Crime without Punishment

By Sullivan, Lucy | IPA Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Crime without Punishment

Sullivan, Lucy, IPA Review

UNLIKE most contemporary novelists of manners, Margaret Drabble has, since the eighties, incorporated the burgeoning crime and social breakdown within the welfare state into her novels. But although she states the problem, she offers no real analysis.

One of the characters in her novel, A Natural Curiosity, reflecting on the increasing and increasingly horrific violence impinging on dwellers in middle-class London, notes with puzzlement that in her social milieu it had been believed that treating everyone, particularly the poor and the criminal, with greater generosity and kindliness--with the behaviour of love--would result in a happier and more peaceful society, whereas the opposite seemed to have occurred.

Doris Lessing's novel The Fifth Child is a parable expressing this same sense of paradox, that the wages of virtue are violence and the loss of civility. In the novel, a fifth child is born into an arena of domestic happiness, but, unlike the previous four children, he does not bring with him the incipient drives and responses which in their normal development construct and reconstruct the happy family: he does not react empathically to the needs and the pain of others, and the stuff of family life arouses in him no spark of grateful recognition. As he grows in strength and destructiveness, his presence becomes intolerable to the rest of the family. But his mother, because she believes so strongly in the virtues of loving and caring which sustain the family and human society, cannot allow his removal to an institution where he will be denied their benefit. Because she insists on making available the full benefits of family sustenance to a member who does not reciprocate, the family is destroyed.

KINDNESS TO CRIMINALS: Both Drabble and Lessing are writing from within a profoundly influential development in social thought of the sixties, in the English-speaking world at least--an endorsement of a psychological determinism which explains criminal or antisocial behaviour as determined by experience, either at the familial or societal level, of the iniquities of an oppressive and unjust political system. The policy implications of this belief are that criminal behaviour is not the fault of the perpetrator, and therefore should be treated beneficently; that kindness will cure criminals, while punishment cannot deter them; and that expenditure on social welfare, rather than on law enforcement, will result in a crime-free and domestically utopian society. Some aspects of this program, its prioritizing of forgiveness and love, have deep roots in the Christian tradition, while others--the profound belief in the existence of, and moral abhorrence of, entrenched social inequality and political oppression--express a more recent Marxism.

Drabble, in the same book, directs the reader to notice a moral disjunction in that a character who teaches literature to prison inmates is accepting, tolerant and forgiving of a serial murderer whose victims include one of her former students, but is intolerantly hostile towards some law-abiding acquaintances whose opinions, as conservatives, do not accord with her own.

The ideologically difficult postulation, glanced at by Drabble and powerfully but obliquely presented by Lessing--that love does not necessarily control violence, and that the abrogation of humane values may be necessary for their protection--is central to the recent play Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, although it is n approached even more eliptically than by either of these former authors. The play was performed by the Sydney Theatre Company in both Sydney and Perth in 1993 and is now released as a film (which I have not seen). It is set in a South American country which has recently emerged from a brutal dictatorship, and is now engaged in a program of recording the atrocities (torture and deaths) suffered during the reign of terror. The title is taken from a quartet by Schubert which was played to Paulina, the heroine of the play, during her torture, to sustain her spirits so that she would not die under interrogation. …

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