Rape as Literary Theme

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History

(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.

Terence’s comedy The Eunuch (161 b.c.e.) features a rape that turns out all right in the end, suggesting that rape is a minor transgression that can be resolved as long as love accompanies it or marriage (preserving family honor by marrying the victim and the rapist) follows it. Lucrece in Livy’s history chooses rape when forced either to submit to Tarquin or be murdered. Consent making her an adulterer in the Roman view, Lucrece commits suicide. Rape, which some consider a fate worse than death, distressingly often results in death as well. Other examples of the punishments meted out for the crime of being raped: Amphissa is blinded by her father for getting raped; Apemosyne is murdered by her brother for the immorality of being raped by Hermes; Arne is blinded by her stepfather when he discovers her pregnant by rape.

In William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594), Titus stabs his daughter Lavinia to death for getting raped. This projection of the blame for rape upon the victim occurs although the rapist in Greek myth is presented as...

(The entire section is 687 words.)