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On Incest in Fiction

Anonymous asked: “I’m struggling to come out with a plot. This story is about the incestuous relationship between a king and his sister, the king’s chronic illness, and finally the tension between his kingdom and another. What do I do about the plot?”

I see there could potentially be parallel plots – impending war between his kingdom and another and his ongoing battle with his illness. The thing is you need conflict to arise. His illness might be showing new symptoms or getting worse, a rival kingdom might have advanced on villages on the outskirts of his territory. There is plot, it’s just a matter of finding new ways to bring up the existing tensions. 

Now, one thing I wanted to focus on as the post title suggests is incest. I don’t automatically push a book away just because there is an incestuous relationship – in fact, some of my favorite books allude to (or some are more explicit) incest between the characters. Where I draw the line is romanticizing incest. Incestuous relationships way more quickly can turn abusive, if they aren’t already obviously abusive at the start. Don’t romanticize incest. 

Like I said, some of my favorite novels do actually reference or explicitly include incest, let’s talk about how incest comes up in these examples. (*Spoiler alert* if you plan on reading any of these books – Absalom, Absalom! The Sound and the Fury (both by William Faulkner) or The Secret History (by Donna Tartt), don’t read ahead.) 

I’m going to first talk about William Faulkner. If you’ve been following me awhile, likely you know I love to talk about this man’s books. They are some of my all-time favorites. I just believe he is a genius and a true master of language. But anyway, getting back to the point. He writes about dysfunctional families. Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury are both Southern Gothics that tell the story of how these once-great families fall into disrepair, set against the backdrop of the socioeconomic changes of the post-Civil War American South. 

Incest in a southern gothic is a pretty well known device – I was told in english class of junior high – we were reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” – that it’s how a writer shows a family tree’s branches twisting back in on itself instead of spreading out and enabling it to grow. I still think that’s a pretty good way to put it. 

The one thing I wanted to point out though in the two examples that I brought up, though incest is talked about and a point of gossip, there’s actually good chance it’s only talk and gossip. Absalom, Absalom! is a story that is all rumor and retold legends about the night a brother shot his sister’s fiancé on the eve of her wedding. Rumor runs through the story bringing in love triangles and all sorts of speculation, but really, it is only speculation. In my next example, The Sound and the Fury, one of the characters claims to have committed incest – it’s pretty safe to believe he hasn’t. He makes this claim – and I’m at the risk of way oversimplifying it- in part because he struggles with his own values, his love of his sister, and his sister’s promiscuity. Across the board though, incest is treated like a crime against family and even just rumored incest becomes a part of the family’s demise. 

The last example I’ll bring up – and I’m still not really sure what to make of it – is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This is a book about a highly dysfunctional group of friends. Five close-knit classics majors at a small liberal arts school murder one of their own. This book tells you from the start who was murdered and spends the rest telling you why. The characters in this book do not have healthy relationships. When incest rears its ugly head, it’s a lot more explicit and more blatantly abusive than the past examples I mentioned. Like I said, none of these characters have healthy relationships with each other. 

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