As a writer I am not alone in my obsession with revenge-based dramas. Ancient Greek myths and Biblical stories understood that the most direct route to justice often requires traveling along the bumpy roads of revenge. In every era in human history, artists have reflected the moral urgency of vengeance, from the high-art of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama to the lowbrow makers of heart-stopping horror films.
There’s nothing like watching a score being settled and payback justly received. In my latest book The Light That Gets Lost the main protagonist Trey must avenge his parent’s murderer in order to find some kind of closure. This theme of justice and revenge is explored to great effect in one of my favourite childhood adventure books of all time, True Grit.
Throughout the course of the adventure in True Grit by Charles Portis, the central themes are obtaining justice: revenge, duty, and doing the right thing. No matter what the motivation is for retribution and how it is carried out, Portis shows there is a price to pay for those determined to seek justice, it can change you, kill you, do you in.
In the book the young, gritty, female protagonist Mattie Ross fully expects that the local sheriff will bring her father's murderer to justice. When he refuses to give chase, Mattie must find someone of sufficient true grit who will restore moral balance by doing what's just and necessary. After she deputises Rooster Cogburn as her father's avenger, she demonstrates her own grit by tagging along with him.
The deeper truth of True Grit is that it serves as a quick fix for our addiction to vengeance. But is revenge an unhealthy addiction or a guilty pleasure? We have all been warned, repeatedly, that revenge is barbaric, a holdover from primitive times. And yet vengeance properly taken feels so righteous and true, especially when depicted in fiction. The audience roots for the avenger all the while knowing that individuals are not permitted to take justice into their own hands.
What else can a daughter do? To be worthy of her father's love Mattie must honour his memory and settle his accounts. Anything less than a complete reckoning is something the reader will not accept.
In life we allow for incomplete justice and curse our fate; in art we long for the righteous avenger to bring about the closure and moral clarity that is so often denied to us under the law and in True Grit (and I hope The Light That Gets Lost) we get this.