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American Revenge Narratives critically examines the nation’s vengeful storytelling tradition. With essays on late twentieth and twenty-first century fiction, film, and television, it maps the coordinates of the revenge genre’s contemporary reinvention across American culture. By surveying American revenge narratives, this book measures how contemporary payback plots appraise the nation’s political, social, and economic inequities.

The volume’s essays collectively make the case that retribution is a defining theme of post-war American culture and an artistic vehicle for critique. In another sense, this book presents a scholarly coming to terms with the nation’s love for vengeance. By investigating recent iterations of an ancient genre, contributors explore how the revenge narrative evolves and thrives within American literary and filmic imagination. Taken together, the book’s diverse chapters attempt to understand American culture’s seemingly inexhaustible production of vengeful tales.



Chapter 1. Introduction

This introduction surveys the American revenge genre. It scans modern fiction, film, and television and finds vengeful desire evolving within the national imagination. Breaking from classical tragedy, in which revenge stories follow the logic of reciprocity, recent American narratives depict retribution as a limitless, insatiable craving. In the words of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain: “Payback. There was no end to it.” Through readings of spiteful tales across different media—including novels, comic books, and popular cinema—the chapter demonstrates how American culture transforms the revenge genre into a political and socioeconomic reckoning. Alongside overviews of current revenge scholarship and the essays contained in American Revenge Narratives, this introduction calculates the value of reading and watching payback stories during our vengeful age.
Kyle Wiggins

Revenge on the Page


Chapter 2. Wakening “The Eyes of Dreamers”: Revenge in Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café

This chapter inverts negative associations with revenge to contend that, in Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café, acts of retribution function, not to punish, exact loss, and generate misery, but to perpetuate hope and initiate change. Further, the chapter reveals how the author, steeped in the work of Carl Jung, uses suffering that originates from acts of revenge to prompt individuation. Revenge, and the clarity and finality it provides, allows for the possibility of new beginnings. Finally, the chapter argues that for the McCullers’s novella uses the theme of revenge to illustrate how a departure from transference upon an unknowable other initiates communion with a faithful divine.
Lisa Hoffman-Reyes

Chapter 3. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Tragedy of Revenge and Reparation

This chapter engages the full spectrum of tragedy theory in arguing for a view of Morrison’s Beloved as a formal tragedy, a generic translation of fiction and tragedy thus a “novel-tragedy” in Kliger’s phrasing. Much scholarship on this novel uses analytic frames from gender and women’s studies, the feminist trope of the body, race in its connections with historical slavery, motherhood and maternal matters, as well as history and the status of the novel as against that question. Few take up the specific matter of reparations, still fewer the politics of genre, craft, and form. From the massive response to this significant text, important here are scholarly treatments addressing the form of the novel and the specter of reparations in it, as well as those concerned with legal matters and intertextual valences in Beloved. In this reading, the character Beloved is the core around which the novel orbits. She is positioned as a postmodern, new-American version of the Greek mythological Erinyes; the title character’s true function regards vengeance and the reparation of past injuries. This chapter argues, ultimately, that the novel’s first concern is justice and its chief aim is to serve as clarion call for material—and not merely symbolic—reparations for slavery.
Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem

Chapter 4. Masculinity in Don DeLillo’s White Noise: Mapping the Self, Killing the Other

Over the course of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney attempts to understand his relation to capitalism as it simultaneously disperses outward over the globe and invades his body and mind. He journeys from modern to postmodern consciousness. Yet the modern male subject, as the novel seems to suggest, does not smoothly evolve nor easily abandon his sense of a centered self. He suffers a crisis of identity. Thus, Jack occupies a paradoxical and disorienting position between modern alienation and postmodern fragmentation, which he seeks to resolve by reinstalling a violent form of masculinity through a revenge plot. His primary response to psychic fragmentation is his botched effort to cultivate what he calls his “imperial self” by killing Willie Mink, the man who cuckolded him. Set within an otherwise meandering narrative, Jack’s violent but failed gesture to secure his identity would provide his life with the order and logic that it appears to lack. By plotting Mink’s murder and finally providing form and direction to the narrative, Jack imposes not merely a revenge plot, but more particularly the patriarchal structure of an erotic triangle upon the previously aimless days of his life. The two males in the erotic triangle comically represent two conflicting versions of identity in their most extreme and ludicrous forms: in one corner, the expansive, imperialistic modern subject and, in the other, the postmodern schizophrenic—meanwhile, Babette, in the third corner, refuses to play the empty female cipher in this male competition. Of course, Jack’s failure to assume authority, take control, and organize events is inevitable. During his showdown with Mink, who is his schizophrenic double, Jack tries to resuscitate in himself a moribund form of masculinity that has little room in postmodern America. Narrated with irony and self-reflexivity, DeLillo’s novel offers no easy resolution to identity crisis.
Michael James Rizza

