Domestic Violence in Literature

Novels featuring abusive men are painful to get through, but there is something to be said for reading them.

When treated fictionally, one sees the horrible abuse problem on a visceral, dramatic level — whether the problem is physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, or all three. We might see why it happens (though there’s never a legitimate excuse), how the victim is affected, whether the legal system gets involved, and more. And if the abuser gets his comeuppance, that can be very satisfying.

Heck, fictional abusers get that comeuppance more often than real-life abusers (though not always). After all, some novels are partly vehicles for wish fulfillment.

This is a topic I have some personal experience with, given that my late father unfortunately was often verbally abusive and sometimes physically abusive. So I bring those memories into the reading of certain novels, as do many other people with their own painful memories.

Last week I finished Amanda Moores’ Dream Palace, and central to that 1994 novel is a young woman who becomes infatuated with a macho, handsome, charismatic diver (when he works). Though the warning signs of abuse are there (as is often the case) and Laurie barely knows Jim, she impulsively agrees to his offer of marriage.

Then the verbal harassment and physical blows begin, along with ultra-controlling behavior. How the initially meek Laurie finds some backbone to deal with all that is a major focus of the eloquently written book by Ms. Moores, who happens to be the wife of this blog’s regular commenter jhNY.

(Some of you may recall a 2015 post in which I discussed Ms. Moores’ later fictional work, the emotionally riveting Grail Nights, which focuses on a New Orleans bartender named Sheila who has a small role in Dream Palace.)

Another compelling novel featuring domestic violence is Stephen King’s Rose Madder — in which low-life abuser Norman is scarily a police officer. The oft-beaten Rose Daniels escapes the house and boards a bus to a new place — after which husband Norman seeks her out. Will Rose fight back? You’ll see if she does as the novel turns into a mix of realism and the supernatural.

The Jack Reacher character is a human fighting machine but also feminist in his way, so it’s no surprise that some of Lee Child’s novels — including Echo Burning and Worth Dying For — include vile abusive men who draw Reacher’s wrath. Readers will cheer when Jack socks the (rich) abuser in the latter book.

Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizen stars Adah, who maintains her ambition and resilience despite various obstacles that include being physically abused by a husband who also cheats on her.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie is abused by her father — a parental outrage that probably also happens to the Mayella character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

And Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale — now a TV phenomenon — is of course about domestic violence writ large as women are denied their rights and the fertile ones are forced to bear children.

Here’s a list of many other fiction books that apparently contain domestic-violence content.

What are the some of the most memorable novels you’ve read on this topic?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be bought here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which has a Harry Potter theme! — is here.

Fictional Characters Who Treat Women As Badly As Donald Trump Does

I wish Donald Trump were fictional, but, alas, he’s real. Yet the Republican presidential candidate does remind me of literature’s sexist louts who emotionally and/or physically abuse women. Some of the men are rich and some not so rich, but all possess a high quotient of creepiness.

And those fictional characters are painful to read about, until they get their satisfying comeuppance. Perhaps it’s revenge at the hands of people they hurt, or perhaps they die young. But sometimes the jerks of literature continue to thrive, which is frustrating but also realistic. As realistic as Donald Trump, who — though destined to probably lose next month’s election — has mostly lived a charmed life despite being awful and amoral.

So many examples of repulsively sexist guys in fiction, but I’ll discuss just a few.

For instance, the father in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a disgusting human being who treats women (and many a man) like garbage. His first name is Fyodor, but thankfully he’s not an autobiographical version of Dostoyevsky.

Also in 19th-century literature, we have Heathcliff (who, in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, deeply loves Catherine Earnshaw but is cruel to various other women in his life); Edward Casaubon (who’s condescending and contemptuous toward his young wife Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch); Gilbert Osmond (the loathsome, unloving husband of the appealing Isabel Archer in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady); Roger Chillingworth (the vengeful, lost-then-reappears husband of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter); and Sir Percival Glyde (the nasty schemer in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White who, under the direction of the more powerful Count Fosco, takes part in an ugly scheme whose victims include Glyde’s wife Laura Fairlie).

In post-1900 literature, we have these repellent men — among many others — guilty of domestic violence against their wives: police officer Norman Daniels of Stephen King’s Rose Madder; company heir Seth Duncan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel Worth Dying For, and Frank Bennett of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Two of Janie Crawford’s husbands (Joe Starks and Tea Cake) in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God are guilty of physically hurting Janie, though Tea Cake has a decent side, too. Still, there’s never a legitimate reason for a man to attack a woman.

More lowlifes: Slave owner Rufus Weylin, who is unspeakably cruel to slave Alice Greenwood in Octavia Butler’s Kindred; the vile Alphonso, who beats and rapes his daughter Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; racist town drunk Bob Ewell, who abuses his daughter in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Esteban Trueba, who rapes a number of peasant women living on the land he owns in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits; and all the rotten males who treat women as nothing but breeding machines in the patriarchal dystopia depicted in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Monstrous actions all.

Do you have other examples of odious, sexist men of fiction? With a slight variation on “trump cards,” we could call them “Trump cads.”

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.