Themes in Literature

Literary Violence


The term violence originates from the Latin violentia, meaning vehemence, which in turn implies an intense force. Etymologically, “violence” is akin to “violate” and thus is suggestive of damage and destruction that would characterize a violent storm or a traumatic experience such as rape, terrorism, or war. In its primary sense, therefore, violence denotes injury and also violation involving people or property. Though the concept of violence has always intrigued philosophers, psychologists, and literary artists, it is only in the 20th century that it has gained currency in most cultural discourses. Perhaps this is owing to the exponential increase in the incidence of violence in the modern era, to the unprecedented carnage the world has witnessed in the course of the century, and to the emergence of crusaders of nonviolence such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond defining what violence is, social thinkers have lately turned their attention to its moral and cultural justifiability as a means to achieve personal, social, or political ends. While the concept of violence itself has undergone considerable philosophical analyses since ancient times, thus far there has been no consensus about its precise character. Simply put, violence is the overt physical manifestation of force on individuals, groups, or nations. Its definition, however, has been continually evolving with an increasing philosophical interest that goes beyond its overtly physical manifestations to more covert psychological and institutional practices.

Broadly speaking, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and ethnic and religious persecution are all possible sources of violence involving constraints that abuse people psychologically, if not physically. Philosophers also disagree on the moral and political justifiability of employing violence to achieve personal or social ends. While some thinkers view violence to be inherently wrong (e.g., murder), others defend it. The philosophical positions rationalizing violence tend to focus on ends that outweigh the evils of injury or violation involved. Conversely, proponents of nonviolence challenge the claims of advocates of violence, citing the misery and mayhem it brings about. Significant philosophical debates on violence include the French philosopher Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908). In this text, Sorel worked with Karl Marx’s ideas on the proletariat, or the working class, and their ability to overthrow the middle class. By advocating violent general strikes, Sorel sought to inaugurate a class warfare against the state and capitalistic industrialists. The political theorist Hannah Arendt’s On Violence (1970) is another landmark treatise on 20th-century apologists for violence from a New Left perspective. Arendt concedes that violence can be justified only in defense against perceived threats to life, when it does not exceed necessity and its ends are patently positive. Drawing on notions of power developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Newton Garver’s essay “What Violence Is” (1975) includes covert, psychological, and institutional forms of violence in declaring, “Any institution which systematically robs certain people of rightful options generally available to others does violence to those people” (420). Despite his sympathies with nonviolence as a stance, Garver does not advocate it as a viable social goal and posits that conflicts between nations may be minimized but not always eliminated.

Obviously, thinkers differ in their approach to defining violence and continue to examine its apocalyptic manifestation in contemporary times. The problem of violence has also been of considerable interest to psychologists. Sigmund Freud was the first to diagnose the origins of neurosis, including violent behavior in human subjects. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, repression of the instinctual id leads to the “psychopathology of everyday life,” which in turn makes violent behavior commonplace. Likewise, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) combines Freudian and Marxist theories to undercut the cultural codes that overdetermine and repress human psychology and sexuality, resulting in deviant tendencies. Following the psychoanalytic paradigms of repression, the complexity of human violence has been studied by modern psychiatrists such as James Gilligan in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (1996). Asserting that “violence, like charity begins at home” (5), he demonstrates how home as a microcosm reflects the cultural and historic macrocosm in which violence thrives. While he celebrates civilization as the greatest blessing of humanity, Gilligan condemns its “tragic flaw—the violence it stimulates” (267). He attributes violence in humans to a life bereft of love, either from without (resulting in feelings of rejection) or from within (resulting in shame). Thus, both these deficiencies are an outcome of the patriarchal structure of civilization that assigns codified and often repressive roles to each of the sexes, reinforcing traditional ideas of honor and dishonor, pride and shame.

