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The Art of Revenge

Perhaps the most appealing feature of this popular culture stories is the definitive closure they typically bring.

by
Allen Mitchum

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April 23, 2014 - 1:00 pm
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If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? – William Shakespeare

Revenge is a constant, ubiquitous theme in literature and film probably only behind love and war in volume. It’s been around as long as storytelling itself, from the divine retribution of the Greek god Nemesis to Ben Hur to Hamlet to The Count of Monte Cristo to A Time to Kill. Oscar winners for best picture routinely include revenge themed films: The Godfather, Gladiator, and Braveheart, to name a few. Revenge may come in different flavors, but it has one underlying feature: the desire to inflict punishment on someone for committing a wrong. And when done well, few stories are more appealing or engaging than those involving themes of revenge.

Everyone, at some point in their life, has been wronged by someone else. Sometimes it’s a business partner, other times a lover, even a complete stranger. The degree of the transgression may vary, but we’ve all experienced the feelings of anger, sadness and even the desire for accountability that results. That universal emotion is what makes stories or revenge appealing to almost every demographic.

Commercial stories, most recognizable in films, heavily focus on violent revenge. Good examples of that are Clint Eastwood’s classic western The Outlaw Josey Wales, Taken, Desperado or pretty much any Quentin Tarantino film. Violence is not the only revenge flavor though. Non-violent vengeance is as powerful and probably even more compelling and satisfactory. This is best represented by the classic The Count of Monte Cristo, where a man betrayed by a close friend and sent to prison to die escapes and systematically ruins the lives of his enemies. Or even the Eighties comedy Trading Places. To some, there’s more satisfaction in damaging the livelihood of your enemies than causing them physical harm or death. Occasionally, these flavors are blended, which is well represented by The Crow, where perpetrators are killed in manners that reflect their personalities.

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"Extra-judicial activities" are a problem for you, Mr. Mitchum? So the State's judicial apparatus, however elevated, must remain ideologically supreme, its jurisdiction over right and wrong not to be questioned? Pray tell, where does government find persons of unstained conscience and imperturbable disposition to fill such a role?
18 weeks ago
18 weeks ago Link To Comment
My vote for best revenge novel is the Count of Monte Cristo...Dumas nailed it. I've read and reread this book. A humble and naive young man is destroyed by politics and greed. His love is spirited away by one of the very people who betrayed him. He finds his path to salvation as a spiritual and intellectual awakening, and destroys his enemies, yet he retains some compassion, and his humanity is preserved throughout.

I wish I could have written it.
18 weeks ago
18 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think possibly the purest work of revenge fiction -- as well as my favorite -- is Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Cask of Amontillado." Remarkably, we NEVER learn exactly what wrong the narrator is avenging. The only explanation we get is in the wonderful opening line, "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." The funny thing is that that unresolved question works perfectly here, because the story isn't *about* the wrong -- it's about the revenge. A truly flawless short story.
18 weeks ago
18 weeks ago Link To Comment
I would argue that Taken is not a revenge film; it's a rescue. The protagonist is motivated solely by the desire to retrieve his daughter, as he himself makes clear when he tells her abductors that if they release her he will go away and they will never hear from him again. Taken 2, however, is a revenge flick; however it is the antagonists of the film who seek revenge; the protagonist is once again simply trying to protect his family from harm.
18 weeks ago
18 weeks ago Link To Comment
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