The depiction of violence in some form (cultural, political, physical, psychological, etc.) is a central preoccupation of many works of literature. In at least two of the works you have studied discuss how violence is depicted and explore its significance.
One of the works studied is “Ariel” by American poetess Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), it is one of her most famous poetry collections which was written during the final years of her life. It was published posthumously in 1965 by her British husband Ted Hughes who altered and modified her original manuscript that started with the word “love” moved through poems of birth, death and regeneration, and ended on the word “spring” suggesting the rediscovery of hope. He decided to alter this order by removing a few poems and adding new ones with a darker theme, changing the sequence from rebirth to self-destruction.
Plath was a postwar poet who discussed a variety of themes throughout her work, the most prominent of these are her own mental anguish, her troubled marriage to fellow poet Hughes, her unresolved conflicts with her parents, and her own vision of herself. In particular, the death of her father had a profound impact on her life. Throughout her works Plath also addresses the role a woman played in 1950s society. Violence is also a common manifested theme in her works.
She was labelled as a confessional poet as she was inspired by Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton among others, characterised by the use of the authors own experiences of life as their main theme of inspiration.
Plath’s mental state drove her to suicide on the 11th of February of 1963 by intoxicating herself with gas, whilst her children were still in the house.
Having written Ariel while she was driving herself to suicide, the depiction of violence is a central preoccupation in her work.
On the other hand, ‘Things Fall Apart’ is a novel written by Chinua Achebe born in Ogidi, Nigeria in 1930, belonging to ‘The African Trilogy’. ‘Things Fall Apart’ narrates the story of a forceful man, Okonkwo, during the 1890s, right before the colonisation of Nigeria by the British.
It pertains to postcolonial literature. The work is different from other postcolonial works as it directly confronts Eurocentric representations of African history whilst narrating the story of Nigeria being colonised from the perspective of the oppressed, in this case the Igbo tribe, rather than the oppressor, the British missionaries. Achebe became interested in the matter when he entered the University College of Ibadan which then offered him a scholarship to study medicine in the University of London, where he decided to switch to Literature and graduated in 1953. There, Achebe was introduced to the mainstream of the English novel, where he carefully analysed the masterpieces of Joseph Conrad. He was awakened to express ideas of his own, eager to write about Africa from the inside, in contrast to European writers who had written about Africa from the outside. He decided to write the novel in English, with a very precise diction in order to be perceived by a greater audience. Another potential influence for ‘Things Fall Apart’ stemmed from his attendance at Church Missionary Society’s village school where he started to learn English at the age of eight.
The author makes the novel as authentic as possible, keeping the consistent perspective of the Igbo tribe and referring to their language throughout the book. Achebe’s first novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ illustrates the conflicts arising with the arrival of the Europeans and recounts the events that took place during the time of his grandfather. The novel was an instant success, in spite of having been published during the occupation of the British. Other novels published by Achebe are ‘No Longer At Ease’ ‘Arrow of God’ and ‘A Man of the People’.
Violence appears in many forms throughout the novel due to a number of factors including the fiery temper of the main character, Okonkwo, the importance given to war in Igbo society and lastly the intrusion of the missionaries.
In ‘Things Fall Apart’ political violence is depicted in the form of colonisation and in the conflict amongst different tribes. The arrival of British missionaries in Nigeria ultimately meant the destruction of the native culture and peace and harmony amongst the clan members, “He has put a knife on things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” This extract makes explains how, according to Okonkwo, different cultures are not able to live side by side. Another form of political violence that is manifested in the novel is the conflicts between tribes and the role that Okonkwo played in these. “In Umofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head.” In the Igbo culture war was of the greatest importance. Intelligibly, political violence is depicted in order to comment on society at the time. Similarly, Sylvia Plath is known for her confessional poetry where political violence is a reoccurring theme.
In the poem ‘Cut’ Plath describes the process of having accidentally cut off her thumb while slicing an onion. The poem can be understood as a political allusion to the Cuban Missile Crisis as it was written at that time period of intense negotiation that lasted thirteen days (16th-28th of October 1962) concerning American ballistic missile deployment in Italy and Turkey with consequent Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba. “Except for a sort of a hinge” The “hinge” could be a response to a world on the verge of being consumed by potential destruction, and how she was unsure of how to process it. Plath wrote this poem during a short period of time when there was a very high possibility of nuclear war, which was of great importance to her as she participated in a political march condemning weapons of mass depiction.
