Some narrators never allow the reader to know whether a violence actually took place or not. When done well, the actuality of one violence is subtextual to the primary violence delivered through mental and emotional abuse. Violence then becomes both contextual and subtextual within the narrative. Alice Munro‘s “Runaway,” the first short story in her acclaimed collection of the same title is a master example of violence as subtext:
from “Runaway” (2006) by Alice Munro
She had only to raise her eyes, she had only to look in one direction, to know where she might go. An evening walk, once her chores for the day were finished. To the edge of the woods, and the bare tree where the buzzards had held their party.
And then the little dirty bones in the grass. The skull with perhaps some shreds of bloodied skin clinging to it. A skull that she could hold like a teacup in one hand. Knowledge in one hand.
Or perhaps not. Nothing there.
Other things could have happened. He could have chased Flora away. Or tied her in the back of the truck and driven some distance and set her loose. Taken her back to the place they’d got her from. Not to have her around, reminding them.
She might be free.
The days passed and Carla didn’t go near that place. She held out against the temptation. (45)
In the above excerpt, the narrator, Carla, holds this question in her mind after struggling with the loss of her precious goat, Flora. She suspects Flora of running away for much of the manuscript, a parallel to her own running away. In the end, Carla suspects her husband has killed Flora just as he has killed much of her, both pet and narrator held within this sort of invisible cage, though both had opportunities to escape. Let’s take a look at Munro’s master scene:
- FOUNDATION: Earlier in the novel, the narrator shares her husband’s control, abuse and percolating violence. She must step gingerly around him. When Flora, her beloved pet goat, goes missing, the reader suspects the husband, even if Carla is not yet willing to allow herself to suspect him.
- FOILED ESCAPE: Throughout the narrative, a neighbor offers to help Carla escape her controlling and emotionally abusive husband. Carla returns to him like a pet.
- EMPATHETIC JUDGEMENT: The neighbor and reader can’t help but judge Carla for her choices, staying with her abuser, though there is empathy within the judgement.
- SUSPENSE: Munro does not allow the reader a cathartic release of suspense at the end of the narrative. Carla remains in her abusive relationship and this stays with the reader the same way that it stays with any family member or friend of a person in an abusive relationship.
Writing Exercise: Subtextual Violence
Choose a character and scene from a narrative on which you are currently working. Open a separate document and copy paste the scene into this new document so that you keep your original words. Explore the violent scene creating subtextual violence as a landscape to overt violences committed, such as in Munro’s “Runaway.”
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her fiction, prose-poetry and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.
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