Incest Is Best: A Look at One of Society's Greatest Taboos as Presented in Fiction

Alright, sports fans. It's time to get ready! The return of the Game of Thrones series on HBO is nigh upon us. Season 4 is set to take flight (like a dragon - get it??) April 6, and based on the trailers (and the fourth book in Martin's series), it's set to be a good one. There will be battles fought, undead creatures slain, and plenty of mayhem. We'll see Tyrion, Joffrey, Sansa, Jon Snow, and...and...and...

...Oh, yeah. Cersei and Jaime Lannister, too. 


Yes, Cersei and Jamie are reunited now, and with their reunion comes the reminder: though they're twins, Jaime and Cersei like to...get it on. Do the nasty. Dance the horizontal mambo.

*waits for the collective shuddering to end*

Look. I'm the youngest of three children. I have two older brothers, of whom I think the world. Seriously, they're awesome. Fabulous. We have a great time when we get together, and even when we can't, we email, text, or call, just for fun. Just to make each other laugh. That's how cool they are.

But no matter what, no matter how cool I think they are, when you get right down to it, the idea of ever...oh dear god no never...making out with them makes me want to puke my guts out. No offense, guys, but you're my brothers. My blood. And I just can't stomach the idea of incest.

I'm not alone in this. Ask just about anyone if they've ever made out with their sibling and you're likely to get a look of revulsion...if not a punch in the nose. Incest remains one of society's great taboos, the one thing most of us could never fathom doing.

So why then, if it's the one thing that makes us all give a collective dry heave, does incest appear in so much literature? Let's dig in and figure it out together. Okay? Take my hand...but don't worry, I won't try to force you to smooch your mom...

Of course [Joffrey is] an asshole — he's got nothing but Lannister blood flowing through his veins

My own personal first experience reading about incest came somewhere in the late 80s when I picked up a copy of (I'm ashamed to admit it now) Flowers in the Attic at my local Walden Books. I had no idea what I was getting into, just that it was a book with a cool cover that asked a creepy question — what happens to a group of kids when you lock them away in an attic? I couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen, and had only just read Anne Frank's diary for the first time, so it was certainly a titillating topic. (Ha! I said titillating! In a column about incest! Did you catch that?) 

I remember reading it, completely caught up in the idea of being locked away with my brothers until..oh my god...the brother and sister did WHAT? I lay in bed that night, eyeing my brother's room suspiciously, thinking, "Brothers and sisters do that? That's disgusting!" The later revelation (spoiler alert!!) that the mother and father were also brother and sister pretty much did me in. I couldn't look at the book without wanting to hurl, and never read any more in the series, though the books were everywhere, topping all the bestseller lists back then.

I got older. As an English major in college, I learned that incest is a common literary device, dating back to ancient time. Who can forget the story of Oedipus Rex? Remember him? He's the fella that killed his father, married his mother, and screwed up everything around him, becoming the inspiration for Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex. You know, the one that says all boys go through a phase in which they want to kill their fathers and do the nasty with their mothers?

Yeah. Mother-son incest. Ick.

Of course, incest didn't end with the fall of ancient Greece. In the comparatively-modern classic To Kill a Mockingbird, it's heavily insinuated that Mayella Ewell is frequently molested by her father, Bob Ewell. Or, in Ewell's rather colorful terminology, he's accused of "ruttin' on" his Mayella. Father-daughter incest. Ick.

Sci-fi great Robert Heinlein wrote about incest. Other critically acclaimed authors like Ian McEwan, William Faulkner, and John Irving touch on incest in their books as well. So it's not like it's just for genre fiction like Game of Thrones, ladies and gents. Even our own Chuck Palahaniuk, in his novel Rant, talks incest when the main character travels through time to purify his own genetic code.


So why do writers write about this thing that makes most people run for the toilet? Why push their readers to such an extreme?

Well, for one, they write about it because it happens. Take a look at your history books, people. Read about almost any royal family in almost any country with a monarchy, and you'll see it. Cousins marrying cousins, keeping the royal lineage within the family. Brothers marrying sisters, ensuring their bloodlines remain pure. And everywhere you turn, you see the evidence of the destructive results of incest: royal families are rotten with genetic disorders.

