Rape as Literary Theme Summary


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literary perspectives on rape have altered over time. The Bible condemns rape emphatically, but does so from the perspective of the male relatives of the victim. The sons of Jacob in Genesis 34 murder an entire village because the prince of that hamlet “humbled” their sister. Intertribal war is fomented by the rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. When David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar in 1 Kings 13 the disaster for him as well as for her is carefully traced in the bitter consequences of her grief and his death.

Classical perspectives on rape are more cavalier. Ovid’s The Metamorphoses (before 8 b.c.e.) highlights dozens of rapes, often by gods. The frequency of rape in classical literature may give a reader the impression that male sexual dominance, enforced by assault, is the norm. Classical literature may thus be said to encourage a cultural attitude of aggressiveness in males and compliance in females. In Tereus’ rape of his sister-in-law Philomela, the victim’s tongue is cut off to keep her from disclosing the violation, depriving her not only of virginity but of voice—perhaps even of personality, for the rape bestializes Philomela, turning her into a nightingale, incapable of human communication. Arethras, after being raped, degenerates similarly into a dove, Callisto becomes a bear, Io transfigures into a cow, and Daphne falls as far from humanity as a bay tree. Caenis, raped by Neptune, begs to become a man so as never to have to endure rape again. The psychological direction of those transformations is clear: rape desexualizes, even dehumanizes—victims of rape become less than human....

(The entire section is 687 words.)