How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Violence in literature?

Chapter 11.

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In chapter 11 Foster described how violence in literature goes beyond the literal description of a physical tussle. One of the literary examples the writer chooses to draw upon is Robert Frost's "Out, Out - " (1916) which is an overtly violent poem - it discusses how a momentary lapse of attention causes a hand to be lost to a buzz saw. Yet the poem is not simply about the dangerous nature of farm machinery, instead, it can be seen as commentary upon the often violent relationship humans have with the universe, the unexpectedness yet inevitability of death, and the smallness of our lives. Foster distinguishes then between two categories of violence in literature - the specific injury causes by characters on themselves or others, and the narrative violence that causes harm in general. The latter category is what comes to affect plot and thematic development, and characters' fate.

Foster also argues that violence which carries deeper implications is more evocative than violence that just is - mystery novels for instance seldom elicit much emotion from readers with regards to incidents of death or attack because these serve merely as tools for the main concerns of solving a problem, answering a riddle/question, finding the culprits etc. In other genres however, a death is not merely an incident or tool, but an event pregnant with meaning - a ominous portend, a character's desperation, an indicator of a community or race's experience. In Toni Morrison's Beloved for instance, Sethe's act of killing her daughter is a commentary on the deep struggles and anguish faced by a race at a particular moment in the past.

Even violence without agency, that is, what doesn't happen between character to character, is often do deliberately plotted and crafted by the writer that is usually points to deeper meanings. The student's task is to always ask what the misfortune represents thematically, psychologically, socially, historically, spiritually and even politically. An act of violence will rarely encompass all the above considerations, but it will possibly contain enough layers of meaning to merit a deeper read.