Literature has always served as a mirror of society, projecting its virtues and reflecting the ills that plague it. ‘A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance. – Dario Fo.’ Violence against women as depicted in Literature, the idea is a complex phenomenon which takes on a range of colors. Here are but a few examples.
In the Greco-Roman stories, women were perceived to be more sexual objects than individuals. In Livy’s account of the rape of Lucretia, a free woman, accepts the ordeal of rape as Sextus threatens her with disgrace, saying that he would kill her and lay his dead slave naked besides her, justifying her murder as that of an adulteress. Hesione, the Princess of Troy, was offered as a virgin sacrifice by her own father to the sea monster to allay the wrath of Posiedon. Imagine a prepubescent girl tied to rocks with violent waves crashing around, the fear of being devoured by a sea monster paralyzing her, as she awaits her doom. What it brings to mind is filial apathy at its worst.
Medieval Literature influenced by the distortion of Judeo-Christian teachings finds the female stereotyped as either saints who rejected their sexuality or as the very personifications of temptation that was Eve. The need to repress women as their unruly character leads to the downfall of men, is found in the portrayal of the women characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. From the destruction of the Amazons, to the attempted branding of Alison with a ‘red hot poker,’ to the caricature of The Wife of Bath representing all that is undesirable in a woman. ‘Born to thralldom and penance, and to been under mannes govern.’ Custanse resigns herself to her fate, in spite of being an Emperors’ daughter. Violent acts by husbands on wives was fairly common and women were considered ‘property’ of their husbands. Because they were ‘thralls’ subjugated to their husbands to direct, the female protagonists of Chaucer are representative of the lot of women in the 14th Century which was not only patriarchal but also severely misogynist.
It was true that violence visited against women in the Elizabethan age was also a normal occurrence. In Shakespeare’s time, a man had the right to treat his wife as he saw fit. A woman was something that belonged to her father and then her husband. In Othello, Desdemona’s death scene sends chills down ones spine, our tragic ‘hero’ would ‘not shed her blood’ nor would he ‘scar’ her beauty yet he would kill her ‘else she will betray more men.’ The word of the dead Cassio and the liar Iago weighed against her every utterance, begging for understanding from the man she loves. Her desperate attempts to be spared long enough to ‘say one last prayer’ prove futile.
In 1828 the Offenses Against the Person Act in England, helped to bring amongst others the issues of abuse of women out from the home into the public arena. Even though Victorian Society did not appreciate this ‘airing of dirty laundry’ many writings of the time were greatly influenced. Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s works Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, used violence as a component in drawing attention to the subtler pattern of cruelty present in the household. Victorian novels openly illustrated the offensive behavior of men due to their own misapprehensions about the women that they intimidated, threatened and eventually killed. The description of Syke’s murder of Nancy in Dicken’s Oliver Twist has always shocked readers. He ruthlessly bludgeons her to death and even after, that it is based on one of the most infamous murders of the Victorian age expounds the horror.
Over the last 150 years authors both male and female have written about the role of women in society and the feminist movement has brought to the forefront the issues of violence in the lives of everyday women. Margaret Atwood in ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale’ explores a dreadful futuristic world under theocracy. Nobokov’s ‘Lolita’ a controversial first person narrative of a middle aged man’s sexual relationship with his twelve year old step-daughter. Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ shocks us with rape, incest, homosexuality, racism at its worst. Khaled Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ follows the lives of two women whose fates intersect under one of the most regressive regimes in the modern world and how domestic violence affects them both. ‘Pinjar’ by Amrita Pritam is one of the most helpless portrayal of a Hindu woman kidnapped by a Muslim man to feed fat an ancient family grudge. What makes the tale more poignant is that when she does manage to escape she has nowhere to go, but back to him as her own flesh and blood turn her away. Overlooking violence against women is not realistic, literature proves time and again that it is intrinsic to the very fabric of any society in any time.