Violence in Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.