So much for the pure bloodlines, eh?

Nowadays in literature, incest can be used as an explanation for some really terrible behavior. Why is Joffrey such a douche in GoT? Well, it's probably because his uncle is also his father! Of course he's an asshole — he's got nothing but Lannister blood flowing through his veins...and haven't you seen his grandfather? UGH! That blood should have been cut with a bit of Baratheon...maybe then Joffrey wouldn't have enjoyed killing his maids for sport!

Incest is also used as further example of a character's evil ways. We can't be too shocked in Book 1 of GoT when Jaime shoves poor Bran off the side of a tower. After all, he's just been interrupted during a naked tryst with his sister! See? See how that works? He's a sexual deviant; of course he's also a killer.

And finally, the use of incest in literature just goes to show a truth uncommonly admitted: we are all fascinated with the things that most disgust us. Incest. Polygamy. Rape. Murder. We've made shows like GoT, Dexter, and Big Love hugely popular, simply because we can't turn away. Writers tapping into this phenomena are smart, savvy, and also, they're just like you and me. They can't turn away either.

So all we can do is deal with the sly looks between Jaime and Cersei when Game of Thrones comes back on air, and turn the pages and swallow back the bile when we read about it in novels and plays. And we can all try our hardest not to even imagine ourselves with our...oh, god no....never mind...I can't even type it.


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Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 31, 2014 - 10:53am

Good stuff here (well, in terms of content, not subject). Seems us writers are simply attracted to the extremes, to frontiers, especially those of us who practice the dark arts (dark fiction). I think if treated properly in terms of motivation and arc, pretty much anything goes. It's one of the few outlets in the world where anything can be explored, and it should remain so. 

That said, shudder...

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson March 31, 2014 - 7:46pm

For me, writing has always been about making the impossible (or improbable, or indecent) possible. And I suppose that goes for incest as much as it does dragons and spacecraft. 

I think a lot of us—writers and readers, alike—are drawn to things that make us feel down, dirty, or dismal because we don't get that, or enough of it, in everyday life.

Gimme that sweet that nasty that gushy stuff. Er whatever.

Great column, Leah!

Jeremiah Murphy's picture
Jeremiah Murphy from Idaho is reading A Little Life March 31, 2014 - 9:15pm

I read Vurt by Jeff Noon a couple months back and I was totally caught off guard when I found out the girlfriend that the main character had lost in the vurt was also his sister. At first I wasn't sure how I felt about it but then it ended up just adding to the messed up world the story took place in. Nothing wrong with being pushed out of your comfort zone. Even if incest is absolutely revolting.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. April 1, 2014 - 4:06am

My favorite thing about this...all the comments I've seen (here and on Twitter and FB) are like: "Incest! Valid literary device! But still! So gross!"

Which was entirely my point. NONE of us, not even the most hardened of writers, can talk about it without being completely disgusted! I love it!

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On April 1, 2014 - 11:04am

Leah, just for that, my next short will feature family love!

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. April 1, 2014 - 2:04pm

Oh dear God, Dino...just don't ask me to read it. I don't wanna barf!!

(Just kidding. I'll read anything you write.) :)

Keith Pullman's picture
Keith Pullman April 2, 2014 - 5:09am

Like assault/molestation, CONSENSUAL incest has always been a part of our stories. See: The Bible, Greek mythology. Do you know why? Because it has always been a part of life. At least 10% of people in their early 20s will confide in anonymous surveys to already having had consensual sexual contact with a sibling. This doesn't even include other close relatives, just siblings. I have interviewed dozens of people in ONGOING spousal or sexual relationships with their first-degree genetic relatives. Some of them were raised apart from each other, some weren't. I guarantee you this is common enough that you know someone who has been, or is currently, involved, whether your know it or not. Most people in these relationships are in the closet because they can literally be sent to prison for the "crime" of loving each other in some places, or because they know they will otherwise be discriminated against, ostracized, bullied, or persectuted. 

Why should our stories ignore the subject?

