Violence and the written word

May 09, 1994|By Mallie Z. DiBacco

EVEN WITH last week's victory in the House of Representatives to ban assault weapons, the debate on violence in America will doubtlessly continue on other fronts. Yet little attention will likely be paid to violent literature, in part because ours is a generation enmeshed in visual expression. Banning literature also smacks of censorship, and even the most ardent anti-gun advocates find it difficult to denigrate the works of our classic American authors.

Yet violence in literature may offer a needed perspective on our current social ills. In preparing a final exam for my college students this past semester, for example, I required them to write an essay on the place of violent anger and action in the works of so many 20th-Century American writers. The works ranged from Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" to Donald Barthelme's "The School."

In addition to these authors, the students also read several pieces by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Lorraine Hansberry, Flannery O'Connor, Alice Walker and Ann Beattie. What I had not realized in drafting my syllabus for this class was that so much of their reading dealt with the harsh realities of life, including violence. And yet, reading the final essay answers convinced me that our society can benefit more from thoughtful exposure to this form of violence than from its exclusion.

One student discussing Faulkner's "That Evening Sun," for example, noted that it was far from being a story for children, even though it is narrated by a 9-year-old and contains delightfully playful dialogue. "The themes of violence, black-white relationships, prejudices taught to children," she noted, "are too complicated and depressing" to be considered kiddie fare.

Another student wrote of the same short story that it portrayed "a woman's incessant fear of her own husband, which is a tragedy." She also picked up on the subtle "underlying violent tensions" that exist among family members in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and suggested these as harbingers of the story's climax, in which the entire family is murdered.

Still another remarked that "the violent nature of man, himself, whether displayed directly or indirectly as a breach of trust or responsibility, can often be fatal." These comments show how students can be confronted by deplorable acts without condoning or participating in them.

Recent arguments in favor of controls or scrutiny toward guns, computer games, record lyrics, film grading, and television programming, even children's toys, have one major flaw: Removing or artificially restricting violence only creates a mystique and offers a Band-aid approach to what really ails our society.

With the exception of a few examples of school boards desiring to remove certain books from library shelves that contain offensive, prejudiced language, there are no blue-ribbon panels that have ever tackled the thorny issue of violence in our American "classic" literature.

But in that void lies some wisdom: Authors employ violence because the messages they wish to convey are strengthened by dramatic incidents in which physical force and abusive exercise of power stand out. Books, like guns, music, computer software, movies, and television, can only be understood in context. Thus they can serve as examples of learning good within evil.

It is within each of us to perceive our present. As Henry David Thoreau said, "It is the man [who] determines what is said, not the words."

Mallie Z. DiBacco writes from Bethesda. This spring she taught literature at Palm Beach Community College in Florida.

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