For psychoanalysts from Freud to Gilligan, violence remains a disturbing subject whose origin as well as cure lies within the complex cultural network that fashions human subjects. Owing to its omnipresence and the human mind’s obsession with it, violence has had ubiquitous representation, from cave paintings to the contemporary television drama The Sopranos. Beginning with epic narratives like The Mahabharata, the Homeric verses, and Beowulf (Anonymous), among others, literature has always attempted to represent violence as a trope for relationships of power and domination. In many respects, Western literature, ranging from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (429 b.c.), the biblical stories of Cain and Abel, Dante’s Inferno (14th century), William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1608), and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), seeks to define itself by the tragedy arising from human violence. For most 20th-century artists, violence, ranging from the destruction of large-scale warfare to individual crimes of murder, rape, and abuse, is an inevitable aspect of their visions. Unable to accept a fallen world, modernist writers often employ destructive violence as the central motif in their works. For instance, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and John Wain attempts to discern the sources and effects of modern violence culminating in anger, frustration, despair, and even suicide. For some modern poets, however, violence has provided an ironic source of creativity and change, a view articulated by William Butler Yeats in poems like “The Second Coming” and “Easter 1916.” Critics generally attribute the predominance of violence in modern literature to both its sensational appeal and its potential to shock readers, leading them to question their beliefs. Critics also emphasize the historical significance of violence in the period following World War II, when poets and novelists bemoaned a world mired in conflict, and in which aggression threatened to destroy all humane qualities.

The Holocaust has been a common subject with American literary artists ranging from Sylvia Plath to Saul Bellow. Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl (1947) is a significant Holocaust document on the experiences of a war victim during the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. Other postwar novels, such as George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) condemn totalitarianism in an essentially meaningless world. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut’s deeply pessimistic vision pervades his novels, including Player Piano (1952) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which portray the violent decay of the modern world. Racial violence is apparent in novels like Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). The universality of women’s experience of sexual violence has provided grounds for feminist contributions from writers such as Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. With the close of the 20th century, imagistic representation of violence in all forms of media has become commonplace. Films, television, art, and print media are saturated with images of familial violence involving women and children; issues of community violence directed toward ethnic and minority groups; the practice of institutional violence in workplace, schools, hospitals, police and law enforcement agencies; and incidents of state violence, such as the repression and surveillance practices after the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center in the United States, the legitimation of violence through state support witnessed in the communal riots in Gujarat, and the Nandigram massacre in West Bengal, India. Though the media plays an active role in recording, portraying, disseminating, and reflecting on violence, its methods and intentions are often suspect because the politics influencing it may engender newer forms of violence. Plagued by violence, the contemporary era views nonviolence as a redeeming idea and the need of the hour.

Though the history of nonviolence as a religious or philosophical doctrine has been traced as far back as the Chandogya Upanishad of ancient Hinduism, the Chinese Tao Te Ching, the Bible, and the early Christian prophets, the dramatic advent of nonviolence as a favored alternative position occurred in the recent past with Mohandas Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” campaigns for India’s independence in the 1920s, and the struggle for racial justice in the United States during the 1960s. Contemporary discourses on nonviolence not only advocate traditional ideals such as love and tolerance to protect both human and animal rights; they also focus, paradoxically, on the use of violence to achieve peace through enforcement and prosecution. Besides, the modern practitioners of nonviolence seek to strengthen the role of nongovernmental organizations that promote education to prevent violence. Significantly, pacifist propaganda, too, is embedded in the matrix of human civilization and continues to be a cause worth fighting for in a world with ever-escalating incidences of violence.

See also Albee, Edward: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?; Bambara, Toni Cade: Salt Eaters, The; Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness; Dickens, Charles: Tale of Two Cities, A; Grass, Günter: Tim Drum, The; Hesse, Herman: Steppenwolf; Jackson, Shirley: “Lottery, The”; Jacobs, Harriet: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself; Knowles, John: Separate Peace, A; Kozinski, Jerzy: Painted Bird, The; Melville, Herman: Billy Budd, Sailor; Morrison, Toni: Song of Solomon; O’Connor, Flannery: “Good Man Is Hard to Find, A”; Pope, Alexander: Rape of the Lock, The; Roth, Philip: American Pastoral; Shakespeare, William: Hamlet; Henry IV, Part I; Twain, Mark: Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, A; Walker, Alice: Color Purple, The; Williams, Tennessee: Streetcar Named Desire, A.

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