The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

It has taken millennia for rape—sexual assault—to be recognized unreservedly as crime. Earlier ages could look upon rape as a means of establishing male rights to a woman or even as an expression of manhood. Public disgust at sexual violation has grown in recent centuries to the point where understanding of what qualifies as rape includes marital rape, rape of a prostitute, and rape under implicit as well as explicit threat.

Much literature takes a naturalistic view of rape, viewing violence, including sexual violence, as inevitable in human relations. Most late twentieth century writing tends in the direction of feminist theorists, who insist that rape is a crime, a crime not of passion but of abuse of power. Feminist analysis also indicates that rape is a criminal means of suppression. Rape is invasive, violating the victim’s privacy, threatening the individual’s sense of control, undermining self-worth.

The undermining of identity is complicated by the question of the responsibility of the victim. Rape victims find themselves wondering whether they could have prevented the rape; often social institutions, friends, and family join in asking if the responsibility for the rape belongs to the victim. Society’s ambivalence about rape can feed into the tendency of rapists to project their motivations onto their victims, to believe that the raped person “wanted it” or that the victim, by wearing enticing clothing or by behaving in a given way, was “asking for it.” The question of the victim’s complicity in rape is raised often in modern literature, for example, when the “carbuncular” young man accosts the secretary in The Waste Land (1922), making “a welcome of indifference,” the speaker of the poem makes no attempt to resolve the scene’s ambiguity. What is important to the thematic development of the poem is the scene’s lovelessness, not whether the secretary is being raped or is allowing the young man to have sexual relations with her.