bit more complicated than she grants.
It is especially complicated because of the “dynamic"
of gift-giving and receiving. The movie, Unfaithful,
is saturated with exchange – various kinds of exchanges,
surely, but in particular an exchange of gifts – and
at the focus of these gift-exchanges is a book that initiates
an affair. Like the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal the book-as-gift
in this movie is a sign and symbol of tryst.
Because gifts – or the economy of exchange – are
central to this movie, as I’d like to argue, it’s
important to examine briefly what has been theorized about
the gift in the past. Much has been written (most commonly
in the field of anthropology) about the economy of gift-giving
in its relation to social interaction, as both enabling and
disrupting these interactions. In his book The Gift
(1954), Marcel Mauss initiated this work, later influencing
the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss whose work will be
particularly helpful in attending to Unfaithful.
He argues that gift-giving is a “skillful game"
which “consists of a complex totality of maneuvers,
conscious or unconscious to gain security and fortify the
self against risks incurred through alliances and rivalry."
We might see the gift then as motivated out of a desire to
reassert one’s “king of the hill" or in
Dowd’s terms, “lord of the cave" status.
Additionally, the gift-exchange involves a principle of reciprocity
in which the gifts are returned. These gifts, given and received,
have “non-essential consumptive value" producing
a “great psychological aesthetic and sensual value."
Thus, the gift obtains its meaning through its status as “gift"
rather than as purchased commodity.
While Lévi-Strauss, ultimately, argues that the economy
of gifts is rooted in an exercise of power, David Cheal, conversely,
has tried to root this economy in an exercise of morality,
grounded in social and familial intimacy. His work too will
be helpful in thinking about Unfaithful, because
he depicts the gift-economy as a “moral" one.
Inherent in this “moral economy" is “redundancy,"
not reciprocity as Lévi-Strauss might call it. He posits,
for example, the idea that gifts are often perceived as “something
beyond what we normally expect," and thus elicit responses
like, “Oh you shouldn’t have!" In Unfaithful,
not surprisingly, there are many instances of responses akin
to, “Oh you shouldn’t have!" The characters
participate in a series of exchanges that at times replicate
and at other times complicate Lévi-Strauss’s
and David Cheal’s definitions of gift-exchange.
With husband off to work and child off to school, housewife
Connie Sumner has taken a trip from suburban Connecticut into
New York for a shopping spree in preparation for her son’s
birthday. After a day of shopping, the camera follows Connie
making her way down a wind-blown SoHo street with newspapers
and trash flying about. She is being blown down the street
with her many full shopping bags in tow. From the other direction
on the same side of the chaotic, wind-blown street, a man
walks with a tower of just-purchased (we see the receipt tucked
into one of the books), but old-looking books in hand. In
an instant, one of Connie’s bags flies into her face
and the man, who is now just steps from Connie, loses sight
of the street just ahead of him as his tower of books waivers
in front of his face. Both are blown by the wind and momentarily
blinded by the purchases they bear, and they collide into
each other. They struggle through the wind to help each other
pick up their purchases, she collecting the books, he collecting
the bags of birthday presents. They are in a state of utter
confusion as both attempt to sort and arrange each other’s
belongings, while apologizing – she in English, he in
Once the items are gathered and properly divided, the two
exchange apologies, though this time in English. Here, just
before parting the man notices that Connie’s knee is
bleeding from her fall. As it turns out, they are at the steps
of the man’s apartment, and he invites Connie up to
clean her scuffed knees. Lévi-Strauss defines the invitation
(into one’s home for a drink, for dinner, etc.) as a
kind of gift that anticipates reciprocity. It is also helpful
to keep in mind Cheal’s comment that the gift is “beyond
what we normally expect," and we see this in Connie’s
face. She is surprised to be invited into a stranger’s
apartment. She hesitates, but when the man jokes that he is
not an “axe-murderer" she too laughs and goes
up to his apartment.
The apartment is covered with stacks of books, eliciting Connie’s
question, “Are you a writer?" He responds explaining
that he is a book-seller visiting from Paris. After cleaning
her knee, Connie gathers her bags to leave, but he stops her
and insists that she must choose and take a book. “I
couldn’t," she says, but he encourages her to
do so, saying, “You can . . . take it as a souvenir."
