Stigma Redux

I just finished reading Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel Water for Elephants. It’s an enjoyable read, and she did an impressive amount of research. It’s fun and dumb.

Thinking over the ending, I was reminded of my redemptive violence post. Since the novel’s closing scene appears at the very beginning of the book (and is repeated at the end), I won’t be ruining anything by saying that the villain meets a violent end — one that’s intended to be very satisfying. There it is. We smash in the head of the very, very bad man, and then we can all be happy. It’s an easy out for the writer. It panders to the reader.

This ending also connects to my previous posts about stigmatizing mental illness. The bad guy is explicitly identified as a paranoid schizophrenic. In fact, he has something of a dual personality — shifting from charm and good will to violent temper tantrums. Again, shouldn’t we feel compassion for a mentally ill person? Shouldn’t we want him to get help? By identifying him as mentally ill, isn’t Gruen implying that his evil acts are beyond his control?

Instead, she promulgates the stereotype that mentally ill people are violent. Then, instead of intimating that he’s at least deserving of some sympathy, she engineers a cataclysmic comeuppance for him. She makes certain that we feel empathy for the animal characters, but the human ones? Not so much.

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