Violence and Tragedy in Literature

When I hadn’t yet finished Light in August, some of my friends saw what I’d been reading and asked, “Do you actually like Faulkner?” Well, yes. I think so. I don’t know. Should I? Well, hm.

One friend noted that the explicit nature of some of the happenings in Faulkner’s stories, often described in very communicative detail, presents our minds with an occasion to be soaked in something unhealthy and possibly harmful. My response was that those less than pleasant elements of his novels are not gratuitous; good literature is truthful, is an accurate representation of our world, and not everything in life is shiny and rosy.

When I was in college, I went through a serious Hemingway/Woolf phase, and I’m still not really out of the Fitzgerald phase. Granted, there is a difference in tone among these three novelists, but they’re all part of that Lost Generation. Ultimately, as my much loved and wonderful mother worriedly assured nineteen-year-old me, they’re lacking something. Their novels are not the answer. These authors are not called “Lost” for no reason. They don’t realize that, all things told, the story of the universe is essentially one of comedy, not tragedy. Nevertheless, I maintain my position that there is a place for such novels; there is a place for such darkness.

If you object, I have a few things to say to you: King Lear. Hamlet. Sophocles. Dido. The Book of Job. “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful death.” We will all of us meet our wicked sisters, our blinded fathers, our conniving Uncles, our own damning Hubris, our physical and spiritual trials, and, many of us, a death of love that makes us want to kill ourselves. As a friends once said, “The theme of Oedipus Rex is: Life’s the pits, and then, you die.” Of course, experience is in many cases the best teacher. But it doesn’t hurt to have some vicarious experience and knowledge of the depths before you fall into them yourselves. In the good and the bad, this, I think, is a summary of the value of literature. It teaches us enormous truths in human terms, and so teaches us how to cope with our day to day human lives. Christ taught in parables, not syllogisms; He was, He is, a storyteller. And, if you recall, there was death and damnation in some of His stories.

All of that being said, we all know that virtue lies in moderation and balance, not in extremes. I am quite thankful that I had the foresight to do my senior thesis on Willa Cather rather than Hemingway, as I had first thought that I would. Too much dwelling in darkness isn’t a good thing. It’s easy to forget about the light if we never read comedies. However, the experience of life as a solitary vale of tears is only compounded if a soul never has the cathartic purging of living tragedy in art. Misery loves company is not a jesting and trivial phrase. It is deeply profound, deeply human, and speaks to the nature of man being a social animal and needing to know that there is someone, anyone, who understands and can help him through the dark night in which he finds himself. Even if that help is only in the form of companionship, even if it can’t give all the answers, that standing together is necessary for survival. This is, at least in part, why tragedies are necessary.

three little boys

Back to my friends’ question on Faulkner. In thinking over it more since finishing the book, I wonder if perhaps I was wrong. Not in theory, but in the particular instance of this book, perhaps the darkness was too explicit. Balance is difficult to achieve (Yes, that is my profound statement of the century. Duh.), and it is possible that art that is in many ways excellent can be over-the-top in others. This is how I feel about Bruckner’s Christus Factus Est, which I’ve sung with one of my choirs a few times. Just chill, buddy. And then there is some art, there are some stories, that I think can never be justified. Movies about demonic possession, for example, are incredibly foolish. Not in the, “This is dumb,” sense. No; Because such things are far more real than most people want to acknowledge, voluntarily dwelling on Satanic powers is unnecessarily putting oneself in real danger. To a less immediate degree, dwelling intensely on any sort of wickedness or darkness for extended periods of time is a danger. When the enemy is smarter than you, stay away from him.

When I discovered that both my mother and my older brother had stopped reading Light in August partway through, citing the intensely immoral parts of it as one of their roadblocks, I naturally began to question my previous position that it was not gratuitously, well, messy. I had defended the inhumanity of some of the characters to my questioning friends by saying that part of Faulkner’s purpose is to highlight the grace and beauty that still can exist, in characters like Lena and Byron, in a society that has been conquered and is fallen. I still think that this is true, but I do wonder if he needed to focus on the fallen part of that world as much as he did. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Even if you haven’t read this particular novel, where do you come down on this question?

This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World and AltCatholicah.


  1. Karen Ullo says

    I think it comes down to a question of taste and conscience, both for writers and for readers. There must be a place for violence and immorality in literature; they exist and we ignore them at our peril. I do think there is a point when one can say, objectively, “That’s too far,” when evil becomes sensationalized, but the rest must be left to individual judgment. What horrifies one reader enough to make him put the book down, gagging, may horrify another enough to make him change his life or the lives of others.

    • Tom Hanson says

      Karen Ullo: From which of the Bruckner masses? or is it a separate piece” a capella or with orchestra?

  2. Dena says

    Oh, stop. Your original idea was right. your friend was only messing with your head. Literature is not Fox News; it doesn’t do “fair and balanced.” It’s not a moral primer on this-is-how-we’re-supposed-to-think/feel/live.
    Literature is about life. Which is sometimes “messy,” as you delicately put it, and sometimes beautiful. But we’re not obligated to do one or the other. Compost occurs. Flowers grow. Often in the same pot. But not always.

    • says

      Dena, I am sorry to be so behind in responding to your comment. A hearty thank you for your common sense attitude. You gave me a good chuckle, and I appreciate your metaphor. Merry Christmas!

  3. Tom Hanson says

    My own feeling is that that, for adults, there is a fairly simple rule to follow: Question: Does this entice me to the evil I’m reading about?” If the answer is yes, stop. If no, go on. What to tell the immature I have no idea. Personally, I have never had any moral problems I’m aware of through reading Faulkner. Sanctuary, his most notorious and scandalous book during his lifetime never tempted me toward any kind of rape, with or without corncob.
    A word of unmoral advise. Even as a freshman in college reading The Bear I never had any problem reading the prose and Faulkner is a notoriously difficult writer. For me it has never been the language itself that makes it difficult to read. I have thought a lot about how I could be so lucky and only had to worry about sometimes difficult structure and how themes fit together. But the language itself? No problems. And i think I now know a big part of the reason. I come from an oral-story-telling family, and grew up when a lot of fine story-telling comedians were in there prime, like Alan King and Bill Cosby , AND “free” on commercial TV. I learned to know differences in comic voices and timing while telling stories. Not funny voices and funny timing but normal speaking while telling a funny story. To start, read some pages aloud in whatever hideous version of a deep South accent you can manage, pay attention to commas as they often become breathing marks and listen to the voice of a person as it happens. In my youth I just knew the voice almost immediately, without knowing where it came from. Even in Light in August Faulkner is a very funny man. BUT– The Sound and the Fury is another thing entirely.

    • Tom Hanson says

      Post Script: The dialect spellings will also help with this and help you into a Southernly voice. I mean an accent that strikes YOU as Southern: Kunnel settin’ thar on the poch== Colonel setting there on the porch..

      • says

        Thanks, Tom! Reading books out loud with a friend or two has long been one of my favorite things to do; the only problem is finding people who also like doing such thing! I will certainly march out some hideous Southern accents in your honor next time I manage a Flannery O’Connor reading session. And hey, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to your posts.

        Ps. The Bruckner piece I mentioned: (Though, I must confess, it’s been growing on me as I’ve become better acquainted with it.)