Foster returns to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Although the novel focuses on one act of violence in particular (Sethe’s murder of her daughter), this single act is part of a much broader phenomenon: the violence of the transatlantic slave trade. Violence may be interpersonal, but it is almost always related to larger cultural forces. Furthermore, while in real life violence can be meaningless, in literature it often has multiple layers of meaning, whether symbolic, allegorical, religious, political, etc. Even when violence is depicted in order to show the senseless cruelty of the universe (such as in Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—” (1916)), this still a meaningful message about the world.
One of the reasons why people write and read literature is to make sense of a world that can at times seem senselessly unjust and cruel. This does not mean literature necessarily serves a redemptive function; as the example of Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—” shows, sometimes literature simply reinforces the idea that the world is senselessly cruel. On the other hand, even this rather bleak conclusion is perhaps made slightly more hopeful by being placed in a poem, which is arguably a gesture of communication and solidarity.
Violence is a huge topic in literature, and even authors noted for the lack of activity in their work (such as Woolf and Chekhov) frequently kill off characters. Foster identifies two categories of violence in literature: violence that characters enact upon one another, and harmful events that happen to characters in order to advance the plot. Although it might seem strange to think of a character dying of heart disease as “violence,” Foster maintains that such plot points are indeed violent.
The distinction Foster draws between character-based and plot-based violence can seem unclear, especially considering characters aren’t real and are all actually under the control of the author. One way to understand it is by asking if there is a human perpetrator of the violence depicted within the book; if there is, it is character-based, and if not, plot-based.
Returning to the question of meaningful versus meaningless violence, Foster argues that the only major literary genre in which violence is “meaningless” are mysteries. In these books, the fact that a character has died (sometimes a terribly gruesome death!) is not important in itself, but only as a device that triggers the process of discovering how and why it happened. In the rest of literature, violence tends to carry major symbolic significance. In D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), for example, the physical fights between Gudrun and Ursula symbolize clashes in the social system of industrial capitalism. In Lawrence’s novella The Fox (1922), the murder of Banford represents the restoration of the traditional sexual order.
In order to understand the symbolic significance of violent events in literature, it is helpful to consider the fact that every act of violence is a struggle between two (or more) forces. Consider one of these forces—what does it represent, and what might it be struggling against? Through this logic, Foster is able to determine that violent acts between individual characters in a book are symbolic of much larger phenomena, such as social and ideological battles over class and gender.
The work of William Faulkner is enormously violent, reflecting the legacy of tension and turmoil in the Southern US. Faulkner explores the ways that violence can result from the restriction of people’s agency and bodily autonomy, such as when Eunice, a slave whose daughter by rape becomes a victim of incest, kills herself in Go Down, Moses (1942).
As Foster points out in this passage, characters can also commit acts of violence against themselves. Indeed, acts of self-harm and suicide were sometimes the only way for slaves to protest the unbearably cruel system under which they were forced to live.
Of course, character-on-character acts constitute only one kind of violence—what about Foster’s second category, violence chosen by the author as a plot device? Both Fay Weldon’s The Hearts and Lives of Men (1988) and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) feature characters who fall to earth after their airplanes explode. In Weldon’s novel, this event symbolizes a fall from innocence, whereas in Rushdie’s it constitutes a fall from a state of corruption into a new demonic existence. The difference in the resonance of these parallel violent events illustrates the fact that violent acts never mean the same thing in literature, even while they always mean something.
The meaning of violent acts can be contentious, as can all symbols in literature. It is sometimes unclear what a particular act of violence means, especially given the fact that violence in real life is so often totally unjust and meaningless. However, this lack of clarity does not indicate that acts of violence have no meaning at all; rather, it gives an opportunity for scholars, students, and other readers to have interesting and productive debates over their significance.