Revenge in Literature and Life

9 Feb

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Or so the old Italian proverb has it. If John Webster is to be believed, it’s a subject about which the Italians know a thing or two (‘John Webster was one of the best there was/He was the author of two major tragedies’ – answers on a virtual postcard if you recognise the quotation). In his beautiful and brutal revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, Webster explored the outer reaches of the phenomenon.

I was thinking about revenge as a result of a recent encounter. Looking through the entertainment listings, I saw that the music critic from the local paper in the town in which I grew up was playing with his band in a pub in the town where I live now. I recalled that he had a blues-style band back then and given his unusual surname, I was pretty sure it would be him. This critic was never particularly complimentary about my band’s recordings or performances (probably with reason, I can see now). So I couldn’t resist dropping by to take a look. I found the band members sitting on a couch before the performance. I asked them where the singer was. They told me that he was ill and that they’d be performing without him. We got talking. I mentioned that he used to be the music critic on the local paper. ‘Ah,’ one of them asked, ‘have you come to have words with him about a bad review?’ I replied that I had and to tell him that I’d be catching up with him. I was joking, of course, but there’s definitely a short story to be written in there…

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Revenge serves no purpose

The passage of time actually reveals the pointlessness of revenge. It’s very closely allied to hatred. I’ve tasted that dish occasionally in my life. It’s acrid. Its effects slowly poison the system. Ismail Kadare wrote powerfully about the corrosive effects of revenge in Broken April, his tale of blood feuds in Albania. Kadare’s masterpiece investigates its self-perpetuating nature where it occurs among families. And as we’ve seen between ethnic groups in Rwanda and Bosnia, hatred and revenge need no one to serve them up. They feed upon themselves. Not for nothing was Salvador Dali’s greatest painting of the 1930s – an allegorical representation of the Spanish Civil War – given the title Autumnal Cannibalism, itself a play on the term ‘autocannibalism’.

Revenge has a strong attraction for the writer, generally between the pages rather than beyond them. My friend, Mari Biella has just published her excellent story collection, Loving Imogen and I don’t think it’s any kind of plot spoiler to mention that revenge plays its part in the main story. Mari will be appearing soon on this blog to discuss her collection. It’ll be interesting to hear her take on the issue. In The Book that Jack Wrote by another writer friend, J Huw Evans, a particularly grisly revenge plays its part in the novel’s denouement.  And I explored its role in the carpet bombing of the German cities in my yet to be published war novel – there’s even a chapter called Revenge Against Fatherland.

Revenge is, it seems to me, a dish best prepared in imagination but never actually cooked up or served. In fiction, it provides a great plot driver and sets up narrative tension. In the real world, no good ever comes of it. I’ve contemplated it from time to time. It’s tied up with regret, the desire to change the past. Backward-looking and self-defeating, it’s the most negative of motivations. We inhabit the present and that’s the only place where change can be effective.

All text and images © PSR 2014

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8 Responses to “Revenge in Literature and Life”

  1. Mari Biella February 9, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    Great post, Paul. Italians do indeed know a thing or two about revenge – there’s a reason why “vendetta” has entered into the English language. And thanks for the mention!

    I agree with you that vengefulness usually just ends up poisoning whoever harbours it; certainly in my novella the protagonist becomes a lesser person because of it. But I think it’s also a pretty basic and primal urge, virtually irresistible on occasion, and therefore very likely to be a motivating force for characters. It’s very useful for driving a story forward.

    And there is definitely a short story to be written about a confrontation with the mean music critic!

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves February 9, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks very much for your comments.

    Ah, yes, vendetta, of course – I’d been thinking about the Mafia but I hadn’t made that connection. And then, of course, there’s the Montagues and the Capulets. I think you must be right – the desire for revenge is instinctive. As with the majority of our primitive urges, though, it needs to be resisted. As some wise man or woman commented, moving on is the best revenge, showing the perpetrator of the slight that his or her action was of little consequence.

  3. Robyn LaRue February 9, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    The version of “moving on” that my father gave me after an event in my early 20s was “the best revenge is to live well without regard for the one who hurt you.” At the time, I thought “sure, whatever,” but he was right. By moving on and developing a happy life, I got all the revenge I could have desired, and was able to respond with compassion rather than judgement. 🙂

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves February 10, 2014 at 6:52 am #

    Hi Robyn and thanks for your comments. Yes, ‘living well’ is one version of the adage. It is hard to see at the time, but rising above is generally the best strategy. I’m glad to hear that your story ended well!

  5. PK Read February 10, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    I’ve never taken action on any of my revenge imaginings, and the passing years have indeed taught me that wasting time on hatred can indeed amount to a life wasted.

    Sloughing off anger and vindictiveness in favor of living well has the side effect of offering one of the best forms of revenge possible against those who have wronged us: utter indifference.
    And the best part is, if and when it’s ever served, indifference is always cold and costs us nothing.

  6. Paul Sutton Reeves February 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    Hi Paula and thanks for your comments.

    You’re absolutely right – anger is a waste of energy that could better be used elsewhere. Overcoming our baser instincts may ultimately be what it means to be human.

  7. masgautsen February 11, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    Great post. This is so very true about revenge!

  8. Paul Sutton Reeves February 11, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

    Hi Maja and thanks for your kind comments.

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