The New York Times recently ran a story about college students requesting “trigger warnings” to alert them that something in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby might freak them out. Such warnings would alert a student that The Merchant of Venice contains anti-Semitic elements and that Mrs. Dalloway deals with suicide. The issue of trigger warnings has been raised at schools as varied as Oberlin, Rutgers, and the University of Michigan.
A lot of people think this is more lefty twaddle, but I sure don’t. Ever since I read Hamlet in high school, I have been terrified that somebody is going to pour poison into my ear while I am asleep, the way Claudius does to Hamlet’s father. I really wouldn’t put it past my wife; she’s still mad about that hefty home-equity loan. And the 3-D TV we didn’t need. If Hamlet had come with a trigger warning—“May contain upsetting auditory-canal passages”—I would not have had to spend the rest of my life being traumatized by fear of cochlear trauma.
I still sleep with earmuffs, even to this day. So I don’t think this stuff is frivolous or stupid.
It would also have helped if Moby Dick had contained a warning: “May contain upsetting passages about being forced to bed down with a heavily tattooed harpooner.” Call me squeamish, but I grew up fearing having to share a bed with a harpooner, because in the part of Wildwood, New Jersey, I used to visit during summer vacations, motels often offered reduced rates for guests willing to double-up with seafaring desperadoes. Just the image of poor little Ishmael trapped in bed with that scary Queequeg has haunted me all my life. Not because I am afraid to be in the same bed as a man. But because I am afraid to be in bed with a man who makes his living with a harpoon.
The list of college-level books that should contain trigger warnings does not stop there. Beowulf has really creepy sea monsters that would make impressionable young people reluctant to go into the water. So does Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. All sorts of nutty behavior goes on in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Don Quixote seems to make light of addled seniors who may be suffering from a late-medieval version of dementia. Banquo’s showing up out of nowhere in the middle of that banquet in Macbeth is the kind of thing that could put kids off visiting rural Scotland forever. And all that creepy stuff about Gulliver getting tied up by the Lilliputians. What’s up with that?
There is more. Innocent, pyrophobic co-eds could easily be spared the trauma awaiting them in Jane Eyre if the novel came with a warning: “Hero locks up scary wife in wing of castle. Oh, and another thing, she sets the house on fire and gets burned to a crisp.” Great Expectations would be easier on those with a pathological fear of rodents if it were accompanied by a warning: “Famished rats eat jilted bride’s wedding cake.” Finally, The Last of the Mohicans should come with a warning: “If graphic images of a man getting his heart ripped out of his chest in front of his daughter is at all upsetting, maybe you should stick with Leatherstocking Tales. And don’t even ask about the ordeal by fire.”
How early in life should these trigger warnings be mandated? Really early.
“If the idea of a little kid breaking his crown upsets you, do not, do not, do not read Jack and Jill,” is how a typical alert should read. “Contains head-butting and trolls” is how the alert accompanying “The Three Billy-Goats Gruff” should be phrased. “Stepmother issues? Be advised that ‘Snow White’ could be very, very unnerving,” is yet another practical disclaimer. Along with this trigger warning on the cover of Sleeping Beauty: “Could be upsetting to children with chronic sleep disorders.”
No, this subject is not trivial, and it is not silly. Young people have a right to know that war causes impotence (The Sun Also Rises). They have a right to know that The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is about a hunchback—not that there’s anything wrong with that! And they have a right to know, far in advance, that the Bible contains passages that could prove unsettling to malleable young minds: “Contains mass drownings, stonings, blindings and plagues of both frogs and locusts,” the trigger warning might read.
And that’s just the Old Testament.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.