Mens Rea and Narratives of Violence: The Guilty Mind in Twenty-First-Century American Literature


  • Joanna Wilson-Scott University of Edinburgh



Violence, premeditation, guilty mind, mens rea and actus reus, twenty-first-century American literature


This article presents two twenty-first-century novels that deal with particularly charged and contemporary expressions of violence in the United States: Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and the threat of armed students in school, and John Updike’s Terrorist and the threat of Islamic extremism. High profile acts of violence of this kind in the United States leading up to and into the years following the turn of the millennium prompted significant concern surrounding the identification of would-be perpetrators, including those in the premeditating stage of their intended attacks.

This article argues that stepping away from the violent act and focusing instead on the violent mind situates premeditation as an integral part of violence and its conceptualization. Further, interest in the internalized aspects of violence can be seen as a response to very real socio-cultural concerns in the United States. In order to achieve this analytical focus, the article adopts the legal concepts of mens rea (the guilty mind) and actus reus (the guilty act), interweaving them with literary criticism in order to suggest that novels can serve as Momusian windows into the premeditating stage of violence through immersion into the violent mind. In so doing, they contribute more robustly to broader understandings of violence in the United States as it evolves from concept to action.  

Author Biography

Joanna Wilson-Scott, University of Edinburgh

Joanna Wilson-Scott received her PhD from the University of Leicester in 2018, and lectures in literature at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln, having previously taught at the University of Gloucestershire and the University of Leicester. In 2019 she was a Postdoctoral Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and is the Susan Manning Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh for 2021-2022.


Amis, Martin. 2006. “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.” The New Yorker 80:10, 152-163.

Ash, Gwynne Ellen, and Jane M. Saunders. 2018. “From ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ to ‘Pumped Up Kicks’: Rampage School Shootings in Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Lives.” Children’s Literature in Education 49: 34-46.

Åström, Berit. 2015. “Postfeminist Fatherhood in the Animated Feature Films Chicken Little and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” Journal of Children and Media 9, no. 3: 294-307.

Blankenhorn, David. 1994. Fatherless American: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bly, Robert. 1990. Iron John: A Book About Men. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Botelho, Teresa. 2018. “Under His Skin: Reconstructing the Adolescent Longings of a Would-be Terrorist.” In European Perspectives on John Updike, edited by Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton, 13-27. Rochester, NY: Camden House.

Cohn, Dorrit. 1978. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Däwes, Birgit. 2010. “‘Close Neighbors to the Unimaginable’: Literary Projections of Terrorists’ Perspectives (Martin Amis, John Updike, Don DeLillo).” Amerikastudien / American Studies 55, no. 3: 495-517.

DeLillo, Don. 1988. Libra. London: Penguin.

DeLillo, Don. 2007. Falling Man. New York: Picador.

Eaton, Mark. 2016. “Beyond Belief: John Updike’s Terrorist.” In 9/11: Topics in Contemporary North American Literature, edited by Catherine Morley, 105-124. London: Bloomsbury.

Fast, Jonathan. 2008. Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings. New York, NY: The Overlook Press.

Gardner, John, and Heike Jung. 1991. “Making Sense of Mens Rea: Anthony Duff’s Account.” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 11, no. 4: 559-588.

Genette, Gérard. 1980. Narrative Discourse. Trans. by Jane E. Lewin. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gray, Richard. 2009. “Open Doors, Closed Minds: American Prose Writing at a Time of Crisis.” American Literary History 21, no. 1: 128-151.

King, Stephen. 1977. “Rage.” In The Bachman Books: Four Novels by Stephen King, 1-131 Sevenoaks, UK: New English Library.

MacNeil, William P. 2012. Novel Judgements: Legal Theory as Fiction. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mathis, Janelle, and Polly Vaughan. 2018. “Acknowledging Ability and Agency in Book Discussion Communities: Adolescent Boys Experiencing Psychosocial Distress Examine Suicide in Young Adult Novels.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 12, no. 3: 287-302.

McWilliam, David. 2016. “Fear and Loathing in Suburbia: School Shootings.” In Violence in American Popular Culture, edited by David Schmid, 183-202. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Millard, Kenneth. 2007. Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Morley, Catherine. 2016. 9/11: Topics in Contemporary North American Literature. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Oates, Joyce Carol. 1995. Zombie. New York, NY: Harper Collins Ecco.

Palahniuk, Chuck. 1996. Fight Club. London: Vintage.

Paroissien, David. 2006. Review: “The Crime in Mind: Criminal Responsibility and the Victorian Novel.” Dickens Quarterly 23, no. 4: 261-264.

Popenoe, David. 1996. Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Posner, Richard A. 2009. Law and Literature (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Preti, Antonio. 2006. “Suicide to Harass Others: Clues from Mythology to Understanding Suicide Bombing Attacks.” Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention 27, no. 1: 22-30.

Quick, Matthew. 2013. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. London: Headline.

Rothberg, Michael. 2009. “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray.” American Literary History 21, no. 1: 152-158.

Rumohr-Voskuil, Gretchen. 2019. “Looking for Hope – and Helpers – in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.” In Contending with Gun Violence in the English




How to Cite

Wilson-Scott, J. (2021). Mens Rea and Narratives of Violence: The Guilty Mind in Twenty-First-Century American Literature. American Studies in Scandinavia, 53(2), 23–41.