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Literature and Crime - The Human Condition

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Crime in literature helps us better understand crime in life. "A crime is, in the first instance, a defect in the reasoning powers," wrote Balzac in Cousin Bette, and that mid-nineteenth century literary insight is both piercing and fruitful (Honore de Balzac, Cousin Bette 422 (James Waring, trans. Everyman's Library, 1991)). Much of crime can be explained by Balzac's theory—by reason losing control—with a few illustrations drawn from the vast body of crime literature.

Many crimes, for instance, are the result of sexual passion, where sound rational judgment flees, as demonstrated by Baron Hulot's exploits in Cousin Bette, Claude Frollo's in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hester Prynne's in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Closely related to crimes of sexual passion are crimes of irrational jealousy, such as Othello's murder of Desdemona and the murder in Somerset Maugham's short story "The Letter." Then we have crimes of revenge—for matters of pride or harm to friend or relative—that are reflected in a genre actually called revenge literature, exemplified by Hamlet and The Oresteia. Desire for money or what money can buy is another major cause of crime, whether resulting from poverty, hunger (Dickens, Hugo), or blind avarice (Balzac's Eugénie Grandet).

Other assaults on rationality that can cause crime are extreme political, social, or religious causes, and an inordinate need for power. Consider Shakespeare's various kings and warriors and All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Ambition led Julian Sorel to murder in The Red and the Black by Stendhal. Then of course there is the sociopath or the insane person, whose mind is so defective, either temporarily or permanently, that he or she commits crime. We ought not to forget the temperamentally violent or the retarded who for those reasons commit crime, however unwittingly, like Lenny in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. In short, crime literature has much of value to teach lawyers, judges, the police, criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists.

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almost 11 years ago

Thank you, this is great help

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over 11 years ago

Brilliant stuff. Absolutely amazing insights. Youve been a great help.