In the poem there are several references to violent political and historical events of American history. The American revolution is mentioned in the line “Redcoats, every one.” Plath introduced this precise historical event as it is an ongoing metaphor of a battle between two armies. This may relate to her ongoing fight between her and her depression or the conflict between her and her husband Ted Hughes. Also, of her process to admitting her mental illness and instability, similarly to when the British recognised the United States as a nation in 1783. Plath also alludes to the Second World War in the line “Kamikaze man”. These men were members of the Japanese airforce that would use their planes as missiles against the enemies when they ran out of bullets. Plath may have introduced this term as kamikazes were selected and destined to ‘sacrifice’ themselves, just as she feels that her destiny is to terminate her life. American Indians and pilgrims are mentioned in the following lines “Little pilgrim, – The Indian’s axed your scalp.” Pilgrims were beheaded in England for being catholic and fled to America. Similarly, Plath may feel that her only escape is suicide. In addition, the racial group, Ku Klux Klan, is touched upon in the poem. “The stain on your – Gauze Ku Klux Klan” Plath included this reference as the hat worn by the klan members is similar to the gauze bandage that is on her injured finger. The stain refers to the blood that the KKK has shed. Finally, Plath refers to the Cold War (1947-1991) in the Russian word for grandmother “Babushka”. Plath included this reference in order to describe how she tied her the gauze, as old Russian ladies tied their headscarves under their chin. As we can see, physical and political violence is depicted in the poem in order to comment on society at the time. Similarly, in ‘Things Fall Apart’ these types of violence are also present throughout the novel.
Throughout the other work studied, ‘Things Fall Apart’ physical violence is depicted. The main character Okonkow is portrayed to have a violent behaviour as it is stated in his initial description “He was a man of action, a man of war”. Nigerian tribesmen were known for being renowned warriors and the fact that Okonkow is presented as a ‘man of war’ emphasises his brutal personality. The violent outbursts are present throughout the novel, Okonkow provoking all of these “whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists”. These violent outbursts ultimately meant Okonkwo loosing his oldest son, “Okonkwo did not answer. But he left hold of Nwoye, who walked away and never returned” and was ultimately what drove Okonkwo to suicide when he inadvertently beheaded the messenger. In the Igbo tribe violence is perceived by many, especially to the main character Okonkwo, as equivalent to power. Thus, Achebe by the inclusion of violence in his literary work depicts a strong idea of culture where violence has a very strong amongst the characters, tribes and communities.
Both cultural and physical violence are manifested in the customs that the Igbo people have, such as the disposal of twins when born or Ikemefuna’s death. This type of cultural violence is also displayed in the way that Okonkwo treats his wives. “Okonkwo ruled his house with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear.” This fear can also be perceived as psychological violence. During the week of peace also known as the sacred week or nso-ani where violence is not allowed, Okonkwo beats his youngest wife for having left the hut without cooking dinner. This act was heavily criticised by the clan as it went against the Earth Godess Ani and Okonkwo was punished for doing so. Later on, during the ‘New Yam Festival’ Okonkwo beats his second wife Ekwefi for removing leaves from a banana tree. These beatings were considered normal by the Igbo’s as there were very strict gender roles. For example, planting yam crops were reserved solely for men “Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop.” Or, when Enzima offered to carry Okonkwo’s chair for the wrestling mach he replied “No, that is a boy’s job.” The poetess, Sylvia Plath, also addressed gender roles as she was often criticised for being a working mother.
In “The Applicant” we can see how violence is not always explicit and physical, but can also exemplify the violation of rights, as it was done to women in the 1950s. In the poem women are presented as commodities and men as consumers, tackling the theme of marriage. The speaker presents a scenario where a woman is applying for a job as a wife, whilst a man is applying for a job as a husband.
The role of a wife is discussed throughout the poem, “To fill it and willing — to bring teacups and roll away headaches — and do whatever you tell it”. In this line and throughout Plath refers to women as “it” as well as “living dolls” in the penultimate stanza, portraying women as merely inanimate objects or commodities that are to be consumed by men, therefore with a sense of inferiority. Similarly, in ‘Things Fall Apart’ men were seen as powerful for the number of wives that they had, presenting these as objects or collectables.
Plath employs several repetitions throughout the poem, such as “It can talk, talk, talk” where the speaker is trying to commercialise the product, wives, to the consumer. Similarly, in the line “Will you marry it, marry it, marry it” Plath employs a repetition in order to pressurise the buyer, men, to purchase the commodity. Other stylistic features employed are the usage of morbid imagery in the line “To thumb shut your eyes at the end — and dissolve of sorrow” in order to define how marriage is a permanent contract.
