The literature of bullying

Our books are full of disturbing stories of cruelty in its starkest form

victoria jamieson for the boston globe

Not long ago I re-read one of my favorite children’s books (OK, one of my favorite books, period): Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy.” If you were a girl growing up any time during the last 45 years, chances are you read and loved it too, and you will remember how the bratty, precocious budding writer Harriet roams around New York’s Upper East Side after school, spying on people and jotting down brutally frank observations in a notebook. What you may not remember — I didn’t — is the role that bullying plays in the book. When Harriet’s friends find and read her notebook, which includes unflattering notes about them, they punish her with ostracism, mean comments and stares, and the silent treatment. The impact of the bullying, even on a generally tough cookie like Harriet, is devastating.

At a time when the news is full of disturbing stories of bullying — the suicide of a 12-year-old girl bullied on social media, the alleged rape of a boy by other boys at a sports-team retreat, racial slurs and physical brutality in fraternities — re-reading “Harriet” started me thinking about bullying in literature. We are used to thinking about books as love stories, or coming-of-age stories, or war novels, or family chronicles. There’s no category known as “the bullying story,” and yet bullying is one of the great subjects of literature, and is often a pivotal experience in a character’s moral awakening or disintegration.

The most obvious example is “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s parable of how boys stuck on an island descend into mob violence, torture, and murder. More subtly, schoolboy bullying also figures in “The Catcher in the Rye,” where Holden’s disaffection and his piercing, futile desire to protect the innocent are partly explained by his having known a boy who, hounded by prep school bullies, jumped out a window and died. In Holden’s experience, the things that make someone good — sensitivity and integrity — are the very qualities that draw bullies to attack.


In George Orwell’s savage autobiographical essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he writes of snobbery as a motive for bullying at his English public school: He is sneered at by other boys and beaten by the headmaster largely because his position as a scholarship student makes him fair game. Orwell’s two dystopian novels, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” are allegories of 20th-century politics, in which society itself, or the state, is the bully, using ruthless tactics to terrorize and crush individuals.

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Societal bullying often involves race, as in Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” where white men in a factory goad two young black workers to box each other (after trying and failing to goad them to stab each other), or in another horrific forced-to-fight scene in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” where a boy shows up to give a speech on social responsibility and equality but instead is sent into the ring with eight other boys. The bullying is intended to degrade and intimidate, but it also shocks the victim (and the reader) into a sense of outrage and injustice. Bullying is cruelty in its starkest form: the terrible triumph of the invulnerable over the undefended.

The novels of Dickens and Charlotte Bronte are full of bullying, both societal and personal. Even Jane Austen, in her delicate way, gives us a painful small instance of how a good person can momentarily turn bully, when her highborn heroine Emma is publicly snide to Miss Bates, a poor spinster. Sometimes the bully is an untrammeled monster; and sometimes the bully is heedless and thoughtless.

Every analysis I’ve ever read of bullying behavior points out that the problem isn’t just the bullies; it’s also the people who stand by and do nothing. If our goal is to create a culture that refuses to tolerate bullying, literature may be one of the most effective tools we have. We don’t need didactic new texts, concocted “problem narratives.” The stories — persuasive and unforgettable — already exist; we just need to read them, and teach them in our schools, with fresh eyes. As Anna Sewell writes in “Black Beauty” — a book that taught me not just about horses but about bullying when I read it as a kid — “If we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.”

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’