Like the invitation to enter his apartment, with this offer
she is similarly surprised and cautious. This is now his second
gift without reciprocation. She hesitates, not knowing which
of the many books to choose, so he directs her to a specific
shelf, a specific row, a certain number of books in from the
end, telling her to open to a specific page and telling her
to read aloud from the page. He joins her – from memory
– in the recitation of the final lines. This gifting
is not a choosing, but a directing. Indeed, the book-seller
exercises power, a power to overwhelm, but also a power to
invoke a sense of intimacy. Cheal describes gift-giving as
redundant because gift “givers do not always know others
well enough to choose things that they will like and so it
can happen that people receive gifts which are of no interest
to them, or which they find offensive." In this case,
the gift is perhaps not liked, perhaps not kept, and therefore
is a redundant instance of giving. As Cheal might argue, though
the book-seller does not know Connie, the very fact of his
socially acceptable, but unexpected behavior establishes an
intimacy between them. Connie doesn’t know him, he doesn’t
know her, but it hardly matters, because she is enchanted
with the act of giving, not the gift itself. Yet, I would
argue that the gift, the book, must matter. Throughout the
film, Connie is often depicted with this very book in hand,
as a reminder of the catalyst for the affair.
In a shot at Connie’s house later that evening, she
tells her husband, Ed, of her encounter, but does not mention
the book given to her. Ed suggests they send a bottle of wine,
“a cheap one though" as a formal gesture of thanks,
while not too pleased with his wife’s encounter with
a Frenchman. Ed’s impulse to send a gift of thanks is
a response of reciprocity in Lévi-Strauss’s terms,
and we might even see this reciprocity as the “skillful
game" Lévi-Strauss describes, in which one fortifies
the “self against risks incurred through alliances and
rivalry." Or, to invoke Maureen Dowd’s comments,
when “male supremacy and territory get threatened, things
get bloody," but, not before things get polite, or in
Cheal’s words, not before “customary obligations
to others" are fulfilled. Ed’s gesture, though,
is rendered useless as Connie realizes that she doesn’t
know the man’s name nor does she remember his address.
Later in the evening, we see a brief shot of Ed and the son
watching TV. Connie is alone at her bookshelf, paging through
the book given to her, and just as she gestures to return
it to the shelf, a piece of paper falls out of it. A close-up
shot reveals it is a business card with the name “Paul
Martell" and printed underneath “Book Dealer"
with his phone number and address. Though we see Connie return
the card to the book in the next shot, the following morning
Connie appears with the card in-hand at a public phone booth
in Grand Central Station. Her call, she tells Paul, is to
thank him for the book. (Is this perhaps, initiated by her
husband’s defensive impulse to thank, we must wonder?
Do her husband’s social obligations to thank, by way
of gift, provide her with a reason to call?) Her “thank
you" is quickly returned – “reciprocated"
Lévi-Strauss might say, or conversely “redundant"
Cheal might say – with Paul’s invitation to come
over for coffee. Connie accepts and shows up at Paul’s
door with a bag: “I brought you some muffins,"
she tells him. In yet another reciprocal or redundant gesture
– all stemming from the initial collide, turned injury,
turned mending by way of band-aid and book, turned call of
thanks, turned invitation for coffee – she brings yet
another gift. This activity of exchange, I think, we can easily
understand as reciprocal, but how do we understand these moves,
these givings and takings as redundant?
Cheal suggests that gifts bring “no net benefit to recipients
. . . nobody is better off or worse off than they would have
been if no transaction had taken place." In a way, the
exchange of gifts both adds and subtracts in order to equalize.
In this way, he describes the economy as “a system of
transactions which are socially desirable (i.e. moral), because
through them social ties are recognized, and balanced social
relationships are maintained." The “moral economy"
of gift-giving that “regulates gift behavior"
is actually a device for establishing expectation with hesitation.
In this economy of exchange someone is always, inevitably
the next giver, the next receiver. Someone always owes or
expects to receive. And, here it seems is where the surprise
of gift-giving fails or functions. The “difficulty of
trusting others," as Cheal argues, in a community is
reassured with the gift economy because members of this community
share “a common way of life" making their “actions
predictable, and thus keep the complexity of social environment
at a low level." The regularity and the expectation
establish intimacy and the ability to “trust others."
But, the gift also functions because it surprises. Thus the
predictable must be matched with the unpredictable in the
gift. Here the book – or textual artifact – re-enters
and forms the focus of the attention in the film. It is the
book-as-gift that fulfills reciprocity and obligation, but
it is the book itself that embodies the unpredictable –
we don’t know what it is when we receive it. And, here
in this moment of cyclical and predictable (and therefore
redundant) giving and receiving, mixed with the unpredictable
text, Connie and Paul initiate their affair.
In a scene rife with trope, Paul shows her a book in Braille,
a medium which fuses the tactile and textual, thus foreshadowing
their own initially textual relationship turned tactile. He
takes Connie’s hand guiding her fingers over the bumpy
pages, as he reads and reveals the otherwise unknown meaning
of the text. The intimate act of touching this text with him
as guide and interpreter mimics the sexual encounter in which
he guides her (though not unwillingly) into the physical consummation
of their tryst. This scene then calls attention to the “exercise
of power" at work between Connie and Paul. The exchange
of gifts is indeed, somewhat redundant, one gift replaces
the other – the book, the call, the coffee, the muffins
– in a seemingly continual cycle of exchanges until
they are both confronted with the potential dilemma of “things
getting out of hand." Cheal interprets this phrase as
“extravagant giving" which often (and falsely)
encourages a nostalgia for a “natural economy."
