Violence and Brutality

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Violence and Brutality


One of the greatest murderers of the twentieth century, or any century, Josef Stalin, is reported to have said, "One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic." Whether or not Stalin actually spoke these words matters little. What is important is that the words reveal a cold and callous attitude toward death and reflect a willingness to resort to violence and brutality in the pursuit of larger goals. Unfortunately, as human history shows, such an attitude is not unique to Stalin. Desire for military victory, the elimination of political threats, the overthrow of a government, and the achievement of some kind of ideal society are only a few examples of the justifications human beings use in order to eliminate their fellow human beings. Not surprisingly, the theme of violence and brutality has often been explored in literature and forms a crucial aspect in any treatment of war and peace. The lines between the latter two conditions can often become quite blurry, as violence has been used in the name of achieving peace and the harshest forms of physical and psychological brutality used in the name of preventing war. The basic goal of works that explore the themes of violence and brutality generally remains the same, however: to force readers to ask themselves whether the infliction of physical, psychological, and emotional suffering on human beings is ultimately justified. Novels, short stories, and poems that address such topics are often quite difficult and painful to read. However, if the ultimate result of such reading is a greater understanding of harrowing events in the past and in the present, and a desire to see such kinds of actions never again repeated, then here is one case where the ends really do justify the means.


One of the most effective ways to address this theme is to present fictional characters against the backdrop of actual historical events. Arthur Koestler, in his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, states in a short preface that his main character Rubashov "is a synthesis of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author." One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, presents exactly what its title promises: the experiences of one prisoner over the course of a day in a Soviet forced labor camp of the 1950s. The main character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, is fictional, but his experiences are based on Solzhenitsyn's days in Soviet prison camps from 1945 to 1953. The graphic physical details and the intense psychological insight Solzhenitsyn provides are all the more dramatic and effective for being rooted in reality. Dee Brown's epic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is not really fiction but a work of narrative history based primarily on Native American accounts of the conquest of the West, culminating in the 1890 slaughter of the Sioux at Wounded Knee.

Just as powerfully, authors may choose to present characters and events in settings that transcend time and space, or exist in the future, while nevertheless bearing strong similarities to people or experiences that would be familiar to readers. In 1984, George Orwell portrays political activities, social organizations, and leaders that eerily resemble the totalitarian movements of fascism and communism from Orwell's own day, the 1940s. J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians is set in a remote frontier province of a state known simply as the Empire. Details such as styles of dress, weapons, and the nature of communications and transportation would seem to place the time of the novel somewhere in the nineteenth century, but Coetzee's lack of clarity on the matter is both deliberate and effective. By making the setting vague but the brutal techniques of rule, specious justifications for war, and methods of torture and brutality quite familiar, the author forces his readers to consider that such circumstances are, unfortunately, quite common throughout history. They are not limited to one time, one place, or even to the past. Only the names and places change.

It may seem strange, given the gravity of the theme, but authors may also choose to use humor as a way of addressing violence and brutality in human society. A highly influential work of satire, Voltaire's Candide was written in 1759 during the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, which, among its many components and characteristics, fostered the belief in the ability of rational thought and knowledge to improve the lot of mankind. Voltaire, with biting, devastating wit, challenges the ability of knowledge and philosophy alone to right so many wrongs in a world that, far from enjoying the blessings of progress, is just as brutal and bestial as ever. Zakes Mda, in his novel Ways of Dying, portrays the often humorous escapades of a "professional mourner" against the crime-ridden, incredibly violent urban landscape of South Africa. Needless to say, the main character, Toloki, has a lot of work in such conditions. Yet Voltaire and Mda, far from downplaying violence, emphasize its horror by making it so familiar and routine. Indeed, they make it clear that a world in which unspeakable brutality and slaughter are commonplace is much more frightening than the brutality and slaughter themselves.

The Ends Justify the Means: Violence, Brutality, and the State

In Candide, Voltaire puts the matter succinctly as he has an Englishman justify the execution of an admiral: "In this country it is necessary, now and then, to put one admiral to death in order to inspire others to fight." The subject of Darkness at Noon is what became known as the Great Purge. Beginning in 1937, former leaders of the Russian Revolution, which established the rule of the Communist Party in 1917, were arrested, imprisoned, tried, and executed for a host of fabricated political crimes. Anyone who expressed doubts about Stalin's policies could find him- or herself expelled from the party and branded a threat to the Soviet people. In Koestler's novel, the brutal party officer Gletkin makes it quite clear that those who have disagreed with Stalin's vision of the party must be eliminated: "Its tactics were determined by the principle that the end justifies the means—all means, without exception. In the spirit of this principle, the Public Prosecutor will demand your life, Citizen Rubashov." In short, he will be sacrificed for the good of the Revolution and the triumph of communism. The very title of the novel emphasizes this notion of sacrifice, as it is a reference to Gospel accounts that during Christ's crucifixion, the sky darkened at noon.

