Fiction enables writers to explore some of the worst acts of which humans are capable. From The Odyssey to The Girl on the Train, literature is rife with murder, abuse, cruelty and neglect.
Yet, sometimes it is the little cruelties that provide the most revealing insight into the human condition. In such stories, it is not the act of cruelty, humiliation or ridicule that is the most fascinating part of the book, but the way small lies that characters tell themselves lead them to behave in such a way.
In Michele de Krester’s award winning novel, The Life to Come, an unflattering light is shone on the educated middle class. Its privileged and well-intentioned characters are casually cruel, but often unaware of any pain they are causing.
A young writer, Pippa, engages with her elderly neighbour when she needs someone to look after her dog, yet blithely discards her when she is no longer useful. The impact of these acts is acutely upsetting for the lonely neighbour, but the writer is oblivious to any damage she has done. After all, the writer believes herself to be a ‘good person’, doing all the right things and pleasing all the right people.
In the same book, the writer’s mother-in-law tells herself she is saving refugees by befriending them and providing them with some kind of employment, when what she is doing looks more like parading the desperate before her upper middle class friends.
Sometimes, the characters justify their small cruelties by blaming the victims; George treats his girlfriend with disdain because he does not like the way she fails to clear her books from the table before she eats. It is a small irritation which helps to shape George’s behaviour.
It is easy to see how the assumptions, prejudices and behaviours that de Krester highlights could strike many as being uncomfortably familiar.
In Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, the small and subtle cruelties of everyday life are also laid bare.
The story centres on Frederick Lothian, who has moved into a retirement village. His wife has recently died, and he now has the opportunity to reflect on his past. There, he finds many lies and self-deceptions which enabled him to act with cruelty and disregard for the lives of others.
There is the lie that he told himself (and of which he demanded his wife believe) that it was better not allow his adopted daughter to search for her mother until it was too late.
At the opening of the book, it is the way that Frederick justifies his failure to help an elderly neighbour, Tom, which results in Tom’s death. There was also the lie that he had told himself about his injured son and his need for support from his father. This lie justified Frederick’s neglect and cruelty, the lie about the way he treated his wife, Martha, which he only recognised after too late, when he came to the realisation that he, in fact, ‘a monster’.
In a talk at Clunes Booktown, Wilson said that, in a way, she wanted to highlight the power imbalance that women had lived with for so long, not just professionally, but more intimately, in their own homes.
“Men lived their lives the way they wanted to, and women were in the background,” she said.
Wilson said that men of Frederick’s generation who had read the book had reported to her that it had given them food for thought – perhaps they had been telling themselves similar lies.
Self-deception is taken to a criminal extreme in Lolita. In the classic novel, Humbert Humbert claims that he is in love with his young neighbour, in an attempt to minimise or dismiss the reality of his abuse. While the facts of the abuse might be anathema to the reader, somehow, Nabakov helps the reader believe that Humbert’s intentions are not as monstrous as they would have been if they had not been welcomed into Humbert’s self-deception and lies.
And, while in reality our actions might not be as damaging as Humbert’s, perhaps his behaviour reveals a truth that any of our small cruelties, or instances of inaction, can be justified by little lies or self-deceptions. It might be our busyness that abdicates us from responsibility, or the limited lens through which we have chosen to view the experience of others.
If fiction can teach us something, it is to recognise the lies that we tell ourselves, so that we don’t wait until we, like Frank Lothian, are in the retirement village before we acknowledge the truth.