Profanity in books is a topic people never tire of debating. Is it okay, is it useful, will it corrupt the youth? (Won’t someone please think of the children?) I remember my high school English teacher being simply aghast at my love of Stephen King, decrying his use of the gory, the macabre, and the profane. Despite my enduring gratitude for her lasting effects on my book worminess, I continue to disagree. In the hands of a skillful writer, a swear word or irreverent diatribe adds color and flavor to a book’s menu, and sharp relief to its landscape. We readers want to dive into books in which the characters feel real. We want to know their struggles and demons deeply, to see all their warts and wrinkles. Yes, we even want to hear it when they let out a stream of vitriol so vile it would make our English teachers blush. Because, after all, it is the angry, rebellious, dodgy characters who teach us about our own dark sides. The four fellows below represent my favorite foul mouths in literature:
Caliban (The Tempest, by William Shakespeare)
We can hardly talk about the English language without inviting the Bard into the discussion. The greatest wordsmith who ever lived didn’t only write about the noble and well-mannered. In fact, one of his most intriguing characters is Caliban from The Tempest, a son of a witch (I’m not just being cute, his mother was an actual witch) who’s described as a literal monster. Enslaved by nobly born Prospero and the victim of Prospero’s theft of his island home, Caliban spends his time hurling well-crafted insults at his master in return for an unjust fate of servitude. In addition to spinning some of the best epithets ever, Caliban also weaves the play’s most haunting and beautiful lines. If we scratch Caliban’s surface, it becomes clear that this character is Shakespeare’s commentary on the evils of colonialism and the tragedy of slavery. What appeared to be a simple “monster” is actually a mirror to Prospero’s own monstrousness. Well-played, you son of a witch.
Mark Renton (Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh)
As much as Ewan MacGregor nailed this role in the film adaptation, the movie is no match for the book if you really want to get inside Renton’s head. Mark and his crew of ne’er-do-wells speak in that particular brand of working-class Scottish, spelled out in painstaking phonetic detail by Welsh. Mark’s gritty, razor-tongued quips belie his apparent nonchalance regarding the state of his life and community. He and his friends are drowning in addiction, poverty, and grief, but usually seem too busy conning or partying to notice. The constant stream of bitter invective Mark spews is, ironically, what the reader craves most from him: a fight. Mark’s swearing is the only hint that he might not go down without one.
Patrick Bateman (American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis)
Another character well-portrayed on film, Bateman couldn’t be more different from Renton. Whereas Renton’s swears because he cares, Bateman swears because he doesn’t care, at least about anything except his own momentary desires. The pinnacle of 1980s yuppiedom, Bateman’s life is full of everything he wants: money, sex, prestige. The only problem is that as soon as he gets whatever object he has been lusting after, he ceases to want it. At which point, his desires progress into the depths of depravity. In a world where everyone wears the same designer clothes, dates the same people, and has the same (well, nearly the same) business cards, Bateman is both ruled and stifled by his desperation to fit in. He stands out among the crowd by becoming a vacuum of a man, sucking up souls with hardly a care. Indeed, Bateman hardly appears to care about anything at all, until, that is, somebody gets under his skin by insinuating he is (gasp!) not all that great after all. Then, prepare for a string of the most vicious swears you have ever read. For real, hide yo’ kids.
Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller)
Much of the creative freedom authors enjoy today is surely due to this seminal work. As the narrator, Miller eschews any semblance of a cohesive plot. It’s as though he just jumped into a rowboat on the stream of his own consciousness, and the water is filthy. And I do mean filthy. So filthy, in fact, that this work was banned in the U.S. for more than 30 years. As an expatriate living in 1920s and ’30s-era Paris, Miller is all too ready to throw off the repressive shackles of post-Victorian America for the absinthe-drinkin’, short skirt-wearin’, loose moral-havin’ Parisian social scene. Anyone who says the world is on a downward spiral of depravity nowadays clearly hasn’t read this book. Trust me, if our relative victory against lice and our consistent use of Penicillin is any indication, we’re doing just fine in 2014. Miller’s work can be said to be the opposite of alarmism, a sort of yawn into the face of morality and mortality alike. Ironically, the reader ends up pitying the narrator for his ennui. This character takes life for granted, which just might help us remember to cherish it.
So now we want to know, who are your favorite foul-mouthed female characters?