In 1984, the brutality of the regime of Big Brother is manifested through constant surveillance. The phrase "Big Brother is Watching You" can be interpreted as either protective or menacing, but it is clear that personal freedom of action and thought is not allowed. Like Koestler's Soviet Union, Orwell's Oceania is perfectly willing to destroy the individual for any deviance from what the state defines as the collective good. The novel's main character, Winston Smith, dares to have independent thoughts and is therefore a threat to the party and the regime of Big Brother. However, until late in the novel, Orwell investigates not the specific circumstances of imprisonment and torture but the brutality and psychological violence of everyday life in this future dystopia, or nightmarish ideal world, that he envisions. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of 1984 is the violence done to language, through the systematic elimination of the ability of self-expression. In his capacity as a party official, Winston is working on the latest edition of a dictionary of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania that was gradually replacing English (Oldspeak). As Orwell notes in his explanation of the principles of Newspeak, the language was developed "not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism, the Party of Big Brother], but to make all other modes of thought impossible." Ideas that were contrary to the beliefs of the party would be therefore, quite literally, unthinkable. Orwell was quite familiar with the power of language and its ability to be used and abused in the interests of states to justify their policies. Technological advances in communications, specifically film and radio, made language that much more important as a means of acquiring or solidifying power. In the future, Orwell believed that the all-powerful state's most effective weapons would not be bombs and guns but words, or rather the lack of words, that limited and carefully controlled expression and thought. While Oceania has the all-too-familiar forms of oppression at its disposal—secret police, torture, surveillance—its most brutal quality is its manipulation of language, a tendency that strikes readers as frighteningly familiar now just as much as it did when Orwell wrote his classic novel in 1949.

Oceania is pursuing an ongoing war, scenes of which are broadcast in newsreels and reports about which are trumpeted by party press organs in Newspeak. Yet Orwell leaves his readers wondering if the war is real. His ultimate point is that enemies, real or manufactured, have a purpose. They can unite people toward a common goal and can harness feelings of anger, resentment, and fear. Similarly, in Waiting for the Barbarians, the barbarians are more imagined than real. While they do exist, they are manifested chiefly in the imaginations and nightmares of the frontier settlers:

There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking his plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters.

These fears justify torture of barbarian captives, the wanton cruelty of the Empire's soldiers and officials, and the imprisonment, torture, and humiliation of the Magistrate, the local governor, who dares to doubt the rightness of the Empire's policy. Just as Winston has no solid notions of Oceania's war with Eurasia, so the inhabitants of the frontier settlement are only vaguely familiar with the barbarians, a fact that justifies the brutality of the Empire against both the Barbarians and anyone who questions its policies towards the barbarians. After all, the Empire, like Big Brother and Stalin's Communist Party, is only interested in the welfare of its people.

Who Are the Real Savages?

One of the most potent ways authors can investigate the theme of violence and brutality is to question the difference between a state that pursues brutal methods of torture and the so-called savages the state defines as threats to its vision of civilization. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the reader sees only glimpses of the barbarians, mostly through the depiction of captives that were victims of the Empire's torture. There are plenty of opportunities to see the excesses of violence and brutality against women, children, the elderly, and unarmed, naked prisoners, all perpetrated in the name of defending the civilized Empire from the depredations of the barbarians. It is in fact the temporary but disastrous incursion of the Empire's soldiers and the cold representatives of the Bureau, rather than any imminent invasion of the barbarians, that destroys the tranquility of life in the frontier settlement. The Empire, as it turns out, is much more barbarous in its methods of rule, its use of torture, and its disregard for law and justice than the barbarians, whom the novel portrays as the victims of the steady encroachment of farms and settlements on their pasture and hunting land. American readers of Coetzee's novel can hardly ignore the similarity between the steady expansion of the American frontier in the nineteenth century and the plight of Native Americans.

In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Brown's use of Native American eyewitness accounts of atrocities and broken promises presents the familiar view of manifest destiny from the perspective of those who found themselves in its way. The Indian "savages" emerge as civilized human beings, interested only in protecting their way of life in the face of the white man's aggression. "They made us many promises, more than I can remember," says a Sioux tribesman, "but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it."

