Structural violence in fiction

With mentions of Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
and Parasite by Bong Joon-ho

In a world where a lot of inequalities are structural, the violence which damages and destroys people’s lives can be invisible to those benefitting from it, or at least invisible to the areas of society not directly exposed to it. For that reason, being able to represent this structural violence successfully in fiction is hugely important. Today, I’d like to explore how economical violence is portrayed in pieces of art, and how physical violence often becomes the only outlet to structural, economical pressures.

To discuss this, I thought I’d draw a parallel between Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (novel) and Parasite by Bong Joon-ho (film). Both are distinct, yet very successful. Lullaby was published in English in 2018 (although it came out in France a couple of years before) and Parasite came out in 2019, so maybe it’s not surprising that they both had similar themes – they were part of the same Zeitgeist.

 

Lullaby starts with nanny who has killed the children she was supposed to take care of. The murder is the shocking hook which draws readers into the story. The first lines land like punches: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived.”

However, the book is about a lot more than these shocking deaths. Mostly, what the book unpacks is how the main character, the nanny, is driven to the murder. In brief, she is only part of the family when they want her to be a part of it, an expendable addition, yet she is expected to devote herself to these children who are not her own. Economic necessity forces her into an uncomfortable position. The book explores how being subservient, even to well-meaning, left-wing liberals, is a form of violence. And the only way for the nanny to strike back, to express the pressures of economical violence, is through physical violence. Nothing else can get through to her employers.

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The book takes the time to explore the toll being a live-in nanny takes on her. Throughout her life, she has lived in precarious roles, treated as if she were a part of the family, then suddenly thrown out if she doesn’t perform. She has had to sacrifice her own child’s welfare, by not taking the time to care for her properly, being too busy tending to other people’s kids.

A key-scene, for me, is when she walks back home after a long day taking care of these children. She sees someone shitting in the street she lives in – an adult woman, too poor or drunk or ill for toilets, just crouching on the tarmac. The realisation hits that this is the miserable, depressing street she actually lives in, the life that actually belongs to her. This is her future if she doesn’t work. The life she shares when tending to rich people’s kids isn’t hers, not really, not ever.

Similarly, in Parasite, our main characters share the space and the perfect life of a richer family, but they are conscious, or quickly become conscious, that that comfortable life isn’t theirs. They are the cooks, drivers, tutors and cleaners; they inhabit the same space during the day; but none of it is theirs. The richer family retains the power to throw them out, or simply to look down on them.

Parasite has a parallel to the scene where, in Lullaby, the nanny goes back to her home and to the person defecating in the street. During the mid-act climax, our main characters walk down from the rich people’s house to their own flooded home, and desperately try to save their belongings from being washed away. There is an incredible shot where the elder daughter, giving up, sits on the overflooding toilet, trying to keep the sewers from coming up and filling the house.

It’s very telling that, in the film, the rain is a minor inconvenience to the rich family – it messes up their camping holidays – but to the disadvantaged family, it’s a lot more than that. It leaves them homeless for the night, with much of their belongings ruined.

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It’s hard not to think, in this context, about how climate change or global pandemics will affect different strata of the population very differently.

Without spoiling too much, Parasite also ends violently. Interestingly, the physical violence damages both other people who are struggling, as well as the rich folk (and, again, maybe because symbolically they are more striking, children). Everyone is hurt, physically, as a consequence of the economical inequalities.

 

Both creators, through different media, illustrate the same fact: that structural and economical violence are damaging to everyone involved, even those who seem to benefit from it. The stories go to great lengths to make us understand and empathise with the people who commit the more obvious “crime” of the narrative, so that we are aware that they are, in fact, victims, despite the fact that society considers them criminals for what they’ve done. Neither encourages killing, obviously, they simply explain or shed light on why these people felt the need to resort to violence – because nothing else seemed to work. Both stories are, I think, very successful, poignant, and make an important, powerful point.

I would be interested in knowing if there is another way out – if, aside from physical violence, there is a way to break away or escape from the structures which govern our lives. I don’t think I’ve come across that story yet, but I would be curious to see how it plays out, what other solutions we, as creatives, can find to the very real problem of invisible, destructive structures. For the time being, maybe our role is simply to shed light on them, to start the conversation with readers and viewers.

15 Oct. 21