Violence in Literature Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Violence has long occupied a prominent place in Western literature. Accounts of violence may be serious or satirical. They sometimes involve natural violence, such as earthquakes, but usually describe human-caused disaster such as war, torture, crime, and abuse of others.

Two literary forms in which the earliest and most powerful treatments of violence appear are epics and dramas. Epics are long narrative poems; they need to be read rather than acted. Since they are about a hero or heroic event or the founding of a nation, it is logical that violence is involved in the epic genre. These criteria also make the epic poem important to cultural identity. No self-respecting nation could claim to be cultured without an epic.

Epic violence is natural and human in origin. Natural disaster is implied, for example, when Zeus is called “the earthquake-making god.” Human violence is much more prominent. Blood and gore are so much a part of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), Beowulf (c. 1000), Cantar de mío Cid (early thirteenth century; Poem of the Cid, 1808), the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200), and other great epics, that they almost blot out the other aspects of the epic.

In the Iliad, Homer uses violence satirically, to show how ridiculous the Greeks are. Vergil, however, does not satirize his violence in the Aeneid. Roman literature is famous for its appetite for patriotic gore. Furthermore, the Greeks taunted their conquering Romans that, even though the Romans had superior military power, the Greeks had their epic poem and were therefore superior culturally. As a result, the Emperor Caesar Augustus commanded Vergil to write the great Roman epic, the Aeneid. Following his emperor’s orders, Vergil would not have dared call his heroes childish or silly, as Homer...

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Toward Existentialism

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Ten years after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy completed that giant of violence Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). As the parameters of violence continued to mushroom, the Holocaust catapulted the concept of violence to a point almost beyond literary comprehension.

Less known during and after the Holocaust was the even greater violence Joseph Stalin was conducting in the Soviet Union. This violence was eventually exposed by such works as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Arkhipelag Gulag, 1918-1956 (1973-1975; Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, 1973-1975). Shelley’s Promethean myth can be seen as a launching point for previously unimagined quantities of violence. The twentieth century’s technologies of distribution (trains, communication, weapons, mass production) made one man’s capacity for violence reach previously unthinkable levels.

The Jewish writer Franz Kafka (1884-1924) lent new irrationality to literary depictions of violence. His novels and short stories tell of occupying soldiers eating live oxen on the hoof, a man turning into a six-foot insect, an instrument of torture gone haywire, and a respectable businessman being executed by the state for reasons nobody learns. Kafka’s violence takes on an existential function, heralding the isolation, the misery, and the futility of many later writers.

Reasons for Violence

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Most great writers indicate some kind of redeeming message in their depictions of violence, if only one of slim hope. They do not celebrate violence for its own sake. Great writers use violence, sometimes satirically, sometimes seriously, in hopes that humanity will stop doing violent things. This triumph of hope can be seen in all literary forms.

The French satirist François Rabelais depicts violence to criticize the Roman Catholic church. He has a monk of Seville, Friar John, commit some of the most severe brutality ever done to the human body on the written page—and these brutal acts are committed with a crucifix. Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes gave the world its most famous mock-heroic, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (part 1, 1605, part 2, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620). Once again, the purpose is not to celebrate but to criticize violence. Cervantes also targets the Roman Catholic church, whose priests burn Quixote’s library. The great French writer Voltaire depicts violence to the same end. Such satirists as these established a reason for depictions of religious violence that writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and John Kennedy Toole would later use in American literature.

The most severely ironic essay in the English language is also one of its most savagely violent. This is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Like great satirists before him, Swift is saying one thing while meaning quite another, a common technique in depictions of violence. English nobility, absentee landlords, and wealthy businessmen are targets of this most bitter and violent satire, which is about eating infants and the money to be made thereby.

In Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” a lover suggests that he and the target of his affections “tear our pleasures with rough strife/ through the iron gates of life.” Here violence is used for the purpose of attaining love, in not the gentlest manner. In a sonnet titled “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont” John Milton’s speaker laments “the bloody Piedmontese that rolled/ Mother with infant down the rocks,” and echoes their moans through hill and vale. Milton uses violence to decry ethnic savagery. These poems suggest only two kinds of violence that centuries of lyric poetry from many different time periods and nationalities contain.

Violence in American Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

American literature began in violence, with nonfiction accounts of armed conflict between Native Americans and settlers. American literature introduced frontier violence through the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. The violence required to conquer a wilderness was, the literature argues, healthy and had a kind of purity, even though it involved harsh elements, vicious wildlife, and horrible treatment of and by Native Americans.

Violence in American literature is rich and varied. Edgar Allan Poe’s violence is not as sinister as it is often described, whether in his prose or in his poetry. Hawthorne’s violence (more symbolic than literal) in The Scarlet Letter (1850) and “Young Goodman Brown” is one of the earliest American attacks on religious Fundamentalism. Herman Melville’s writing blends cosmic with personal violence, a whale symbolizing natural violence and many of his characters enacting human violence. Melville also planted the seeds of depiction of psychological violence, a type Henry James would amplify.

The American Civil War brought the violence of war to the pages of writers such as Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, and Walt Whitman, who were followed by local color writers such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain and followed later by the naturalist school. Writers on the Civil War began to write about violence with a new seriousness, building a basis for protest in works such as Twain’s “Civil War Prayer” and Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay on nonviolent resistance, “Civil Disobedience.”

In American poetry, violence is often more compact than in fiction, simply because the space does not exist for lengthy description. Violence in American poetry can also be ambiguous. Does Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” for example, in which a drunken father dances with his young son standing on the father’s feet, reflect love or child abuse? Three of America’s greatest early twentieth century fiction writers who depicted violence for shock value and for serious exposition of a nation’s ills are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.

New Modes of Violence in American Literature

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During the twentieth century satire reappeared in American letters. This satirical impulse typically exposes violence as a means of convincing readers not to be violent. From Cooper’s frontier and Twain’s protest violence, readers move into violence of the absurd, ethnic violence, gender violence, psychological violence, and environmental violence.

After a surge of books treating World War II and the war in Korea, more books came out during the 1970’s and 1980’s about the Vietnam War, the United States’ longest and most controversial war. John P. Hermann’s Allegories of War (1989) includes a discussion on torture.

Ethnic violence in literature is often about slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) captured the United States in one of its first great examples of ethnic violence in literature. One of America’s most recent monuments to ethnic violence in literature is Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winner Beloved (1988).

The pulp Western, one of American literature’s unique genres, also contains ethnic violence, almost always aimed at Native Americans. The American Western, however, includes considerably more than ethnic violence. In fact, violence of many kinds is a hallmark of the Western. A Western is not a Western without fistfights and shootings.

Why are publishers of Western books so fond of picturing on their covers women placed in provocative,...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Albuquerque, Severino João. Violent Acts: A Study of Contemporary Latin American Theater. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Studies verbal and nonverbal violence, violence of repression and resistance, and the violent double in two-character plays.

Frohock, W. M. The Novel of Violence in America: 1920-1950. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1950. Final chapter on violence and ethics.

Gossett, Louise Y. Violence in Recent Southern Fiction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1965. Deals with many writers, including Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Erskine Caldwell. Discusses climate of violence, revelation in Eudora Welty, integrity of self in Robert Penn Warren, and private and primitive violence.

Howelett, Jana, and Rod Mengham, eds. The Violent Muse: Violence and the Artistic Imagination in Europe, 1910-1939. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1994. Novels and plays dealing with expressionism, modernism, and the aesthetic, as affected by violence.

Lashgari, Dierdre. Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women’s Writing as Transgression. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Examines individual silence, collective silence, violence of subjectivity, war writings, slave writings, poetics of violence.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Defines violence in literature of the U.S. West, with a special focus on violence done to women by men.