Chapter 5. From Revenge to Restorative Justice in Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, The Round House, and LaRose

In Louise Erdrich’s “Rape on the Reservation,” a February 26, 2013, op-ed piece for The New York Times, she brings readers’ attention to the complex history of the Violence Against Women Act and the struggle to persuade Congress to reauthorize the act with provisions that allowed for an expansion of Tribal authority in the prosecution of non-Native offenders. The article evidences her interest in bearing witness to this issue, which has plagued tribal communities for generations. How can a community find redress, and its attendant peace, without any means of official justice? On the reservation, then, the search for justice and accountability often looks like violent retribution or revenge. Violence against Native American women, with perpetrators acting with impunity, is the central theme in her National Book Award-winning novel, The Round House (2012). In fact, the theme of justice has been central to a trio of Erdrich’s most recent novels, which I refer to as the “Justice” trilogy: The Plague of Doves (2008), The Round House (2012), and LaRose (2016). Each novel takes up the situational complexities of vigilante justice and the enduring, even generational, consequences of such actions on Native American individuals, families, and communities. None of Erdrich’s novels is as focused on the theme of revenge as the “Justice” trilogy. The three works revolve around different moments of violence introduced in the opening chapters: The Plague of Doves investigates the murder of a local farmer and his family and the subsequent killing of three innocent Ojibwe men and one child from a neighboring reservation by a white lynch mob from the farming community; The Round House narrates the violent rape and attempted murder of an Ojibwe woman; and LaRose begins with the accidental shooting of an Ojibwe boy by his Ojibwe neighbor. Each novel then asks the reader to consider one central question: What are a person’s or a family’s or a community’s options for avenging an act of violence when no legal framework exists to mete out justice or accountability? This chapter explores Erdrich’s answer to that question through an analysis of the three novels.
Seema Kurup

Chapter 6. The Great (White) Wail: Percival Everett’s The Water Cure and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia

Percival Everett’s The Water Cure asserts that revenge is the US body politic’s calm, right, and proper function. Emerging from John Locke’s functional revenge fantasy, Everett’s novel slices apart Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), especially Query XIV and its white supremacist disquisition that culminates with the infamous “But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration….” As if in responding to Jefferson’s racist claim, narrator Ishmael Kidder eschews even the appearance of “plain narration,” churns the novel’s “fragments” into a tour de force of philosophical and aesthetic retribution, and forces Jefferson’s work to stand in for the person who may never be punished for raping and murdering Kidder’s daughter.
Beth A. McCoy

Chapter 7. The Modern American Revenge Story

This chapter argues that a new type of revenge narrative emerges in recent American fiction and film. Contemporary writers such as Thomas Pynchon, E. L. Doctorow, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and filmmakers such as Robert Siegel and Quentin Tarantino transform the payback plot from a defense of self-worth to a measurement (and violent settling) of social, political, or economic debts. The result is a genre phenomenon I call “ultionic revenge.” Characters like John Smith in Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer (1996), who yearns to kill the one “white man [who] was responsible for everything that had gone wrong” for Native Americans, direct their anger at personifications of diffuse injustice. This process of transference defines the challenge of exacting payback in the age of systems—an age that, I contend, has rendered vengeful satisfaction paradoxical within narrative.
Kyle Wiggins

Revenge on the Screen


Chapter 8. “What if Nature Were Trying to Get Back at Us?”: Animals as Agents of Nature’s Revenge in Horror Cinema

