Tuesday, May 4, 2010


As a recurring theme throughout British literature, violent acts have often provided the motivation for many authors to explore how humanity copes with confrontation, and its many driving forces. From Satan’s decision to lead a violent rebellion against God in Milton’s, Paradise Lost, the violent civilizations that Gulliver encounters on his voyages in Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s exploration of the depravities of British imperialist society in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the works we have read this semester have all had unique commentary on violence, both how it arises, and how its resolved. Confrontation provides the backbone to any relevant drama, and without it, this course would have been quite boring. How does violence fit so well into the stories we have read this semester? Could it be inherent in humanity? If so, why can’t we learn from our mistakes as Kipling argues in his Epitaphs from the First World War? Violence must never be glorified in literature, but instead treated with reverence and respect, or else we are all doomed to a violent end, or perhaps violence is a necessary means of sorting out our many differences when words don’t suffice.
Early on in our discussions we examined Paradise Lost and Milton’s examination of free will. Satan chooses to betray God with violent rebellion when he determines that he will never be truly free. He argues over the justification of God’s rule, which ultimately leads to the war between the angels, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. Merritt Hughes sees this as, “Lack of that insight or of that faith can hardly fail to generate resentment against the command as an infringement of the liberty of intelligent beings” (Hughes. Merit in “Paradise Lost.” 5). In this sense, humanity can relate with Satan in many respects, often even more than we relate to God. Satan embodies all of our flaws, our ambitions, and our propensity for violence; while God shows us the righteous path that we must strive for. However, in deciding to make Satan the hero of his epic poem, Milton offers this allegorical tale for life in 16th century Britain, and a society on the path to a violent, ambitious future. God asks that we as humans beg forgiveness for our sins and transgressions in order to avoid conflict; but Satan, like us, refuses to back down from a fight, refuses to be reasonable, and ultimately uses violence to achieve impossible results. Milton argues that humans, like Satan are inherently violent, but also have the capacity for compassion.

Perhaps humanity's violent nature derives from the relationship between the body and the soul, as Andrew Marvell suggests in his aptly titled poem, “Dialogue Between the Body and Soul.” Images of how physical pain can effect emotional wellbeing and complicate rational decisions. Violence and pain constrain the soul from being free, and dictates how one should live their lives. An instrument built to control others, bending them to your will, violence and pain also controls the soul according to Marvell, “A Soul hung up, as 'twere, in Chains / Of Nerves, and Arteries, and Veins. / Tortur'd, besides each other part, / In a vain Head, and double Heart” (Marvell. Dialogue. 7-10). In this section of the poem, the soul anguishes the torture the body puts it through. The body responds, likewise, with violent imagery of a soul possessed, “O who shall me deliver whole, / From bonds of this Tyrannic Soul? / Which, stretcht upright, impales me so, / That mine own Precipice I go” (Dialogue. 11-14). Back and forth, the argument escalates, much in the same way violence escalates, and nothing is truly resolved by the conclusion of the poem. One thing is clear though, violence has an omniscient presence in the body and soul collectively.

International competition meant controlling more land than the next country, and the British Empire used force to become one of the most powerful nations since Rome. Using military force to conquer foreign lands and keep rebellion at bay with threats of repercussions, the British justified violence to become the richest and most powerful country in the world, despite the countless atrocities committed for the sake of fortune. Throughout our class discussions we have examined how authors treated British colonialism. The satire of Jonathan Swift in, Gulliver’s Travels, examines the consequences of using violence for political aims. In the first part of the collection, his voyage to Lilliputia, Gulliver finds himself as a tool of violence against the Lilliputian’s many adversaries. The diminutive Lilliputians take advantage of Gulliver’s enormous size by manipulating him to attack their enemies. Swift examines how the British government has consistently used their superior military power to take advantage of weaker nations around the world, often ordering ordinary British soldiers to commit unspeakable acts as a duty to their “country.” In other sections, Gulliver glorifies the might of the British Empire to the disapproval of others. Swift sees violence as an inevitable way of life, but satirizes its unnecessary use in the ever-expanding British world.

As shown by Gulliver, acts of violence can be much more easily carried out if the person committing the act is commanded to do so. The famous Milgram Experiment shows that many people can be made to commit violent acts with very little coercion. In class, we examined this phenomenon in Robert Browning’s Gothic poem, “My Last Duchess.” In the poem, an aristocrat orders his wife to be killed for being too flirtatious with his many guests, “Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, /Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without /Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; /Then all smiles stopped together” (Browning. My Last Duchess. 43-46). He had a painting made of his wife so that in the future he would be the only one to receive her smile. This fascination with control haunts the Duke and makes him prone to such violence. However, with such great power, it can be relatively easy to order someone else to commit crimes in your stead.

What causes people to arbitrarily commit violent acts without provocation? Roberta Senechal de la Roche examines that, “collective violence is social control: self help by a group. It typically defines and responds to conduct as deviant” (Senechal. Collective Violence. 97). Under this assumption, war can be justified as an attempt to make the world a better place. Kipling would argue otherwise however. In his, “epitaphs,” he questions the reasons so many young men had to die in the trenches of WWI for a cause that no one fully understood, “Body and Spirit I surrendered whole / To harsh Instructors—and received a soul…”(Kipling. The Wonder. 1-2). This poem reflects the curiousness of collective violence, as the narrator submits himself to the war cause knowing he will kill and be killed. Kipling continues his treatment of violence, “I could not look on Death, which being known, / Men led me to him, blindfolded and alone” (Kipling. The Coward. 1-2). The young soldier is almost wrapped up in a trance with the men around him, able to give in to the slaughter around him, becoming apart of the war machine.

The loss of innocence, in Kipling’s “epitaphs,” as well as many of the other works we have studied can give people the ability to turn violent. Alec and Liz looked at the loss of innocence in their presentation of Christina Rossetti’s, “Goblin Market.” In the poem Laura gives in to the calls of the Goblins, who “rape” her and she is never quite the same. With this act, Laura loses the innocence of her youth, an example of the power of violence to change a person both physically, as she loses her hair, and emotionally. With the contrasting images of innocence and violence, Rossetti illustrates their interconnectivity. No one is simply born violent, not even Satan in Paradise Lost, they are made to be that way, as if it is somehow unlocked through societal or emotional pressures.
In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle examines the wide scale degradation of British society. The acceptance of violence as state policy, especially in the context of the British Empire, leads to a crime wave. Is there a criminal type though? Can one simply look at someone and determine whether or not that person is violent? The science behind criminal profiling is controversial to say the least and has had mixed results. Galton’s composite photos make a convincing argument, but throughout the many cases that Sherlock Holmes investigates, we see evidence to the contrary. Anyone has the propensity to commit violence as Holmes cleverly proves time and time again. This compliments my theory that violence is inherent within humanity as a societal problem, not an individualistic one. No amount of criminal punishment, religion, or education will ever change the fact that violence is as eternal as the struggle between right and wrong.
We have spent this semester looking at a variety of works across a vast spectrum of genres in British literature. Each piece has had its specific style and message, but a recurring theme in much of the literature we have studied has been that people cannot be constrained. It’s the cause of Satan’s rebellion, the source of the soul’s argument with the body, the reaction of Gulliver to the Lilliputians, the reason behind the murder of The Last Duchess, the backlash to WWI, basically a societal problem. When people are pushed, they will instinctively push back and violence will inevitably ensue, there is no escaping it. We have studies both the causes, and consequences, but unfortunately there is very little to be learned. The capacity for violence is within us all, and it will always be there. However, we as individuals have the choice to act on our urges to be violent, or we can seek the harder path and find peace.

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