Since at least February, students on college campuses across the country, including University of California Santa Barbara, Oberlin College and Rutgers University, have been requesting professors to include warnings on their syllabi that caution students about controversial or potentially offensive course material. In addition to the far-reaching implications of such “trigger warnings,” I’ve yet to find a comprehensive list of books that would warrant forewarning. Here, though, are a few that have been mentioned in conjunction with everything running the gamut from domestic abuse to anti-Semitism to incest:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s attempt (some would say successful) at the Great American Novel is mentioned in several news stories regarding trigger warnings. Phillip Wythe, a Rutgers student, wrote in his Daily Targum column that the tale of excess contains scenes of “gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”
If The Great Gatsby makes the list of trigger warning-required books, you can pretty much count everything written (and possibly even said) by Norman Mailer — especially Tough Guys Don’t Dance, with its scenes of women being beheaded — as traumatic reads for anyone who has experienced domestic violence.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Also mentioned in Wythe’s column is Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The book deals with the issues of suicide and post-war mental illness, which, if it were written today, would probably be called post-traumatic stress disorder. As such, those who suffer from PTSD, especially veterans, should be cautioned before delving into Woolf’s classic novel.
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Diaz’s 2012 collection of short stories is a self-described attempt to tell the story of a man discovering that women are, in fact, “fully human.” Wythe suggests that domestic abuse victims might be jarred by Diaz’s stories of controlling relationships.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
In a recent New York Times article by Jennifer Medina on trigger warnings, Achebe’s 1958 novel about colonial influence in Nigeria and Twain’s American travelogue from the previous century are both cited as being potentially offensive because of their exploration of race. A trigger warning for Twain’s book would follow other attempts to sanitize Finn, including the 2011 replacement of the word “nigger” with “slave” by an English professor at Auburn University.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Salinger and Nabokov provided readers with two very different tales of adolescent life in the 1950s, both of which have consistently been the target of censors and are mentioned in Wythe’s column. But as two of the most recognizable titles in the English literary canon, it’s hard to believe that any college student wouldn’t be at least peripherally aware of the books’ content.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Whether Shakespeare’s 16th century play was written to incite anti-Semitism or not is a fairly debatable subject. Regardless, as Medina’s New York Times article points out, some could certainly take offense at the way its lead, Shylock, is portrayed: “greedy, clever, legalistic, pitiless.” That’s The Telegraph’s Daniel Hannan’s description — one which he writes is based on the “malevolent way that anti-Semites, in their most lurid fantasies, imagine Jews to be.”
Oedipus the King by Sophocles
Sophocles’ enduring Greek tragedy deals with two of the more disturbing societal taboos: incest and patricide. There’s plenty of non-family-related death, too, in addition to Oedipus’ gruesome act of blinding himself. Addressing such uncomfortable themes and cringe-inducing brutality are important, though, according to UC-Santa Barbara Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts David Marshall. “... there are many works of art, film, and literature that contain disturbing images in order to prevent social ills, such as violence against women,” Marshall told Daily Nexus.
While protecting those suffering from PTSD or victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse is absolutely a worthy cause, what’s worrisome is the potential for overreach posed by trigger warnings. One of the points of literature — and college itself — is to create new experiences and expose malleable minds to new ideas. There exists the potential that trigger warnings will render great works of literature impotent by cutting them off before readers have even begun. It seems improbable that students could continue to be exposed to new themes and ideas when they’ve been told what they are before the first page is even flipped.
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