Since the dawn of literary criticism, there have always been people complaining that books are too dark. Explorations of suicide and mental health in Jude the Obscure and The Sorrows of Young Werther were condemned. Violence in fairy tales was wiped out for centuries and sanitised into Disney-approved remakes. Even themes of death in Hans Christian Anderson’s work were deemed too hopeless for children by the likes of Bettelheim (“The Struggle for Meaning”. The Classic Fairy Tales). HOWEVER there is one subject I increasingly see bashed in books- and that is the presence of bad parents. Now this is not the first– and probably won’t be the last- time I feel compelled to address this topic. Yet that’s because I continually see people arguing for fewer representations of bad parents. Not for more good parents mind- but to get rid of the quote-un-quote abusive parents “trope”.
This. is. not. cool.
Let me get one thing straight: it’s perfectly fine to have limits on what you, as an individual, are able to stomach. Everyone is entitled to consume whatever media or art they wish. However, one thing I think people should be clear on is that not all stories are pretty. Sometimes stories are harsh. Sometimes they are violent. And sometimes they even involve abuse. This is part of the human experience after all.
Two major misconceptions about a lot of abuse stories that I hear is that they’re somehow rare or that their portrayal is “unrealistic”. And my reaction to that is always *wow*- cos people making this criticism don’t realise how unbelievably douchy they sound when they say that. *Shocker*, but it’s kind of awful to complain that you don’t like reading about abusive parents or any other real life horror in books because (and I’m gonna paraphrase the sort of thing I hear a lot) “it’s not my experience”. Well, guess what? It’s *a lot* of people’s experience. I never talk about this on here, but I actually worked for a youth charity for a while and you wouldn’t believe some of the shocking real life stories I’ve heard. And you don’t have to take my word for it either- not only is there a wealth of personal accounts out there, we can also look at the statistics for things that can cause a bad home life. For instance, the percentage of children suffering some form of abuse in the UK is one in five. That is not a low number by any stretch of the imagination. Add in any other issue a child might encounter at home- bereavement, divorce (approx 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce), economic problems- and you’re looking at a much higher percentage of children experiencing complicated issues. When you think about it this way, it’s no wonder that so many books feature at least one of the above.
It’s especially significant to explore such stories, as people who have experienced these situations might find such stories empowering. A great number of novels in this area are very much about discovering bravery and overcoming these obstacles. Stories like Cinderella hold sway for huge numbers of people because they are actually about *empowering* a victim to take control of their life. I actually just watched a fantastic video on how Cinderella frees herself from her abusers- which you can check out here. What can be cool in modern retellings, particularly Cinder and Ella, is the way they explore more modern issues of blended families and complex issues for antagonism towards the heroine. Regardless of the issue, it’s so important to note that there’s an educational element to these stories. We as readers incorporate aspects of that knowledge into our real lives and can learn how to face our biggest fears through books. Darkness, particularly in children’s books, emphasises that meaning is found in life through overcoming difficult circumstances. And as everyone knows, there can be no real catharsis in a story without that.
Personally, I believe that real life friction is a fantastic way to create that sense of tension. Far more so than defeating some faceless, evil entity, there is an educational aspect in characters defeating something more human. Unfortunately, we have to recognise that people are the ones to do evil things. It’s why I am often less drawn to the dehumanised villains (aka the Voldemorts of the world) and far more to the ones with real motivations and human flaws (eg the Dursleys). Sure, I appreciate a good Jaberwocky every now and again, but give me a Red Queen if you want me to be truly terrified.
Facing such evils can be hugely character defining. A character working their way through extreme circumstances can give the individual an opportunity to grow and develop. We all know that one of the most satisfying parts of a book can be watching a character evolve. What is brilliant is watching a character be presented with choices and having to find the right path. To draw on Harry Potter again, Harry mirrors both Voldemort and Snape in his miserable background. Yet while they both go on to be baddies- a villain and anti-hero respectively- Harry overcomes his difficult upbringing and becomes the hero that saves the world. Even better, Dudley Dursley gets a redemptive story arc- he too was a product of bad parenting and yet he has to do the arguably more difficult thing of showing remorse for his actions (even if it wasn’t entirely his fault to begin with). In this way, Rowling has given us possibilities of how people can react to negative circumstances. And not only that, she’s given us a clear signpost in the right direction.
This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t celebrate positive role models, but that there has to be room in books to explore some of the darker sides of life. I often see that it’s about balance. When you have, for instance, a story as emotionally fraught as, say, The Hate U Give, it makes perfect sense to me that the book has *fantastic* parent role models (not just the parents, but also the uncle!) In part, it’s just great to have that kind of rep in a book, but also I think it speaks to the strength of the author’s intuitive storytelling style. Too often I see books on hard subjects overladen with horror. Sometimes a novel can have no redemptive features or hint of hope- and that can be too much for a reader. So of course I’m not saying “*only darkness* in books please”- instead consider that sometimes there is a need for at least *some* darkness in books.
Phew- I know that wasn’t exactly the most cheerful topic I’ve covered, but I believe it was a necessary one. What do you think? Do you think there’s room to explore dark topics- especially abusive parents- in books? Let me know in the comments!