The Ethics of Representation: Rape, Genocide, Torture

Devin Martens-Olzman


The author of this piece examines the complex ethical considerations inherent in literary representations of trauma. The act of discussing atrocities and the trauma that they cause has faced criticism due to the psychological pain that victims often feel when exposed to such material. However, the author claims that literary works that give voice to atrocities such as rape, genocide, and torture are intended for a very different target audience: those who have not endured these experiences themselves. In effect, this piece argues that the textual representation of trauma is necessary because it creates in its readers a feeling of discomfort that mimics the response of firsthand victims. Through this approach - which is defined in literary criticism as “crossing the line” - the author addresses aspects of the topic such as the victim’s memory, the role of the witness, and the limits of representation. The body of the piece explores through close-reading how Art Spiegelman’s Maus, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Like Water for Elephants,”and the Immortal Technique song “Dance with the Devil” achieve this balance of ethicality and discomfort in portraying incidents believed by some to be “unspeakable.”

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