Perpetrators and Perpetration in Literature

Authored by: Stephanie Bird

The Routledge International Handbook of Perpetrator Studies

Print publication date:  November  2019
Online publication date:  October  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138103245
eBook ISBN: 9781315102887
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter analyzes the distinct contribution that literary representations of perpetrators make to our understanding of individuals’ involvement in collective violence, with examples drawn from different national and historical contexts. It resists the ethical unease often elicited by such representations, arguing that fiction belongs to the world of play and can articulate multiple perspectives, imagine contradictions, and convey unresolved emotions and motivations. The chapter analyzes Imre Kertész’s exploration of the steps into perpetration and his notion of “accurate portrayal.” It then traces representations of extreme perpetrators and those who believe their violence is in the service of the common good, arguing that the degree to which violence is depicted in texts directly molds the reader’s willingness to empathize. It also considers novels that explore how “good people” may become complicit in perpetration. It analyzes how novels’ formal qualities are a means by which literature reflects upon its own modes of representation and ways in which the figure of the perpetrator is mediated and what cultural expectations such mediation might serve. The chapter concludes by suggesting that fictional representations challenge certainty and norms, inviting readers to consider their own pleasure in reading about the perpetration of violence.

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