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Images of the idealized parent permeate the media, from advertisements to Hallmark cards and movies; however, the stereotypical theme of the conventional parent is not always true because of the prevalence of parental violence in modern society. For example, the American SPCC reported, “4.1 million child maltreatment cases…and child abuse reports involved 7.4 million children” which showcases the presence of parental violence. The debate about what constitutes violence, and when it is justifiable is prevalent today as individuals are desensitized to violence through the media’s normalization of aggression. Earl Hipp, who has a B.A. in psychology and a master’s degree in psychophysiology, argues in his book Man-Making that in cases of parental abuse the “father wound” becomes a recurring situation that develops in both literary and real life. The “father wound” develops in young males from “an all too common story… about pathologically disengaged or abusive fathers” and often results in a feeling of “masculine insufficiency” and an inability to cope emotionally with the trauma. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother exemplifies justified violence because of her fierce devotion to her child as she seeks vengeance for Grendel’s death and ultimately dies in the process. By contrast, Sphocles’s Three Theban Plays and Shakespeare’s Hamlet depict unjustifiable parental violence through the parents’ selfish and cruel acts towards their children. This essay will analyze how these texts demonstrate the complexities of how parenthood blurs the conventional argument between whether good and evil are justifiable.
In Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of Beowulf, Grendel’s mother represents the result of parental love and how parents will obscure the divide between acceptable and unacceptable violence in order to avenge one’s child. Even though Grendel had tortured the Danes and Beowulf killed him to avenge the individual’s Grendel murdered, his mother became “mournful and ravenous, and she resolved to go on a grievous journey to avenge her son’s death,” demonstrating a loving parent’s willingness to engage in violence to such a degree that in Grendel’s mother’s case “she murdered…a man as he slept.” Her love and devotion to her son was endless because she sought to “avenge her son whom Beowulf savaged… with vice-like holds because Grendel had impoverished and killed… people.” Grendel was so grief-stricken and driven by a passion “to avenge her son, her only offspring” to such an extreme as to die trying to kill her son’s murder. The relationship between the mother and son in this epic showcase justifiable violence because of the way Grendel’s mother loved her so son passionately she became violent in retaliation.
Sophocles’s Three Theban Plays depict many differing parental relationships; however, many of them showcase a conflict-oriented relationship. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus’s parents Laius and Jocasta “gave him to be cast away” due to a horrible prophecy and have him sent to be killed; however, he survives and fulfills the prophecy. This relationship showcases the effects of parental violence toward a child. Oedipus’s parents’ action causes the disintegration of a healthy bond between the two parties and produces a curse that negatively impacts the family for generations. The impact of Oedipus’s parents causes him to be disgraced and lead to the King gauging his own eyes out. Laius and Jocasta rob Oedipus of a chance at a successful and happy life.
In Antigone, the focus of the play is one of Oedipus’s daughters; however, the family relationship that this play examines most thoroughly is between Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, and his father, Creon. The relationship is originally depicted as one of respect and admiration, but it quickly devolves to anger and then a complete break of the bond they shared. Though it does not seem to occur to Creon that his son may stand behind the woman he loves over his own father. However, kings are not defined by anyone, not even their son. In their heated argument, Creon’s states, “What wound cuts deeper than a loved one turned against you?” which focuses on the disappointment he feels as a father for his son who does not stand behind him. In the end, Haemon commits suicide because of their disagreement and his loyalty to Antigone. His father discovers his own mistakes and states, “not through your stupidity, no, my own.” In his wife’s grief, she takes her own life, having lost a child she truly loved. The domino effect of deaths caused by Creon’s stubborn nature showcases the horrible impact of parental violence toward one’s child.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet depicts the title character’s spiral to insanity as a result of the turmoil caused by his father’s death. Hamlet was extremely close with his father that influenced his inability to process the late King’s death and allowed his father’s spirit to appear to Hamlet and push him to take revenge. Father’s spirit compels Hamlet to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” in order allow him to be free of purgatory. By giving Hamlet this monumental decree of revenge, the ghost is showcasing parental violence toward his son because he does not allow him to grieve and continue living, but instead forces him to madness chasing his quest. Hamlet becomes blind to see that he is moving to the abyss and there is no way out because of his extreme devotion to his father. Hamlet’s life in the illusionary world, his aggression and wish to revenge, panic and mania and psychological disorders and insane state are the result of the difficult family situation.
While literary cases of parental violence toward a child are reprehensible, the prevalence and grotesqueness of abuse, in reality, is indefensible because unlike novels real children cannot overcome the physical and mental ramifications of abuse as easily. In the Miller-Fowler abuse case, “the parents of two allegedly neglected and malnourished twin baby girls were arrested in what doctors and police in Oklahoma say was ‘the worst case of child abuse they had seen”.
The nurses had been treating the twins for an unspecified medical condition and noticed that both children had severe diaper rash and bedsores, the reports state. Nurses also found feces in one child’s ear while the other baby had a strand of hair wrapped tightly around one of its fingers; the arrest reports indicate the baby’s finger had become infected as a result, and that skin had started growing over the hair. According to the arrest reports, a nurse saw a maggot on one of the girls.
According to Sharon Perkins’ article “What Are the Dangers of Low Weight in Babies”, “A baby with failure to thrive might be weak, susceptible to infection and might not meet developmental milestones such as sitting, crawling or walking at normal ages… in severe cases… can cause permanent brain damage” this among the other gruesome details of the Miller-Fowler abuse case depict absolute unjustifiable violence. The case is inexcusable not only because of how inhumane it is, but also those baby girls had absolutely no way to defend themselves from their parents’ abuse.
Parents’ justifiable violence continues to be a complex issue as their values are shifted in order to avenge their child, or their morals were corrupted as they became aggressive with their child. However, “Parents are their children’s first teacher, and provide them with knowledge that is necessary for survival through direct instruction” which gives them a strong influence on the development of their children. So as seen in the prevalence of parental violence in literature and reality, parents must decide the type of morals they want to impart on their children with any acts of aggression the parents execute.
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