In literature, incest, the sexual union between family members, has been associated with the desire to do evil (incest being evil in most cultures), with a wish to revolt against taboo or law, or with a desire to achieve the most intimate of all possible connections with another being (incest between twins being an example). Many literary works, beginning with mythology and the Bible, depict incestuous relationships, and not always with censure; however, in general incest has been regarded with horror.
Since ancient times in the West, incest has generally been regarded as an abhorrence to be avoided and severely punished. Taboos are compelling themes for literature ancient and modern. For Sophocles, people’s lives were rigidly determined by fate; even warnings of what may lie ahead cannot divert one from the path along which one is doomed to travel. In Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, love between a brother and a sister is presented as an example of the helplessness of humans before fate. The siblings’ reverie is fatal and irresistible. The Renaissance play is as fatalistic as Sophocles’ drama about Oedipus.
Unlike Oedipus, the brother and sister in Pierre are aware of their familial ties, although they have been separated from each other since early childhood. In Melville, there is familial awareness, with all the associated guilt that such awareness implies. In Sophocles, fate punishes the knowing and the unknowing equally. In literature that depicts couples who know of their family ties, there is often a theme of disorganization and social degeneration. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), for example, tells of Quentin Compson’s repressed sexual passion for his sister, Caddy; the self-destructive guilt that his passion produces is a symbol for the general self-destructiveness of the culture of which Quentin is a part.
Often, then, incest may be seen as a symptom or a specific example of a general social ill. Oedipus learns of his incest as a result of an investigation into the decline of his kingdom; incest in Faulkner’s novels may be said to be indicative of the moral failures of the American South. Other works, such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), depict incest as an example of the moral failure of patriarchy.
Arens, W. The Original Sin: Incest and Its Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Cory, Donald Webster. Violation of Taboo: Incest in Great Literature of the Past and Present. New York: Julian Press, 1963.
Hall, Constance. Incest in Faulkner: A Metaphor for the Fall. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986.
Masters, R. E. L. Patterns of Incest. New York: Julian Press, 1963.
Pollak, Ellen. Incest and the English Novel, 1684- 1814. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Pollack analyzes some of the literary depictions of incest, whether real or imagined in works by Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and other English novelists.
Rank, Otto. Language and Literature: The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend. Translated by Gregory C. Richter. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.