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The whole damn literary canon needs a trigger warning

Until we appreciate how much of our literature is potentially traumatic, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence?

Actor Robert Helpmann as Shylock in the Old Vic's 1958 production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Actor Robert Helpmann as Shylock in the Old Vic's 1958 production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The trouble with trigger warnings is: how would you know when to stop? It isn't just that triggers (the sensory inputs that revive experiences of trauma; the violent siblings of the Proustian Madeleine moment) can be erratic. For some people, a description of the violence that traumatised them will leave them unscathed, but a taste, a smell, a colour or a texture might summon every horror they've known. How can any system of warnings predict the strange and painful networks of memory? But even if you restrict the trigger warning to only the obviously violent, to depictions of sexual aggression and racism, how much is there in the canon of literature that could be considered non-triggering?

The Bible would have to wear the warning, of course: too much begetting without consenting, and a lot of shedding of blood. Shakespeare too. There are the obvious horrors, like Titus Andronicus with its hideous maternally-directed rape ("Away with her and use her as you will./The worse to her, the better loved of me") and subsequent mutilation of the victim. But then there are the comedies, which even at their merriest contain intimations of rape. Measure for Measure hinges entirely on a woman being coerced into intercourse to save her brother's life. Problem play? More like problematic play. Get behind the tape.

The great works of the Restoration, then. Pope's The Rape of the Lock parodies a society incident in which a young rake violated a beautiful woman's hair in retaliation for slighting him. The wit of the poem comes in the bathetic contrast between the epic ornamentation Pope uses and the perceived smallness of the crime – but really, and not to be a massive downer, we are talking about an assault and a more than passingly creepy one. Cutting away a lock of a woman's hair assumes a right to her person that is rooted in the deepest woman-hatred. And then there's Swift, both a great satirist and a great misogynist: "Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" he cries out, revenging rejection by dragging the desired woman into the humiliations of the grotesque. (At least Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was able to pay Swift back with her imperious and much funnier reply.)

To the romantics. Byron, of course – there's no shortage of triggering moments in Byron for victims of sexual violence. The novel appears about this time, and is reputedly a more female-friendly form, but Fanny Burney's Evelina is riddled with hate for women, especially the unmarriageable ones: in one scene, two elderly ladies are humiliatingly forced to race for gentlemanly entertainment. Jane Austen is surer ground, assuming we see no violence in the marriage market that she delineates with satirical clarity. Our contemporary expectation that women are people and not chattels would call such bargaining "financial abuse", and so Austen must be blazed with content notes too.

We should find safety in the reputed primness of the Victorians. But Browning's Porphyria is erotically strangled, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is raped – in decorous circumlocution, but repeatedly, until she has finally had enough and stabs the source of her abuses (Hardy blames the President of the Immortals for Tess's travails, but I blame the patriarchy) – and Bram Stoker's Dracula is a cavalcade of sexy sluts getting violated right in the vein. Wuthering Heights is an anatomy of familial violence, and a highly disturbing one. Racist too, with the focus on the exoticism of Heathcliff's dark gipsy skin and his bestial affinity with dogs.

As we get past the suffrage movement and into the 20th century, things should be looking up. Actually, not so much. The Waste Land plays on rape as a metaphor – and Eliot has no concern for the inner life of the female character he has fictionally despoiled; he doesn't want sympathy for her, her wants her as a symbol. The Great Gatsby ambushes you with antisemitism. Of Mice and Men, with the tragic, nameless Curley's Wife who exists only to menace men with her sexuality and be killed by an absolutely blameless character, because who could help killing a woman like that? Lolita, of course: how great, how elegant, how jewel-like in its precision, how absolutely stuffed with woman-killing and the sensual pleasures of child rape. Sylvia Plath's Ariel with its savage recreations of male violence – definitely triggering.

Where are we now? Practically contemporary. We could study Margaret Atwood's work, with its anatomical exploration of the marks left by violence against women – The Handmaid's Tale is the obvious classic (TW: rape, sexual assault, extreme patriarchy). Or one of my favourite novels, Alasdair Gray's 1982, Janine – a luminous descent punctuated by wild and lurid fantasies of sadism against female bodies. The problem is that what the trigger warning would highlight is something that is simply endemic in our culture: violence against women is just so much background hum, a cracked neck here, a severed tongue there, an aggressively inserted cock here and here and here.

There is nothing exceptional about this content. Wanting to be warned that it is coming is like wanting to be warned that there may be some exhaust fumes in the air you breathe. Well of course there will be – what do you want to do, live on a Hebridean smallholding in isolated purity, breathing in a clean, cultureless atmosphere? And with so much literature being subject to the trigger warning, if they are introduced to university syllabi (as has been proposed), what's to stop the lazy student from feigning trauma and skiving off two-thirds of the set texts? Not that English literature students need much institutional support for their skiving.

But a trigger warning doesn't have to be a do-not-enter notice. It could be a road sign, simply informing travellers of the kind of place they're about to enter: welcome to our village, twinned with patriarchy since publication date. And for every one of the works I've named above, I could write you an elaborate defence of the misogynistic content, contextualising it, explaining its artistic necessity or the way the author is interrogating patriarchy rather than simply replicating it. In some instances, I'd even believe what I was telling you.

That's not the point, though: the point is that this is what our art is made of, and until we notice that, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence? Trigger warnings are crude. They are patronising. Yes, they suggest that you the reader need to be protected from art. But get over all that and see them instead as beads on an abacus, counting up the many destructions of humanity that have gone into making our white, male canon: tick-tick-tick-tick – until at some point the frame topples over, and we realise that we must make something new and different if we can ever live beyond violence.