Columns > Published on March 31st, 2014

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.


About the author

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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