Yes, it grosses a lot of people out, but not everyone. And that it grosses someone out should not mean it should never be in our stories. I know women who are lesbians who are completely disgusted by the thought of heterosexual sex. They can choose what they read/watch.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine April 2, 2014 - 10:19am

Vurt is my jam, incest and all.

Amara Rohr's picture
Amara Rohr April 2, 2014 - 1:31pm

To be fair, the parents in Flowers in the Attic weren't brother and sister, they were half-uncle and neice.  But same difference. 

Andreia Marques's picture
Andreia Marques from Brazil is reading Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood April 2, 2014 - 2:05pm

I must be weird, because I am one of those weird people that isn't bothered by the thought of incest at all (possibly because I have no male siblings, and I'm straight). Yes, it does happen in my stories from time to time, and no, not associated with evil connotations.

As someone said above - it's painfully common, and was all throughout history. In the same book series - Game of Thrones - it's even standard for the Targaryens, as it was for the Egyptian pharaohs. So yeah. It exists, so we write about it.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... April 2, 2014 - 3:04pm

This is one of those prissy comments, but I had to stop reading after the first paragraph because it distracted me so. The fourth season of Game of Thrones is based largely around the second half of book three (A Storm of Swords), not book four (A Feast for Crows), of A Song of Ice and Fire. The third sentence should read "...based on the trailers (and the third book in Martin's series)..."

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I can finish the article and maybe come up with something thoughtful to post.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... April 2, 2014 - 3:20pm

Actually, Andreia, I'm similar: Because I know it can never happen, incest doesn't bother me as much as it does others.

And I hate to correct the article (again), but Jaime Lannister, top-heavy domino of doom that he is, has complex motivations that go beyond boning his sister. "He's a sexual deviant, ergo a killer" hardly sums him up. Also, I doubt that Joffrey's sadism can be explained away by some genetic mental disorder: One generation of incest won't turn him into Charles The Bewitched. Here's someone who was raised by a king who spent more time with whores and wild game than his son and, well, Cersei. You think maybe the fact that he was told his whole life he would become king and thus be justified in doing whatever he wanted has something to do with his general disregard for others? The incest=evil equation may work in-universe, but readers should be smarter. If incest automatically resulted in sadistic half-wits, Myrcella and Tommen would be just as bad as their brother.

Emalina Murphy's picture
Emalina Murphy April 2, 2014 - 3:34pm

But Jofferey isn't an asshole b/c he is the product of incest; it's explained more than once that Jofferey was a sweet kid and then turned into a monster b/c his Baratheon father ignored and beat him. Jofferey's brother and sister are also portrayed as beautiful, sweet, smart children and are so b/c Robert died before he could have any influence on their behaviors.  (Spoiler Alert) Jofferey hired a sellsword to kill Bran not b/c he is intrisically evil, but because he wanted to impress his (supposed) father.  Also, Jaime isn't a cold-blooded killer of children the entire series, but is an extremely complex dynamic character.  I think this article takes away from the complexities of Martin's writing styles and make a lot of prescriptive assumptions about love and family relationships.

Andrew Ackerman's picture
Andrew Ackerman April 2, 2014 - 4:20pm

Small correction: GoT season 4 is the second half of book 3, Storm of Swords. Otherwise, great article!

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. April 2, 2014 - 6:30pm

I never know if replying to comments makes me sound defensive...if so, oh well. But I do want to say I adore Martin's books, and totally appreciate the complexity of ALL his characters. The incest part is just one piece, and I was poking fun around it. That said, I do believe it's used to enhance a bit of their deviance, on many levels. But that's certainly not ALL that's going on...with any of them. Cersei in particular is one of the most interesting characters I've ever read, and what I really love about her is that she's not just some pushover, cookie-cutter medieval chickadee. I like her a whole lot more, say, than Sansa (though Sansa has grown on me through the years as well...).

Martin's one of my favorite writers, and this is one of my favorite shows, so all's well and we can all get along. I promise.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing April 18, 2014 - 6:43am

Nabokov's ADA is about brother-sister love. It's no LOLITA, but it's entertaining in an icky sort of way.