Textbook examples of character assassination

Crime in Literature
April 15, 2005

This book explores the analogy between crime as depicted by fiction and crime in real life. Vincenzo Ruggiero, a sociology professor, focuses on novels in which the authors make reference to criminal activities from which, he says, sociologists and criminologists may draw significant conclusions.

The reader is submerged in the treacle of sociological jargon.

The author writes, for example, that "while closed texts have a hermeneutic truth in them and may teach us a sense of reality and destiny, hypertexts can be changed and rewritten by readers, as they teach us creativity and freedom". Does this advance the reader's literary or sociological appreciation of Julien Sorel's motive for murdering Madame de Renal?

Ruggiero kicks off with "Atavism and conflict", on the nature of political violence. In Dostoevsky's The Devils , violence is said to be associated with moral insanity and epilepsy; while in Albert Camus's The Just , with conflicts between social groups. Another chapter spotlights Cervantes' Rinconete and Cortadillo , John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera , focusing particularly on organised crime.

Drugs are tackled in "Legal and illegal drugs", citing Baudelaire's Les Paradis Artificiels and Jack London's John Barleycorn . We learn that alcohol is associated with violence and that "drugs may be said not only to impede the creative process, but also to hamper Aristotle's 'good life'".

In "Women and crime", Ruggiero tackles Zola's Nana , offering explanations as to why women commit fewer crimes than men. The argument is of some interest to criminologists but it is so buried in an arid discussion on the exploitation of prostitutes it loses its effect.

" Moby Dick and the crimes of the economy" is the subject of chapter six.

While the story relates to the whaling industry, it is also "a tormented search for the limit beyond which freedom, democracy, enterprise and industry amount to criminal conduct". And "by linking Moby Dick with the cultural condition of 19th-century America from which the book arises, impetus is given to cultural materialistic and deconstructive analysis".

Of more compelling interest is the chapter relating to Mark Twain's The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg because of the interlinking threads that lead to the corruption of a town. A stranger offended by a number of citizens seeks revenge by leaving a sack of money with the old cashier of the bank. It is to be returned to an unnamed citizen who made a remark that caused him to stop gambling. Every citizen tries to prove they made the remark, and the stranger has his revenge. It is an intriguing story, of interest not only to sociologists but also to the general reader.

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and Octave Mirabeau's The Torture Garden are analysed in depth in a chapter on prisons, but do we learn anything other than that prisons do not reform and that they are exceedingly unpleasant places?

The final chapter attempts to link the outbreak of the plague in Milan in 1650 with state crime. That some countries still resort to torture, that confessions are sometimes improperly obtained and that there are serious injustices in some criminal systems is well known, and this adds nothing to our knowledge.

The author starts his book by saying: "I have been discouraged by many people from writing this book." I am afraid I think his colleagues were right.

Sir Oliver Popplewell is a retired High Court judge and author of Benchmark.

Crime in Literature: Sociology of Deviance and Fiction

Author - Vincenzo Ruggiero
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 257
Price - £40.00 and £13.00
ISBN - 1 85984 570 3 and 482 0

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments