Taking its ironic title from the parable that is related in John 8:3-11, "The Adulterous Woman" describes a day of sensual and spiritual crisis in the life of a middle-aged, faithful wife who, until the time of the story, has had little reason or occasion to question the basic facts of her existence.
Narrated in the third person, although from the limited viewpoint of the title character, known only as Janine, the story tells of Janine’s inner and outer adventures during the course of a business trip on which, however reluctantly, she has agreed to accompany Marcel, her husband of some twenty years.
Although French by origin and culture, both Janine and Marcel are pieds-noirs (black feet), presumably born and reared in Algeria during the period of French domination which still continues. Neither Janine nor her husband has ever managed to master the native language of Algeria’s Arab majority; throughout their marriage, Janine and Marcel have lived all but confined to their apartment in one of Algeria’s northern, Europeanized cities, intent upon the precarious textile trade that Marcel has inherited from his family. The trip described in the story is in fact their first venture into the Algerian interior, prompted by Marcel’s long-planned determination to eliminate the "middleman" in his transactions with rural Arab merchants.
During the course of a long, difficult bus ride, Janine finds herself recalling the years of her marriage to Marcel and, for the first time, questioning her attachment to him. Marcel is shorter than she is, with irritating mannerisms; what is more, he has long since abandoned his legal studies in favor of the business in which Janine often assists him. Under the frank gaze of a jackal-faced French soldier seated across from her on the bus, Janine begins simultaneously to doubt and to reaffirm her sexual desirability: Tall and far from slender, she is, she reasons, probably still attractive in a mature, full-bodied way.
At one point, the soldier distractedly offers Janine a hard candy from a box in his pocket, proceeding thereafter to lose interest in the woman as he stares at the road before him. Janine’s preoccupation with the soldier, never fully acknowledged, gives way to her visual and tactile impressions of the trip, and of their eventual stop at a somewhat drab and inhospitable hotel. Janine, feeling somewhat spurned by the soldier, becomes increasingly aware of her weight and clumsiness, her thoughts returning as before to the athletic fitness and well-being of her adolescent years, before she joined her future to that of the law student Marcel whom she may or may not have loved.
Despite the ironic "promise" of the story’s title, Janine’s adultery is and remains purely internal and symbolic, quite possibly informed and infused by her own recollections, however unconscious, of the biblical parable deliberately recalled in the author’s choice of title.
Like the biblical adulteress who is about to be stoned, Janine feels a strong sense of guilt, if only for perceiving vague intimations of a freedom of which she has never even dreamed. As her thoughts run on, for once unchecked by habit, she is increasingly aware of her femininity, incongruous in a male-dominated world. The language of the story, reflecting Janine’s thoughts, grows increasingly sensual, culminating in a scene of almost ritual abandonment. Janine, having encouraged Marcel to visit with her the ramparts of a fortress recommended for its sweeping view of the desert, returns alone to the fort after Marcel has fallen asleep in their hotel room. Surprisingly light of step, running faster than she would ever have dreamed possible, Janine seeks desperately to reexperience the sense of release, of freedom, that had briefly overtaken her there hours earlier, at the side of her reluctant, uncomprehending husband.
Returned to the fort, Janine experiences an even greater sense of freedom than before, a simultaneous revelation of fitness andrelease: "After so many years of mad, aimless fleeing from fear, she had come to a stop at last. At the same time, she seemed to recover her roots and the sap rose again in her body, which had ceased trembling." Increasingly filled with "the water of night," Janine begins to moan in ecstasy. "The next moment, the whole sky stretched over her, fallen on her back on the cold earth."
Back in the hotel room with her sleeping husband, Janine watches as Marcel rises from the bed in a nearly somnambulistic state. By the time he returns, having slaked his thirst from a bottle of mineral water, Janine is weeping uncontrollably. "It’s nothing, dear," she attempts to reassure him, "It’s nothing." The story thus ends on an intentionally ambiguous note, raising more questions than it answers. Will Janine return to her "normal" state, assailed by guilt, or profit from her newly discovered freedom? The story’s resolution, it seems, is left to the reader to decide.