Violence in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Violence in Literature


Violence in Literature

In many respects, twentieth-century literature defined itself by reflecting the prevalent violence of modern society—from the destruction of large-scale warfare to individual crimes of murder, rape, and abuse. Critics of modern literature have generally attributed this trend to both the sensational appeal of violent behavior and its potential to shock readers by shaking their beliefs. Others have emphasized the historical significance of violence in the period following World War II, during which poets and novelists expressed the anxieties of a world that seemed incapable of long-term peace, and in which human aggression threatened to bring about global destruction. By the close of the twentieth century, images of violence in all forms of media had become so commonplace that the destructive potential of the human race seemed a given, making moral solutions to the problem appear unlikely at best. Thus, violence had become a subject that most modern writers who wished to convey the historical, psychological, and artistic landscape of the modern world could not fail to confront.

For a number of twentieth-century poets, violence was an inescapable reality that suffused their work. Critics have observed in the writings of Hart Crane the central imagery of destruction as it conveys the poet's essential inability to accept a deeply flawed world. In the poetry of Sylvia Plath and John Wain an attempt to discern the sources and effects of modern violence culminated in anger, frustration, despair, and, in the case of Plath, suicide. Overall, critics acknowledge that the postwar poet has a certain obligation to study the nature of violence in order that it can be understood and avoided in the future. For some modern poets, however, violence has provided an ironic source of creativity and change, as the new and pure is brought forth from the ashes of destruction—a view articulated by W. B. Yeats in “Easter 1916”, a poem that envisions the birth of a “terrible beauty” through violent conflict.

In her influential study On Violence, Hannah Arendt explored the balance between institutional power structures and violence, an equilibrium that was greatly upset as violent means were adopted to cleanse and reorder the world through fascism, collectivism, and imperialism in the twentieth century. For the novelist, these forms of violence became key factors in the existential perception of human bonds broken under the modern philosophy of power. George Orwell's dystopian 1984 set the standard on the subject. In this novel, fear, pain, and suffering are the results of unchecked totalitarianism in an absurd, emotionally isolated, and essentially meaningless world. The novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., likewise reveal the sweeping violence of the twentieth century and confront human feelings of impotence in response to the radical destruction brought about by two world wars and the subsequent threat of nuclear annihilation. Vonnegut's deeply pessimistic vision particularly informed his novels of the 1960s, including Player Piano and Slaughterhouse-Five, which portray the violent decay of the modern world. The racial element of violence is apparent in Richard Wright's Native Son, which details the damaging potential of a man enveloped by cultural brutality, whose rage can only be expressed in murder. The affinity of violence and self-hatred is similarly presented in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. A different, but related, approach to the portrayal of violence appears in the novels of Flannery O’Connor—a self-described Christian writer who, critics assert, demonstrated that violence and suffering are essential elements in a faithless world marred by Original Sin. According to such critics, O’Connor employed violence in her novels both as a psychological expression of anguish and to rouse her unbelieving readers.

Representative Works

Hart Crane
The Bridge (poetry) 1930
The Poetry of Hart Crane (poetry) 1967

Harry Crews
The Hawk Is Dying (novel) 1973
A Feast of Snakes (novel) 1976

William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929

Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970

Flannery O’Connor
Wise Blood (novel) 1952
The Violent Bear It Away (novel) 1960
Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories (short stories) 1971

George Orwell
1984 (novel) 1949

Sylvia Plath
The Collected Poems (poetry) 1981

Thomas Pynchon
Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973

Alain Robbe-Grillet
Le Voyeur [The Voyeur] (novel) 1955

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Player Piano (novel) 1952
Cat's Cradle (novel) 1963
Slaughterhouse-Five (novel) 1969

John Wain
Living in the Present (novel) 1955

Alice Walker
The Color Purple (novel) 1982

Richard Wright
Native Son (novel) 1940

Further Reading


Armstrong, Nancy, and Leonard Tennenhouse, eds. The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. London: Routledge, 1989, 263 pp.

Collection of essays by various contributors featuring a historical survey of literary representations of violence from the early modern era to the contemporary period.

Black, Joel. The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 276 pp.

Examines modern texts “that present murder from an aesthetic rather than from a moral, psychological, or philosophical perspective.”

Foster, David William. Violence in Argentine Literature: Cultural Responses to Tyranny. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1995, 208 pp.

Includes several essays analyzing Argentine novels of 1976 to 1983—a period of military dictatorship and cultural repression—and of the subsequent years of increasing democratization.

Fraser, John. Violence in the Arts. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1974, 192 pp.

Study of the cultural fascination with violence in literature and film of the twentieth century.

Gossett, Louise Y. Violence in Recent Southern Fiction. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1965, 207 p.

Discusses the dominant theme of violence in the fiction of the American South since 1930, highlighting the work of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, William Styron, Carson McCullers, and others.

Kennelly, Brendan. “Poetry and Violence” In History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Joris Duytschaever and Geert Lernout, pp. 5-28. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

Considers violence arising from historical, political, and sexual tyranny and oppression as it is represented in Anglo-Irish poetry.

Kowalewski, Michael. Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1993, 301 p.

Explores the style and language of violence in works of American fiction writers from James Fenimore Cooper to Thomas Pynchon.