Whether Connie and Paul consider their exchange of gifts as
“unnatural" or “natural" is unclear,
but they are ultimately confronted with each other’s
hands and in effect each other. But, the return of thanks
is in Paul’s hands, literally and figuratively, with
Connie’s hand in his and his turn to return. In this
economy of gift-exchange, Paul’s return (his reciprocity)
turns to Connie’s body. The shift from books to bodies
is not subtle, sort of suspicious, maybe sappy, and somewhat
predictable – like the gifts exchanged. But, it is an
interesting case of exchange. Interesting, because the seemingly
oppositional descriptions of Lévi-Strauss’s and
Cheal’s gift-economies both function here. This initial
scene involves a use of power, a game of maneuvers. Conversely,
in Cheal’s terms, the scene involves the gift as a source
of intimacy. The “moral economy" of gift-giving
which establishes “balance," “trust,"
and “standardization" in relationships works in,
what would socially be considered, the “moral-less economy"
of an affair.
While Connie and Paul continue their affair over an undisclosed
number of days and weeks, and perhaps months (though the season
remains the same), gifts continue to be exchanged between
them and between others in the film. Most significantly, Connie
buys her husband a present just after she and Paul have begun
their affair. She is in the city to see Paul and stops by
her husband’s office. He is surprised, but happy to
see her: “Connie! What a surprise!" and she hands
him a bag. “What’s this?" he asks. “A
present," she says. “What’s the occasion?"
he asks. She has no answer, but he doesn’t notice, because
he already has the sweater out of the bag and is putting it
on. He immediately knows what it is and expresses concern
not for the unknown occasion for the gift, but instead for
how the gift “works": “How does it fit?
Does it look alright?" The sweater as gift functions
in a manner opposite to the way the book functions. The sweater
is not expected, it is an unpredicted gift, but the gift itself
is predictable. It bears no mystery, no hidden meanings; it
only needs to be taken out of the bag and put on to be “understood."
Poor Ed is so taken with the surprise of the un-warranted
present and visit that he fails to notice that it is downright
uncomfortable for Connie; the “occasion" (as Ed
asks) for the gift is guilt. As viewers, fully aware of Connie
and Paul’s relationship, we notice Connie’s awkwardness
in giving this and recognize the sweater as a gift motivated
by guilt. The present is un-warranted and also seems to warn.
Connie plays the “skillful game," in Lévi-Strauss’
term (unconscious or fully conscious we are not sure as viewers)
of exchange providing her husband with the same, “Oh
you shouldn’t have," she feels after beginning
the affair. By providing Ed with a gift, she exercises power
– plays a game and wins – inducing an effect,
ultimately to assuage her guilt and make herself feel better.
Her gift to Ed mimics the surprise she felt when Paul invited
her to her apartment and offered her a book. The gift as guilt
here then works to both mimic Connie’s own feelings
in another (she gets to watch what she too has felt), creating
a strange kind of empathy, while also providing that other
with the unsolicited gift and thus the feeling of receiving
The issue of “value" – of deciphering and
determining the “something extra" – is important
in this film. On a visit to Paul’s apartment, Connie
asks Paul what he has most recently purchased. (Oddly, we
never see Paul the “book-seller," sell, rather
he buys and gives away his books.) He tells her he found a
first edition of Jack London’s White Fang for
$1.50 but, he assures her laughing, it is worth, “four-thousand
times more." Its worth is rendered both useless and
strangely invaluable when the tryst turns deadly, and this
cheap but valuable book is both ruined and made crucial evidence
with Paul’s blood when he is murdered by Ed.
