Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Is Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin a simplistic, grotesque reading of Freud’s works or a more ethical social reading of modern day America?

The crude, graphic language of this modern text, at once compelling and repugnant, in fact seems to show that this book is not about either of the topics highlighted above, but about both of them. This language is initially applied to Eva’s (the protagonist’s mother) sexual life with her husband, but as the novel takes a sickening plunge it becomes enmeshed with the murderous violence of the book’s eponymous “hero”, Kevin. Arguably Kevin’s actions are a symbol of the violence taking place in America when Shriver wrote the novel (early 2000s), and Eva’s are those of a sexualised, neurotic mother and thus these two characters encapsulate what I see as being the two key influences on the text.
Firstly, the Freudian scenes lord over the text. Not only are they frequent, but they are memorable because of their graphic and disturbing nature. Shriver confronts us with the sexualisation of a mother-son relationship that is physically and emotionally repellent to us. In my opinion the disgusting nature of their relationship peaks when Kevin masturbates in front of her mother, and yet she does not immediately recoil from this, but watches before telling him to stop. Freud theorised that parents repress their child’s sexuality; all children are born sexual, but are misguided by information given to them by their parents about sex. Thus Shriver exposes what happens if one’s parents do not repress their sexuality. This is scene not only through the Kevin’s phallic stage of development (as highlighted above), but also through his anal one, as he wears nappies for a prolonged period of time, thus pleasing himself through his fecal matter.
However, Shriver takes the opposite view to Freud: she shows that by not repressing the sexual, Oedipal urges of a child towards both his mother and himself the child can still grow up neurotic. Kevin makes no attempt to stop his animosity towards his father, and yet he can conceal it. This act of concealing which is usually performed by the unconscious but here has to be performed by Kevin’s conscious ego creates a great deal of psychical energy within him. This thus erupts and results in him not only killing his father, but shooting him through the penis as an additional wound. The murder appears to arise out of a deep seated hatred of his father as a person, but this specific wound combined with the murder of his younger sister appear to show that this more likely arose out of jealousy regarding his mother’s affection.
Although the novel does have this Freudian foundation, it is a rather complex narrative as Shriver focuses on the mother’s perspective within an ethico-social context. The narrative is written from a retrospective point of view; she is contemplating whether or not the actions Kevin took were a result of him being inherently evil or her poor nurturing. This simple nature-nurture dilemma is never answered in the text, and many people and critics have entirely opposing views on it. Shriver appears to be highlighting that Kevin’s character is not developed because of one of these aspects of his infantile life, but because of a combination of the two.

The disgusting reaction of the community to Eva is also an ethical dilemma: how does one treat someone who has raised a child who has massacred children living in your community? Or perhaps even your own child? Their violent, antisocial reaction links in with the nature/nurture dilemma: are they inherently antisocial and this traumatic event merely worked as a trigger for this or was the event the reason why they behave in this way? All these questions remain an unanswered undercurrent of the book which I believe works as an appropriate antithesis for the simplicity of her Freudian content.

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