Women and Violence in American Literature
A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Native Son and Fight Club
The topic of violence is often discussed in relation to the male sex and in many fictional works the male characters are the ones who act in a brutal manner. This is also the case for A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson by Mrs. Rowlandson, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, which will be discussed in the following essay. Nonetheless, women play an important role in all three of those works and have a relationship to violence that shall be explored.
In A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, the topic of violence in relation to women is a very prominent theme, as Mrs. Rowlandson gives an account of how she was taken captive during a Native American attack on Lancaster in February 1675. The kind of brutality described in this text is frontier violence and involves Native Americans as well as English settlers.
The very beginning of the narrative brings disturbance into the domestic, female sphere: Upon sunrise, the Native Americans attack the garrison by burning the houses of the settlers (Rowlandson 236). These houses are the very representatives of civilization and domestication within the wilderness; they are furnished, fortified and provide a certain level of security against attacks. During the raid, however, the inhabitants of the garrison are presented with the choice of burning inside the domestic sphere or leaving this space to face “the Indians gaping before [them] with their guns, spears, and hatchets to devour [them]” (Rowlandson 237). At this point, Mrs. Rowlandson herself is mainly a witness to violence inflicted upon other people, namely her family and her neighbors. She herself does not get injured or killed, but is taken captive along with twenty-three other people.
Mrs. Rowlandson occupies several roles in relation to violence. Throughout the attack and the following time in captivity, she is a witness, but after she is released, she also documents it in the form of her captivity narrative. During her time with the Native Americans, she also becomes a victim. Whenever she does not obey them, they – both, men and women - resort to means of force, which can be seen in examples, such as “when [the Indian] had found me, [he] kicked me all along” (Rowlandson 249) and “my mistress rises up, and takes up a stick big enough to have killed me, and struck at me with it.” (Rowlandson 251) Violence and the threat of future brutality are essential characteristics of the time Mrs. Rowlandson spends in captivity. To a certain extent, the circumstances of hardship also brutalize Mrs. Rowlandson herself: The civilized English settler undergoes a decivilization process which leads her to the act of stealing food from a helpless little child (Rowlandson 255). This does not make her a 'true agent' of violence, but her deterioration throughout the text moves her closer to this role. Nonetheless, her general relationship to violence mainly consists of witnessing, enduring and documenting it.
Similar to Mrs. Rowlandson’s narrative, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son introduces the theme of violence at the very beginning of the text within the domestic sphere. The home of Bigger and his family, which includes his mother, sister and brother, is one single room. Within the first few pages, “the tiny one-room apartment galvanize[s] into violent action” (Wright 34) at the sight of a huge rat. This action consists of the women screaming, shaking, whimpering and hiding from the animal, while the two male family members chase it until Bigger “pound[s] the rat’s head” (Wright 36). Bigger appears in a state of exhilaration caused by the killing and he seems satisfied to finally be a man who can protect the women through his strength. However, the rat can also be seen as a metaphor for Bigger himself, who spends much of the story in fear, and his strength displayed in this scene soon turns against the female sex.
The opening scene already ascribes certain roles to the different sexes in relation to violence. Throughout the book, Bigger is an agent as well as a victim of violence, but the women are exclusively victims. Throughout the story, Bigger kills two women, one of whom he also rapes. One of the reasons for this is that these women, who have the disadvantage of being physically inferior, are people he can hurt, while he cannot attack the circumstances that actually make him miserable. This is very similar to the killing of the rat: The rat is something he can defeat, but he cannot change the living conditions of his family.
The first girl Bigger kills is Mary, the daughter of the white family for whom Bigger works. This killing is an accident, because Bigger and Mary are in her room – her very own domestic space – as she is drunk and he fears discovery (Wright 116-118). Thus, Mary may be seen more as a victim of his fear generated by society than as a victim of his brutality. Whereas Bigger barely knows Mary and does not intend to kill her, he has an intimate relationship with his second victim Bessie and plans her murder in cold blood (Wright 259). Although Bigger does not seem to have much respect for Bessie (e.g. Wright 261), he visits her repeatedly to seek her comfort. She provides him not only with physical intimacy, but also with emotional warmth, calling him “Honey” (Wright 257) and making him hot milk (Wright 257). This emotional comfort is essentially what leads to her downfall: Bigger reveals to her that he has killed Mary, which makes her a confidant whom he has to silence later on. Raping her before murdering her may be a way of seeking the comfort of her body one last time: He wants to “get warmth and sleep and be rid of his tense fatigue” (Wright 264). Throughout the book, Bigger seems to feel more alive with each new act of brutality; he feels empowered and free from impositions. The women’s relationship to violence in Native Son is fairly one-dimensional, since they are passive, helpless victims of male aggression.