The role of men in society is also defined in the fifth stanza. A suit, being a symbol of manhood is depicted as “waterproof, shatterproof, proof — Against fire and bombs through the roof” meaning that the role of a man is to protect their wife, also making reference to WWII and the violent part that American men played in it. In post-war American society, women were forced into believing that they needed a husband in order to live. In this line the speaker uses a rhyme in order to sell and emphasise how good the product is.
Lastly, in the line “My boy, it’s your last resort.” The speaker informs the man that as much as a woman needs a husband, a man also needs a wife. Plath’s final decade was the 1960s, a time where women started breaking the social boundaries set by society. Throughout her work we can see the theme of feminism and women struggling discussed. Also the struggle she faced and the pressure that she endured from society, for being a working woman.
Sylvia Plath also felt as if she were stuck in her husbands shadow simply because of her gender. She famously expressed this thought in her journal “He is a genius. I his wife” Plath and Hughes marriage collapsed when Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. As we can see cultural violence is depicted in both of the works studied. Due to the order of poems that were altered by Hughes in Ariel we can clearly observe the evolution from rebirth to self-destruction. The theme of rebirth is discussed thoroughly in the poem “Lady Lazarus” where the speaker describes the process of rebirth after undergoing a suicide attempt.
In the poem “Lady Lazarus” psychological violence is depicted as the speaker openly discusses the theme of suicide. The speaker, Lady Lazarus, alludes to suicide in many occasions such as “Dying — Is like an art, like everything else — And I do it exceptionally well”. This allusion is repeated with the simile “And like a cat I have nine times to die — This is number three.” Plath makes reference to the old wives tale that cat have nine lives and she, having survived three suicide attempts and has six to go. We can discern that the speaker and Plath possess striking similarities. In the line “The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?” The speaker employs disturbing imagery to describe a person who rises from the dead, whilst dehumanising herself. There is an enjambment present at the beginning of the poem in the lines “A sort of walking miracle, my skin — Bright as a Nazi lampshade” in order to divide the thought of the speaker’s skin with the disturbing image casted upon the simile of the ‘Nazi lampshade’ as these were made with the remains of Jewish victims. As we can see, in the poem Plath touches upon her recurring theme of the holocaust. In the lines “My face a featureless, fine — Jew linen” the speaker victimises herself as she identifies herself with the jewish victims of WWII. Physical violence is depicted in the line “So, so, Herr Doktor” where Plath references the lethal experiments that were performed on jews by nazi doctors. This is theme is touched upon once again in the following stanza “A cake of soap, — A wedding ring, — A gold filling” Plath employs ghoulish imagery as soap was made from the victims fat, the speaker also acknowledges the victims valuables that removed from jews. There is an antithesis present in the line “Herr God, Herr Lucifer” where the speaker addresses the doctor that she considers both God and the Devil, who seem to have power over her. In Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’ this psychological violence is also dealt with as Plath grieves her fathers death.
In the poem ‘Daddy’ Plath deals with her father’s death in a cathartic manner. The tittle itself ‘Daddy’ sounds like a child’s voice, due to the fact that Plath’s father, Otto Plath, perished when she was ten years old. In the line “Daddy, I have had to kill you.” The speaker implicitly refers to killing her father as forgetting him. The speaker discusses her initial thoughts of her father “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God” portraying her father as God. Later on, she experiences a change of heart “Not God but a swastika” as she now considers her father as a Nazi instead of God. Just like in ‘Lady Lazarus’ the speaker identifies herself with the victims of the holocaust “I may be a bit of a Jew.” Plath does this in order to victimise herself and create a direct conflict between her father, the nazi, and the personae, the jew. In the lines “At twenty I tried to die — And get back, back, back to you.” Plath alludes to suicide as she believed that it would bring her closer to her father that she did not know “I never could talk to you”. Plath may have felt a great distance with her father as she was not allowed to attend her father’s funeral. A potential reason for Plath writing this poem is to achieve closure. As we can see, psychological violence can be perceived in Ariel as it is a central preoccupation in the work, as it was written while the poetess, Sylvia Plath, was driving herself to suicide.
In conclusion, in spite of the differences that the works studied possess the depiction of different types of violence is a central preoccupation in both compositions, as both of them result with the same ending: suicide. In Ariel violence is present as the thoughts that Sylvia Plath had during her final years were manifested in the collaboration of poems. Similarly, in ‘Things Fall Apart’ both the invasion of the British and the authenticity that Achebe wanted to maintain while portraying the Igbo society entailed the depiction violence as a central preoccupation.