In Candide, Voltaire makes the only truly happy people in the world the inhabitants of El Dorado, who are happy not simply because the "yellow dirt" of their land is gold and their streets are paved with precious stones, but because they are perfectly content in their lives. What is interesting about this is that the inhabitants of El Dorado are Indians tucked high in the Andes of Peru. It is in fact the civilized, rational "enlightened" Europeans who consistently butcher, slaughter, plunder, and murder each other in the name of power, religion, and wealth. Voltaire forces his readers to consider their own society by contrasting its cruelty, poverty, and violence with happy Indians living in a remote corner of the world. Even without supplying supposed "savages" as mirrors, the grim realities of physical and psychological torture are often used by authors to emphasize the bogus nature of an oppressive regime's claims to civilization. The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians describes the methods and motivations of the Empire's torturers:

They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.

In Darkness at Noon, Gletkin extracts a confession from Rubashov for crimes he did not commit, thereby legitimizing his execution. When congratulated by his secretary, Gletkin responds: "'That,' he said, with a glance at the lamp, 'plus lack of sleep and physical exhaustion. It is all a matter of constitution.'"

The Banality of Evil

In her study of the trial of the infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann, philosopher Hannah Arendt noted in Eichmann in Jerusalem that what was truly remarkable about Eichmann was that he was not a monster but an ordinary man only following orders, part of a much larger bureaucratic machine. This theme of the banality (the ordinary nature) of brutality, performed not by monsters but by human beings, is often explored in literature precisely because it raises so many troubling questions about the nature of humanity. In "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux," a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, it is a crowd of ordinary men and women in a colonial Massachusetts city who orchestrate and revel in the humiliating tarring and feathering of the governor. In "The Dew Breaker," a grim tale of torture and murder under the Duvalier regime in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat discusses the motives of many who participated in state-sanctioned violence:

Some would rather "disappear" the schoolteachers who'd told them that they had heads like mules and would never learn to read or write. Others wanted to take revenge on the girls who were too self-important, who never smiled when their names were called out or when they were hissed at or whistled at in the street.

Danticat actually tells part of her story from the point of view of the torturer himself, which blurs the line between evil and everyday life even further. In The Tenth Circle of Hell, his memoir of the death camps in Bosnia, Rezak Hukanovic argues that the most frightening thing about the brutality and horror perpetrated in Bosnia was that it was done by neighbors, people who were familiar. It only took a ruthless nationalistic Serbian government to sanction ethnic violence, and age-old hatreds were unleashed. Historians have often noted the willingness of ordinary Germans to kill Jews during the Second World War, but Hukanovic's "hell" took place less than fifteen years ago in the context of ethnic violence that convulsed a disintegrating Yugoslavia. Coetzee's Magistrate contemplates what kind of man the torturer is:

Looking at him, I wonder how he felt the very first time: did he, invited as an apprentice to twist the pincers or turn the screw or whatever it is they do, shudder even a little to know that at that instant he was trespassing into the forbidden?


What motivates ordinary people to commit unspeakable acts? How is brutality justified? What is the value of an individual human life versus the needs, real or imagined, of the state? How much of civilization is based on violence, exploitation, and manipulation of the truth? All of these questions have been addressed and will continue to be addressed in works of literature that explore the role of violence and brutality in human society. By their very nature such works, even those that are humorous, are not intended to be uplifting. Nor, however, are they intended to be affirmations of an unchangeable reality or gloomy visions of a definite future. By making readers think and allowing them to see the world through eyes other than their own, literature continually provides individuals with the opportunity to question their reality and, hopefully, become aware of its problems and consider possible solutions. Even when the horrors of torture and the inhumanity of human beings against their fellow human beings are set within the past or an imagined future, the importance of the theme remains the same. The words of physician Stewart Mercer's poem "The Torture Victim" are poignant both for their simplicity and their immediacy. The victim has been tortured by the Chinese in Tibet, a region where such violations of human rights still take place today:

   He is a young man, blind in one eye
   and I ask, through the nurse, "How can I help?"
   There is a short exchange in Tibetan
   then the diagnosis comes;
   "Torture victim doctor—he was tortured in prison in Tibet."


Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Viking Press, 1970.

Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Henry Holt and Co., 1970, p. 449.

Coetzee, J. M., Waiting for the Barbarians, Penguin Group, 1980, pp. 8, 12, 115.

Danticat, Edwidge, The Dew Breaker, Vintage, 2005, p. 187.

Koestler, Arthur, Darkness at Noon, translated by Daphne Hardy, Macmillan, 1941, pp. 192, 195, 206.

Mercer, Stewart, "The Torture Victim," quoted in World Tibet Network News by the Canada Tibet Committee, (August 24, 2002).

Orwell, George, 1984, Harcourt, Brace, 1949, pp. 298-99.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, translated by Ralph Parker, Dutton, 1963, p. 14.

Voltaire, Candide, translated by Henry Morley, rev. ed., Barnes and Noble, 2003, p. 100.