In contrast to Native Son, in which women are passive minor characters, Chuck Palahniuk`s Fight Club features a woman called Marla Singer as one of its main characters, next to the unnamed narrator and his alter ego Tyler Durden. It is worth noting that the men who join “Fight Club” are characterized as “a generation of men raised by women” (Palahniuk 50), which suggests that these men lack father figures and fight, quite literally, against an increasing level of domestication associated with femininity. However, women are not only linked to domesticity; they are also connected to violence. There are several female minor characters who witness brutality (e.g. Palahniuk 199-201) or act violently (e.g. Palahniuk 83/84), but due to a lack of space, the following paragraphs will only focus on the main female character Marla Singer.
Throughout the narrative, the narrator states that the encounter with Marla is one of the reasons that first brought about the existence of the narrator’s alter ego: “I know why Tyler had occurred. Tyler loved Marla. From the first night I met her, Tyler or some part of me had needed a way to be with Marla.” (Palahniuk 198) This statement puts her at the very center of everything that happens. Marla’s presence at the support groups, which the narrator visits under false pretenses, disturbs his way of coping with his insomnia (Palahniuk 23) and Tyler Durden seems to emerge as a consequence. Since Tyler is a very violent character, Marla also seems to bring out the brutality of the narrator. During the novel, Marla and Tyler engage in sexual acts that are, at the very least, violent at a verbal level: “[Y]ou can hear Marla and Tyler in his room, calling each other human butt wipe.” (Palahniuk 64) Thus, Fight Club brings (verbal) violence into the domestic sphere of the bedroom, but in a very different way than the other two works: Here, it is mutually agreed upon and wanted by the man as well as by the woman. In fact, Marla seems to need violence in a similar manner as the men in the novel. She engages repeatedly in acts of self-harm, which makes her an agent of violence directed against herself. Among other things, she attempts to commit suicide (Palahniuk 59) and burns the inside of her arm with cigarettes (Palahniuk 65). She does not become a victim of others. Nonetheless, the threat of violence is used by Tyler to blackmail the narrator into doing what Tyler wants him to do: “If you don’t cooperate, we’ll go after Marla.” (Palahniuk 203)
Towards the end of the story, Marla assumes a somewhat different role: She attempts to prevent the narrator from committing suicide and admits that she reciprocates the narrator’s feelings for her (Palahniuk 204/205). When he then awakes in a mental hospital, she is part of his dream of heaven and the memory of her seems to bring him peace (Palahniuk 207). Marla’s role is hence very complex. Tyler Durden emerges at least partly because of her appearance, which makes her a catalyst of violence. Through her habit of self-harm, she is also simultaneously an agent and a victim of brute force. However, she also assumes a more traditional female role by being the object of the narrator’s / Tyler’s love.
While women solely occupy the role of victims in Native Son, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson broadens the spectrum by depicting Mrs. Rowlandson as victim, witness and reporter of brutality. To some extent, she even becomes an agent of force. The captivity narrative also features violent women in the form of Native Americans. Fight Club goes a step further and presents female minor characters as well as the main character Marla as women with a highly complex relation to violence: Marla is catalyst, agent and victim – but in contrast to the women in the other two texts, she is the victim of self-abuse. The interdependence of women, violence and the domestic sphere is thus displayed differently in each of the three works, but there are several overlaps and it is an important aspect in all of them.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Norton, 2005.
Rowlandson, Mary. “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” In: Nina Baym, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Seventh Edition. New York: Norton, 2007.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. London: Vintage Classics, 2009.
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- Women Violence Women and Violence A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson Mary Rowlandson Native Son Richard Wright Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk American Literature American Violence