After acquiring evidence of the affair, Ed arrives at Paul’s
door only, it seems, with the intention of meeting the man
with whom his wife has been having an affair. He introduces
himself to Paul, and Paul, in response, extends an invitation
for Ed to come in to have a drink. Again, out of “customary
obligation" (in Cheal’s term) to one another they
give and receive, and this social obligation, this need to
“share a common way of life," establishes a certain
level of intimacy between the two men. As Ed enjoys his “gift"
of vodka, he makes his way through the stacks of books to
the bed, and just beyond on a windowsill he notices a snow
globe. It is a globe he has seen before, and one we as viewers
have seen too. In an earlier shot, we watch Connie on her
way out of her house pause by a snow globe collection. She
notices one labeled “Windy City" featuring a couple
in a downtown city (presumably Chicago) hand in hand. We see
her take this globe – almost without hesitation, as
if in need of something, anything – and she flies out
the door. And, here, in Paul’s apartment, we see the
globe again, somewhat surprised. Like us, Ed is mildly surprised,
but calm, and knowing full well where and from whom Paul received
the globe he asks, “Where did you get this?" Paul
answers simply that it was “a gift," to which
Ed inserts, “from Connie." “Yes,"
asserts Paul, “she bought it for me." Ed says
quietly, as if to himself, but audible to Paul, “No
she didn’t. I bought it." Ed wants to assert the
importance and significance of the gift not by the current
owner, but by the initial purchaser. The significance of the
gift is un-done, Ed wants to believe, if the buyer is different
from the giver. The power to purchase – and thus the
power of money – is asserted as the essential significance
of the gift. The “non-essential consumptive value"
of the gift that Lévi-Strauss describes is re-asserted
as “essential." And, yet, Ed is also clearly attached
to the non-consumptive, “psychological aesthetic or
sensual value" of the gift.
In the bloody and bizarrely calm scene that follows, Ed knocks
Paul over the head with the snow globe and with a few hard
blows Paul hits the ground bleeding from his head and mouth
onto the first edition of White Fang. The bloody
(but not broken) globe remains in Ed’s hand. Shaken,
he moves into a rational series of actions to clean the blood,
remove, and eventually discard the body. While cleaning up
the blood in Paul’s apartment, Connie calls leaving
a message on the machine ending the affair, which Ed listens
to as it is being recorded. He erases the message. While Ed
washes the blood from his hands in Paul’s kitchen, Connie
“washes her hands" of the affair, burying the
book Paul gave her in the kitchen garbage.
At a dinner party some time later, guests admire the Sumner’s
snow globe collection and Connie, stunned, realizes the “Windy
City" globe has returned to its place among the other
globes. The sight of the snow globe does not signal Ed’s
knowledge of the affair – for in fact, at this point
in the film Connie not only knows Ed was aware of the affair
with Paul, but she also knows Ed has killed him. Instead she
is shocked that Ed found it important enough to return to
their home. The next day the family appears in the living
room. Ed is normally depicted as fidgeting with some gadget
– a camera, a video-recorder, his son’s new video
game – like the sweater he was given he likes to test
how things “work," in contrast to both Connie
and Paul who surround themselves with books and test what
can’t “work." Now, however, Ed and his son
appear together playing the piano. Connie is at some distance
from them not with Paul’s book, as usual, but instead
she is looking over the snow globe collection. She picks up
the “Windy City" snow globe and turning it in
her hand, as she did with the gift Paul gave her, she realizes
the bottom wooden base is coming loose. In the base of the
snow globe, Ed has placed a note – a love note –
written when he purchased the globe, but meant to be discovered
in another ten years or so on their 25th anniversary. Just
as Paul’s business card was embedded in the book he
gave Connie, Ed’s handwritten note is embedded in the
gift he gave to her. It is significant that the note embedded
in the gift is a textual artifact, for it was the textual
artifacts (the book, the business card) from Paul that first
established intimacy and trust, surprise and intrigue for
Connie and thus, a series of trysts. The “souvenir"
snow globe becomes like the “souvenir" book (as
Paul called it) that re-establishes the surprise and the intimacy
between Ed and Connie – by way of the gift. Connie reads
the note and Ed looks up from the piano. They exchange a silent
and assured look. The snow globe with the text embedded in
it restores their faith in each other and significantly, Connie’s
faith in Ed as a giver of the unknown – a giver of “souvenirs"
bearing texts with buried meaning. The latest gift, the note
hidden in the snow globe, erases all prior and regrettable
actions so that, as Cheal might argue, “nobody is better
off or worse off" in this series of gift-exchanges.
Cheal concludes his essay “Moral Economy" with
the following assertion: “Gifts have a ‘free-floating’
presence within the moral economy of interpersonal relations,
and they therefore facilitate types of interaction that might
otherwise be only weakly institutionalized." Unfaithful
demonstrates the “skillful game of exchange" involved
in gift-giving that Lévi-Strauss has described, while
also demonstrating the gift as a source of intimacy in Cheal’s
terms. Cheal’s morally sound economy, with “balance,"
“trust," and “regularization," sustains
the “a-moral" affair as well as the “moral"
relationship between the husband and wife, and the two “competing"
men. The “moral economy" of gift-giving in its
ability to “facilitate types of interaction that might
otherwise be only weakly institutionalized" leaves room
for misconduct, or the a-moral economy of affairs ignited
and initiated, but also regularized and finalized through
the complicated exchange of gifts, and in particular, those
gifts that are books, both predictable and unpredictable.
From guest contributor Amy Hezel