This chapter surveys and maps the late twentieth-century American sub-genre of “nature takes revenge” films. It shows how this strand of animal horror cinema follows complex narrative templates with different ecological messages. Through comparative analysis, it tracks five types of tales: (1) Humans venture into “nature,” where they encounter wild animals. (2) Animals are reduced to projection screens for the human. (3) Explicitly environmentalist horror films that employ animals as nature’s tools to restore order and the “natural” balance on the planet, relieving humanity of ecological accountability. (4) Films about mutations and hybridizations caused by human actions that highlight the entanglement of nature and culture. (5) Animal apocalypse films that envision an imminent post-human age suffering from the vestiges of anthropogenic actions.
Michael Fuchs

Chapter 9. A Cinema of Vengeance: Vietnam Veterans, Traumatic Recovery, and Historical Revisionism in 1980s Hollywood

Since the Vietnam War, trauma as both theme and trope has become integral to the popular representation of combat veterans and, as a result, to American culture’s understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, narrative portrayals of combat-induced trauma have often also been employed to more overtly political ends. The 1980s, especially, were dominated by hypermasculinist revenge fantasies—such as the Rambo and Missing in Action film trilogies—that equated the veteran’s recovery from trauma with the post-Vietnam renewal of American militarism. In such narratives, the existential crisis posed by the figure of the traumatized veteran is ultimately resolved by the vengeful repudiation and revision of objective historical truth. This thematic is particularly exemplified in the Rambo trilogy and in Tony Scott’s Top Gun, an emblematic film in which white male veteran experience is rendered normative by veterans who teach non-veterans—and, thus, the audience—about combat-induced trauma and how properly to contend with it. Essential to the messages of this cinema of vengeance are the films’ concerted dismantling of the history of the Vietnam War, one that casts these films in the role of justifying the persistence of American military expansionism throughout the world.
Marc Diefenderfer

Chapter 10. Vengeance Is Mine: Gender and Vigilante Justice in Mainstream Cinema

Vigilante justice has a long history in film. From Dirty Harry to Death Wish to Death Sentence, Hollywood frequently depicts male protagonists committing violent acts as a way to exact revenge or extrajudicial punishment. These male characters are frequently depicted as heroes and their actions are portrayed as understandable and justifiable. They go after violent criminals and are doing what the legal system can’t or won’t. The audience is meant to identify with the male protagonist and cheer them on as they take matters into their own hands. Female protagonists, on the other hand, are not often featured in mainstream films that focus on vigilante justice. Two of the more recent examples are 1996’s Eye for an Eye, starring Sally Field, and 2007’s The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. Each film depicts a woman seeking justice outside of the law after a loved one is brutally murdered. They defy law enforcement and resort to vigilantism after concluding it’s the only way to attain justice. What role does gender play in the way these films showcase the protagonists seeking vengeance? How do they compare with similar films that feature male protagonists? Is the audience meant to identify with and cheer for them? What kinds of ideological messages are present? I’m interested in attempting to answer those questions while exploring how gender influences the way mainstream films depict vigilante justice and the messages Hollywood is sending audiences through these films.
Paul Doro

Chapter 11. “Revenge, at First Though Sweet, / Bitter Ere Long Back on Itself Recoils”: Patriarchy and Revenge in Unforgiven and True Grit

The chapter examines the dependence of female characters on males to achieve revenge in two recent Western films: Delilah, the mutilated prostitute in Unforgiven, and Mattie, the teenage daughter of a murdered man in True Grit. Both films portray the patriarchal social order’s unwillingness to provide justice for the wrongs suffered by the two women. This forces the prostitutes of Big Whiskey and Mattie into mercenary economic arrangements with males in order to achieve their revenge. In addition, revenge in both films is negotiated through a biblical subtext, which ultimately reveals the significant cost of revenge on the revengers: William Munny and Mattie.
Jim Daems

Chapter 12. Tearing Down the Eiffel Tower: Post-9/11 Fears and Fantasies in Taken

As many scholars have observed, the defining action films of the 1980s, starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger can be persuasively seen as an articulation of and an engagement with Reaganite political philosophies and muscular representations of American power. What might the action films of the post-9/11 era reveal about the culture and the times in which they were made? This chapter attempts to ascertain how far the action genre incorporated the discourse of the ‘War on Terror’ into its narratives using Pierre Morel’s revenge thriller Taken (2008) as a case study revealing a genre which subsumed not only the prevalent fears and anxieties of the new millennium into its frames, but also its fantasies.
Terence McSweeney


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