M.J.E. Hendriks,

Arnhem, Holland




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// - . 7 9 2001 , cc. 164-166.


(two centuries compared)

If one considers the progress the criminal has made over the past centuries in literature, one might wonder if any change has actually taken place. Do such rigorous changes in society that have taken place during the last century actually call for and perhaps validate a new kind of criminal? The answer is twofold, and perhaps less pronounced than one might expect.

Whether dealing with a melodrama, a novel of epic proportions, or a modern-day short story, the criminals, when looked at closely, seem to be very much alike. Murderers, rapists, con-men and petty thieves abound in all. Even the Rambo-like psychos of

modern-day literature, slaughtering dozens before committing suicide have their eminent predecessor in history, and thus in literature, Jack the Ripper. Disregarding the progress this past century has brought us in technology and other advances, one will realize that pickpockets still exist, as did the drug cartels of the late 20th century exist in the shape of organized crime, as in Charles Dickens classic, Oliver Twist.

If one looks at the language the criminal uses in literature, however, then one will see that great changes have taken place. Whereas in the 19th century the criminal used coarse language, sometimes with a heavy rural accent, but nevertheless, speaking correctly and properly, the modern-day criminal seems to have lost all sense of decency. What is the reason for this change?

The following example, from a short story about the convict system by the Australian author Price Warung, How Muster Master Stoneman Earned His Breakfast, written in 1892, clearly illustrates the problem involved and how a witty author of the 19th century dealt with it.

... Convict Glancy, metaphorically goaded by the wordy insults and literally by the bayonet-tip of one of his motherlands reformatory agents to wit, Road-gang Overseer James Jones had scattered J.J.s brains over a good six square yards of metalled roadway. The deed had been rapturously applauded by Glancys fellowgangers, all of whom had the inclination, but lacked the courage, to wield the crowbar that has been the means of erasing this particular tyrants name from the paysheets of His Britannic Majestys Colonial Penal Establishmen.

The convict, and thus the criminal does not get a chance to speak for himself. The articulate narrator speaks for him, using the convicts supposed coarseness to shock the reader, by juxtaposing cynicism on the part of the brutal British convict system with phrases such as reformatory agent with the coarse monstrous language of the criminal, with such phrases as scattered J.J.s brains over a good six square yards of metalled roadway. Thus the author avoids the problem of having to let the criminal speak at all. However, one must, rationally, accept the theory that obscene, maledictory language was as much a part of the criminals life at this time as it is in the 21st century. The author himself admits to this, and again uses it to his own witty devices, describing the convicts language during his convict history.

... e had constantly indulged in maledictions on his fate and on his Maker. He had resolutely cursed the benignant forces with which the System and the Kings Regulations had surrounded him...

How different is the usage of the criminal and his language in modern-day literature. No suppression of any foul or sordid language here. The criminal gets his say and has perhaps attained a more dominant role in literature through this aggressive new stance he can take. When one looks at the following example, from Peace of Mind, a short story about a psycho-killer, a man driven to insanity by society, written by the American author T. Coraghessan Boyle in 1989, one neednt look very hard to spot the shift in style.

It wasnt (...) the two hundred illegals lined up and looking for work on Canoga Avenue at dawn (...), it wasnt that little whore from SecureCo either (thats what she was, a whore, selling her tits and her lips and her ankles and all the rest of it too) or the veiny old hag from Westec or even the self-satisfied, smirking son of a bitch from Metropolitan Life... No, it was Rance Rubys stupid, fat-faced, shit-licking excuse of a kid.

Again, the author does not allow the criminal to speak for himself, but nor does he carefully sidestep the problem of the language used by the criminal. The author allows the narrator to crawl in the skin of the criminal, and finds himself at the zenith of realism, perhaps, in such phrases as Rance Rubys stupid, fat-faced, shit-licking excuse of a kid. Racist language, so dangerous in modern-day society, is clearly acceptable if it serves a purpose. Vulgar and vituperative language has become part of the criminals act in literature.

In conclusion one can say that the major change in the status of the criminal in literature is in his language. His literary muzzle has been removed, and he can speak freely now to the reader, spewing out this vile, horrifying language, true to his nature, true to society. The modern-day author has unleashed a monster, yet simultaneously a truth that should not be suppressed. Ultimately, whether literature has benefited from it or not, only time can tell.

















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criminal in the UK, english literature, Murderers in the UK, Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper in the UK, Oliver Twist