Violence in Literature

Violence is often and regularly portrayed in literature. War is among the manifestations of collective violence that were depicted in early literary works. Homer (8th century BCE) wrote a cycle of poems on the Trojan War, in the Illiad and Odyssey. In ancient Chinese literature, historian Liu Xiang recovered the Zhanguoce (Stratagems of the Warring States) from the Han archives and composed a book that emphasized the importance of war for the Chinese. Paradoxically, this work was produced during the reign of the Han Dynasty which was peaceful. Basic religious texts in India, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, depict fierce battles within the Kshatriya class (the class of the warriors).

The tradition to depict wars continued with literary works telling of the Crusades, while Napoleon's invasion of Russia was portrayed in War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) told a German soldier's version of the conflict in World War I. World War II was reflected in a poem by Paul Celan (1920-1970), Todesfuge (Death Fugue). Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) wrote Youth in an Austrian Town (1961), a story that portrayed the war through the eyes of a child. The Vietnam War (c1955-75) was depicted in numerous books, with many veterans writing autobiographical accounts of what happened on the battlefields.

Another type of violence in literature is the institutional violence, a theme first seen in the works of writers like Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), who showed in their novels the violence of the justice system and the damage caused to a human being sent to jail. The theme was revived in the works of writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), who described the violence of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union and its gulags, or political prisons. A powerful critique to totalitarian regime was also provided by George Orwell's 1984.

A work that depicts a combination of institutional violence and individual violence, in the form of a rape, is Irving Wallace's The Seven Minutes. Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson (b 1961) tells the story of a young woman who is raped at a party and becomes an outcast.

Murder is a constant literary theme. Oresteia and Sophocles's Electra tell first of the murder of king Agamemnon by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, then of Orestes's fatal revenge. In Euripides's Medea, the principal character murders her children because her husband has left her. The works of William Shakespeare also tell different stories of violence, with a murder at the basis of works like Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet. Murder continued to be exploited as a theme by various writers. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Rodya Raskolnikov kills his greedy landlady, while the main character in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy kills his girlfriend. Both novels deal with the problem of violence, the factors that lead to it and the guilt.

The late 18th and the whole of the 20th century produced a literature genre of the crime thriller, in which authors such as Arthur Conan-Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and Ed McBain, created lead characters who were detectives who had to solve the mystery of a crime - usually a murder - and find the culprit, a book form called a "whodunnit."

Punishment, as portrayed in literature, is also often violent. Thus, in Dante's Inferno, the sinners experience harshest punishments, with the envious having their eyes sewn shut. Another example is Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, which tells of the eternal punishment imposed on the principal character.

Violence has even been portrayed in fairy tales. The first edition of the stories of Charles Perrault (1628-1703) included tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard and Sleeping Beauty, targeted at more mature reading audience. The tales described in details scenes of murders, and even cannibalism. The fairy tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were basically folk stories that were not really appropriate for children.

Some writers have tried to explain and justify violence, such as Reflections on Violence (1908) by Georges Sorel (1847-1922). In response to such attempts to vindicate violent acts, Hannah Arendt (1906 -1975) wrote On Violence (1970), in which she argued that violence was inadmissible. The only exception was to use it in defense against clear and immediate life threats.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007
Sally Bachner.
University of Georgia Press, 2011
The Modern American Novel of Violence
Patrick W. Shaw.
Whitston, 2000
Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990
Sabine Sielke.
Princeton University Press, 2002
Love's Whipping Boy: Violence and Sentimentality in the American Imagination
Elizabeth Barnes.
University of North Carolina Press, 2011
At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence, in England and Ireland
Sarah Cole.
Oxford University Press, 2012
Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction
Michael Kowalewski.
Princeton University Press, 1993
Theatre and Violence
John W. Frick.
Southeastern Theatre Conference, 1999
The Spaces of Violence
James R. Giles.
University of Alabama Press, 2006
Murdering Masculinities: Fantasies of Gender and Violence in the American Crime Novel
Greg Forter.
New York University Press, 2000
Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation
Shirley Samuels.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Historical Nightmares and Imaginative Violence in American Women's Writings
Amy S. Gottfried.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912
Sandra Gunning.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Violence against Women in Medieval Texts
Anna Roberts.
University Press of Florida, 1998
The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence
Jody Enders.
Cornell University Press, 1999
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