On “The Rules of Violence”

We’ve talked at length about how violence – particularly in romantic relationships – is an ever present theme throughout the novel. While I’ve made note of instances where it has been blatantly present, it was the title of chapter fourteen (borrowed also for the title of this post) that caught my attention most. I hadn’t previously considered thinking about it within a set of implicit regulations, but the more I combed through the text for examples, the more they seemed to hold true.

In making note of these violent acts, I find that it is important to remember that abuse isn’t always limited to physicality. We quickly learn that through Reno’s interactions (or, more often than not, lack thereof) with Sandro’s mother, the few that occur being cold dismissal of Reno’s presence. After Reno gives a compliment to Signora Valera regarding how nice she looked after sitting down for dinner, the latter coolly said that the always dressed that way, whereas Reno had “made an occasion of it (223)”, and then proceeded to insinuate in Italian that perhaps she had taken advantage of Sandro’s money in having gotten a new dress prior to coming to Italy. Reno, fluent in Italian, understands what she says, and remarks, “She had forgotten, once again, that I understood Italian, although she only seemed to forget, and to say something cruel, when Sandro was not around (223-224).” It would seem that, Reno, the outcast to the Valera family, is thus subjected to Signora Valera’s scathing remarks out of her disapproval of her. However, on a separate occasion (not long after which a servant walked in on her whilst she was using the shower), Reno also considers that her discomfort while staying at the Valera’s may also be an issue of social class, “of being from the wrong one, too low for a servant to feel I was an appropriate object of their attentions…and that was my problem, not [Signora Valera’s] or her servants’, and she was probably right [in saying so] (228).”

But the most common acts of violence that we see exist in the dynamic of Reno and Sandro’s relationship. On multiple occasions, we see Sandro to some extent coercing Reno into sexual acts, although it is in this chapter that she makes any effort to fight back, to insist that she absolutely did not want to have sex with him at the given moment. She admits to saying no and shoving Sandro at one point after he grabs her, though this is likely due to her shame in admitting to his mother that she did not intend to marry him (229).

Most interesting, however, is the scene where Reno and Sandro are at the pool house Reno says, “[Sandro] wanted to fool around there…but I was nervous about it”, at first refusing to “give [the groundskeeper] a show”, but relents by the time Sandro has fitted his hand down her pants, promising to be discreet. She further says, “Sandro was generous that way, seemed not to tally what he offered against what he got in return (237-238)”. This draws an interesting parallel to their first date, in which Reno remarks, “On that day, nothing could have seemed more romantic to me…than a Chinese movie and a hand job under a coat (97)”.

In coming across these passages, I have been routinely puzzled as to why Reno, someone who hardly shies back in the midst of unfamiliar circumstances, would refuse to stick up for herself, and why she continually submitted to Sandro in the end, whether she desired to or not. I can only conclude that, in addition to being an outcast in the majority of the situations she’s encountered thus far (thus not necessarily being “allowed” to speak up), Reno believes that, as Sandro’s girlfriend, it is her role – her obligation, perhaps – to submit to him in order to fulfill his sexual desires (as opposed to going against his nonsexual ones, e.g. racing The Spirit of Italy for the Valera team). Just as Judith Butler indicates that gender is comprised of gestures and role fulfillment, Reno, having grown up primarily among males, may have been conditioned to believe that, as a female, it is her duty to please her romantic partner so long as he is not too aggressive; those are simply the “rules” of her gender.

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