Revenge and Justice

Mary, San Xavier del Bac

It seems I write mostly about revenge. All my characters are exacting some kind of revenge. Or think they are.

Yet I feel ambivalent about it.

Is revenge justice?

It can feel that way. But it’s a retributive justice. A justice that retaliates.

And it always seems to cost something. Mattie, in True Grit, loses an arm. A character in my novel loses his life. And my protagonist emerges at the end as something less than human, unfeeling, remorseless.

So if I can come up with one problem with revenge, it’s that I imagine it’s hard to commit without losing some of that empathy so essential to our humanity. How can a person—once victimized—re-enter the perpetrator-victim dynamic and this time adopt the role of perpetrator? And how can this not jeopardize her sense of shared humanity, of empathy, of compassion?

I understand how this role reversal—from victim to perpetrator—works in fiction and myth and fairy tales. It’s satisfying. Even reassuring. Telling such stories, I can believe that justice (if revenge is justice) is possible and within my own hands. Transformed from powerless to powerful, from object to agent, I can act out my revenge fantasies in fiction. Safe from the negative consequences.

And one of those consequences is that revenge tears the social fabric as violently as the original crime it is meant to obliterate. Blot out.

As if, by snuffing out another life, however badly lived, you can snuff out the consequences of that life. The aftermath of the original crime. The pain of it. And the rage that someone got away with it.

But revenge offers no healing power for society. It is vigilantism. Individualism carried to its extreme. And it is, I believe, inherently destructive.

Because revenge is all about the past and, the avenger imagines, making the perpetrator feel accountable for it.

But this is a fallacy.

Revenge imagines no future and takes none into account. Its obsession with history blinds it to what is and is not possible. Revenge attempts to engage the past, amend it, even compensate for it.

When, as hateful as that past may be, it is already over and done. We have moved past it. Time has pushed us forward, and there is little that can be done about an event behind us.

But if I find revenge so destructive, so full of death for all involved—why write about it?

Of course there’s the wishful thinking of a child’s fairy tale, the desire for an orderly world, a moral one. But there’s something more than that, too.

The imagination is a powerful tool. It reinvents the world, makes it fill whatever size and shape a fiction writer can dream up—

So why write about such darkness? Some of my characters, in the end, redeem themselves. Or try to. They try to accept, a few even to forgive. Others are swallowed up by it.

I guess the easy answer is that you can have no light without darkness, no story without the tension between opposites—nothing good without struggle and resistance and suffering.

And if I am honest, not everyone emerges from that darkness the better for it. As Hemingway famously said, “The world breaks everyone…But those that will not break it kills.”

Gore Vidal said that writers are compulsive “truth-tellers,” and I don’t think I’ll get far as a writer by trying to pretty things up, struggling against my natural self and the truths I want to tell.

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