[lit-ideas] Re: Murder in two cultures

  • From: N Miller <nm1921@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 12 Apr 2007 17:29:03 -0400

Robert Paul wrote:

I can't think of any (American) 'serious literature' serious literature in which a killer turns himself in immediately after the act, although I'll bet that there are some mystery/detective novels in which this happens. I'm not sure what this says about the French and American psyches, so I'd be interested to know what Norman's conjecture is, and how it would be confirmed or disconfirmed by finding such examples in American literature.

I'm not certain about Cain but it seems to me that a very large number of literary murders have been revenge killings. Not surprising given the salience of amour-propre (our English 'self-esteem' is too pallid; better would be something close to 'self-obsession'). But if revenge killings go on all the time and all over the place, cultures vary widely in the way they're viewed. I shall limit myself to two dimensions: the emphasis on 'honor', 'dignity', 'face' and the emphasis on personal responsibility. Thus in Benvenuto Cellini's Italy it was absolutely necessary that a perceived slight be punished, but there was no corresponding need to take responsibility ; a shiv between the ribs, even if delivered by hired hands, served to erase the stain. Julien Sorel, on the other hand, emerges as a hero in France precisely because he takes responsibility: his honor means more to him than his life. On the other hand, revenge killings in America are not culturally approved. Yet we know that plenty of them occur in real life and most of us in the US will I think admit to harboring fantasies of vengeance. If revenge killings aren't kosher they won't show up in many novels or films (I'm still checking "Iceman"). But there are other ways of skinning the cat, the Western being a prime example. The bad guy commits one or more outrageous acts, following which there is a ritual duel in which the black hat _always_ draws or shoots first. The good guy kills his enemy in apparent self-defense (culturally approved) and, to underscore that it's really revenge and not simple self-defense, the villain dies a horrible death by falling off a cliff or being burned alive, etc.

That's where I am at the moment.  Comments welcome.

I've been reviewing British lit in my head and so far can think only of _Far From The Madding Crowd_. More examples welcome.

Norman Miller

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