Monday, October 24, 2011

Despicable vs. Scurrilous

The Book of Genesis has been interpreted many times. Words used for each passage differ from translation to translation; however, the message remains the same. Depending on the word choice of each author, the emotional message of the passages vary. When comparing Alter and Crumb, the passage 34:7 is one where the words create a stronger emotion in one compared to the other.

“And Jacob’s sons had come in from the field when they heard, and the men were pained and they were very incensed, for he had done a scurrilous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, such as ought not to be done,” these are the words from Alter. This is the moment when Jacob’s daughter is raped by Shechem. The use of the word pained and incensed bring about emotions of grief and anger. It is obvious these are feelings a brother would incur when hearing the news that his sister has been raped.

In comparison, Crumb chose to translate the passage as such, “And Jacob’s sons came in from the field as soon as they heard, and the men were pained, and they were highly incensed, for he had done a despicable thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, a thing which ougt not to be done.” Just as Alter, Crumb kept the words pained and incensed. He does this because these words are very impactful when describing the feelings and emotions of the brothers.

Unlike Alter, Crumb writes this passage in a more urgent tone. Rather than saying, “…Jacob’s sons had come in when they heard…”, Crumb states, “…[the] sons came in as soon as they heard…” This sentence structure brings about the dramatic state of the situation. By setting the sentence in this way, the audience is able to better perceive how crucial the condition is. Having this urgency stressed how miserable and devilish Shechem is. It shows how the brothers truly care about their sister and the extent that the act of rape is not acceptable.

Moreover, Crumb chooses the word despicable rather than scurrilous, which Alter uses. According to Webster’s Dictionary, scurrilous is defined as being vulgar and evil; despicable is defined as, “so worthless or obnoxious as to rouse moral indignation”. It is evident, with or without the definitions, that despicable portrays a harsher and more evil act than scurrilous. Despicable is less formal than scurrilous, which plays along with Crumb’s sentence structure. Together, his sentence structure and word choice demonstrate a more grotesque situation that has occurred.

By using words that have a stronger connotation, Crumb is able to create reasoning for the revenge Jacob’s sons take on Shechem. If Crumb had used a word less impactful, the audience may not have been able to understand why Jacob’s sons set out to kill and destroy. The act of rape must be presented in the most harsh way as possible. If the word scurrilous was still used, as Alter did, the audience may not have understood the acts of revenge. Some readers may look at the word and not give much attention to it rather than it being understood as “bad”. Despicable is more commonly used and is understood as wretched. Having words that are more commonly understood again brings about the stronger message of how horrible rape is.


  1. Amanda,

    I think you did a good job distinguishing between Alter and Crumb's interpretations. The word despicable (used by Crumb) does in deed provoke more emotion that Alter's term scurrilous. Also, you did recognize an important change of phrase from Alter's "come in from the field when they heard" and Crumb's "come in from the field as soon as they heard." I agree with your commentary regarding Crumb's interpretation implying an immediate rush to take action against Shechem.

    Aside from these two differences, I feel as if you can further your argument by incorporating a passage from Genesis 34:3, in both Alter and Crumb. This scene interprets the rape. Alter uses the phrase "debased her," while Crumb uses the phrase "defiled her." Again, Crumb's wording implies a much harsher action. Debase typically means to reduce in value, while defile means to make foul or to violate. This would strengthen your argument by confirming the fact that Crumb uses more graphic and violent interpretations.

    Another piece of advice would be to examine/describe Crumb's illustrations during this time. This could be helpful in the sense that his illustrations often reflect his interpretations and his text. Essentially, what I am saying, is that Crumb's visual interpretations correspond with his textual interpretations. This way, his textual interpretations could be easier to understand. In turn, the difference between Alter and Crumb's interpretations will be easily recognizable.

    Other than that, great work!

  2. Quick question - why do you think Alter chose such a strange word? Crumb is being less formal (arguably), and more direct (definitely) - I think your reading of Crumb's streamlining of Alter is good. But that raises the obvious question of why Alter chose such a strange word in the first place - in some ways, Alter's weirdness might be more interesting than Crumb's straightforwardness here.