Rape as Literary Theme Analysis

The Issue

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.

Rape as Power

Rape is coming increasingly to be viewed as a crime not of passion but of power, the assertion of the will of one human being over another. The sexual aspect is viewed only as a particularly humiliating assertion of dominance. Such a psychological dynamic explains the recurring pattern in literature of the victim’s loss of identity and willingness to embrace subjection. Victims often blame themselves for somehow inviting violence. That tendency of women to accuse themselves of having bodies that tempt men is so compelling that, for example, a respected psychologist, Helene Deutsch, describes female masochism as natural.

The difference between rape and seduction, which hinges on consent, is not always clear when the consenter has less physical and social power than the forcer. Ambiguity and ambivalence about rape is common in literature, which often uses ambiguity to stimulate the reader’s own thinking about a theme. Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), is ambiguous about Tess’s first sexual encounter with Alec D’Urberville. The encounter may be more seduction than rape, yet it is clearly a violation. Alec takes sexual advantage of his masculine power and social privilege. Hardy places the blame squarely on Alec; much to the shock of his Victorian audience he proclaims Tess “a pure woman” after her violation. Toward the end of the novel, after Tess kills Alec, she continues to be portrayed sympathetically. As in The Waste Land, the argument in Tess of the D’Urbervilles is that social vices and inequalities make whether Tess was raped or not a moot point.

In the twentieth century rape in literature has come closer to actual experience. Rape in twentieth century literature has become less a symbol of social inequality and more a social inequality in itself. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) recounts the widespread rape of slave women, setting rape unavoidably in the shared historical past of the people of the United States. Richard Peck’s Are You in the House Alone? (1976) provides an almost clinical assessment of the possibility of rape in modern life. William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931) depicts what is called date rape—rape by someone familiar to the victim. Date rape is estimated to be the form that 84 percent of rapes take. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)...

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Suggested Readings

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975. Classic statement that rape is deliberate intimidation to make women fear men.

Buchwald, Emilie, Pamela R. Fletcher, and Martha Roth, eds. Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1993. Essays proposing social change to eradicate rape.

Griffin, Susan. Rape: The Power of Consciousness. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. Recounts the history of modern culture’s growing resistance to rape.

Higgins, Lynn A., and Brenda R. Silver, eds. Rape and Representation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Collection of essays arguing that the aesthetics of rape stories mirror the effects of rape in real life.

Katz, Sedelle. Understanding the Rape Victim. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979. Studies the effects of rape on victims.

Tanner, Laura E. Intimate Violence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Explores ways that fiction about rape, as does rape itself, violates personal identity.