Brain Text and Sphinx Factor: An Ethical Interpretation of Adultery in Julian Barnes's Fiction

Yili Tang

Published Date: Aug 31, 2021


The theme of adultery occupies a central position in literature as it features intense emotions and conflicts between the self and others in its interplay of loyalty and illicit desire. From the perspective of ethical literary criticism, brain text and Sphinx factor are two critical terms that help us explore the value of adultery as a fictional theme. As one of the basic forms of a material carrier that literary work relies on, brain text stores human beings’ cognition and perception as memory in its special biological form, interacting with the Sphinx factor which is composed of two parts — human factor and animal factor. This article examines the interactions between different brain texts of adultery and the Sphinx factor in Julian Barnes’s novels Metroland, Before She Met Me and The Only Story, and unravels how he opens a space within the plot of adultery and its text for ethical play. It argues that Barnes uses adultery to explore the ethical function of the brain by illustrating each figure’s brain texts and the interplay of the Sphinx factor in the love triangle (the adulterer/adulteress, the betrayed spouse, and the adulterous lover). The protagonists in these novels continuously combine and modify a series of brain texts, resulting in different combinations and the interplay of the Sphinx factor, which in turn affect the formation of brain texts and ultimately lead to different ethical choices. Barnes’s stories of adultery are ethical tales through which aspects of the human condition and human nature are put on display.


adultery, brain text, Julian Barnes, Sphinx factor, ethical choice

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Kritika Kultura
Department of English
School of Humanities
Ateneo de Manila University

The Philippine Commission on Higher Education (CHED) declares Kritika Kultura as a CHED-recognized journal under the Journal Challenge Category of its Journal Incentive Program.

International Board of Editors

Jan Baetens
Faculty of Arts
Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (Belgium)

Joel David
Professor of Cultural Studies
Inha University (South Korea)

Michael Denning
Professor of American Studies and English
Department of English
Yale University (US)

Faculty of Cultural Sciences
Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia)

Regenia Gagnier
Professor of English
University of Exeter (UK)

Leela Gandhi
John Hawkes Professor of the Humanities and English
Brown University (US)

Inderpal Grewal
Professor of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies
Professor of South Asian Studies, Ethnicity, Race and Migration Studies
Yale University (US)

Peter Horn
Professor Emeritus and Honorary Lifetime Fellow
University of Cape Town (South Africa)
Honorary Professor and Research Associate in German Studies
University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

Anette Horn
Professor of German Studies
University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

David Lloyd
Distinguished Professor of English
University of California, Riverside (US)

Bienvenido Lumbera
National Artist for Literature
Professor Emeritus
University of the Philippines

Rajeev S. Patke
Director of the Division of Humanities
Professor of Humanities
Yale NUS College (Singapore)

Vicente L. Rafael
Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor of History
University of Washington (US)

Vaidehi Ramanathan
Department of Linguistics
University of California, Davis (US)

Temario Rivera
Professorial Lecturer
Department of Political Science
University of the Philippines

E. San Juan, Jr.
Philippines Studies Center (US)

Neferti X.M. Tadiar
Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies
Barnard College (US)
Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race
Columbia University (US)

Antony Tatlow
Honorary Professor of Drama
Trinity College Dublin (Ireland)