The Dark Pages: Updating Patterns of Rape in Fiction
January 31, 2022
“Anything that’s human is mentionable and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”Fred Rogers
As a writer who seldom includes sex scenes, let alone rape, in my fiction, it seems an odd choice to approach the topic in depth. But I was struck by the breadth of novels that included rape as an explicit scene or used it as a cornerstone of the story being told. When authors consider ways to heighten the stakes of their novels, it’s easy to think in extremes. Rape becomes one of several go-to devices, an option to sort out a troubled character’s backstory, introduce a worthy difficulty to overcome, or provide evidence of an antagonist’s evil nature. Since most people have either experienced a form of sexual assault firsthand or know someone who has, this particular conflict comes with a built-in emotional trigger. As such, sexual assault can sometimes be compounded by its exploitation in literature.
There’s no shortage of material to consider. My survey took me through a variety of novels—historical fiction such as Pillars of the Earth, Outlander, The Invisible Bridge, and Gone with the Wind; Young Adult literature including Speak, The Lovely Bones, The Way I Used to Be; stories of war like Half of a Yellow Sun and The Painted Bird; popular crime fiction like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The selection spans the globe, taking place in or written by authors from England, Sweden, Nigeria, Australia, France, and the U.S. Sexual assault is pervasive and ubiquitous. Surprising, too, is how easy rape is to overlook. I realized, as an afterthought, that many of my favorite books had rape concealed within their pages. I’d simply ignored or not registered it was there. In addition to fiction, I looked at memoir and therapeutic texts and other true accounts. Although I want to take a close look at fiction in particular, it was Wendy C. Ortiz’s true story and comments that most powerfully impacted the trajectory of this paper. When My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell was published earlier this year (2020), it received backlash due to similarities with Ortiz’s memoir, Excavation, about the sexual relationship initiated by her eighth-grade English teacher when she was 14. The controversy brought to light the precarious boundaries of plagiarism as well as issues of racism and the dismissal of writers of color in the publishing industry—important topics for another essay.
In her article, “Adventures in Publishing Outside the Gates,” Ortiz wrote: “I wonder about an industry that wants to pay seven figures for a fictional book about sexual abuse.” (Ortiz 2020) This led to a guiding question for this paper: Why fictionalize rape at all? Too often, tragedy becomes romanticized in literature, exploiting the emotions of a reader as well as the suffering of real people by detailing situations that are intrinsically distressing. Ortiz said she wasn’t interested in reading a book that “sensationalized” the abuse she’d suffered in real life. Hear, hear. But is it possible to address—ethically and with integrity—a topic as loaded as sexual assault in fiction, a medium that relies on elements of drama to engage the reader, literary technique and devices to manipulate emotions? If it’s possible, how?
Most stories of rape and/or sexual assault are so exaggerated that readers become desensitized to what, in life, are often very nuanced situations. The result is misleading, bringing into question the definition of rape in general and minimizing what may be subtler instances of sexual assault. Regardless of how these stories are handled (or mishandled) by fiction writers, the theme wouldn’t be recurring if it weren’t so prevalent in the world around us. By recognizing patterns that appear consistently in fiction dealing with sexual abuse, specifically rape, and determining the function (or dysfunction) of those patterns, it might be possible to open new pathways of thought, making progress toward insights and positive change. For the purpose of this essay, I’ve limited my scope to two novels that exemplify just a few consistent patterns: Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, as well as a brief look at Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun,which breaks the standard patterns by taking a more objective approach.
Sexual assault and rape are topics met with avoidance and discomfort. Like society, authors seldom take on the subject of rape directly. In Peaches for Father Francis, rape, which is central to the plot, is approached so gradually it’s not mentioned explicitly until page 395 of 450. Peaches is the third book in the series of Joanne Harris’ novels featuring Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk. Although the second novel is somewhat a departure from its origins, Peaches returns to the setting and format of the first novel, Chocolat, which gained popularity in 2000 when it was adapted for film. That story dealswith themes of pleasure and temptation when Vianne Rocher moves to the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolaterie across the street from the church at the start of Lent.
In Peaches for Father Francis Vianne returns to Lansquenet after receiving a letter from an old friend who died eight years earlier. Readers who remember Armande will be drawn by the sweet pull of nostalgia into a world of secrets.
“I don’t often return to places I’ve left,” Vianne narrates. “I find it too uncomfortable to deal with all the things that have changed: cafes closed, paths overgrown, friends moved away, or settled rather too permanently in cemeteries and old folks’ homes—”(Harris 2012, 22)
Change creates tension in the story. Readers are on shaky ground in Lansquenet. What’s the same? What’s different? Who is the same? Who has changed and how?
The violence of rape is intimated early on when Vianne finds the burnt ruin of her chocolate shop: “It was simply too much to register: the empty windows, gaping roof, the ladder of soot climbing the wall. The smell of it still half fresh – a combination of plaster, charred wood and memories gone up in smoke.” (Harris 2012, 33) This is a loaded discovery, especially for readers who have kept up with Vianne’s story. This is the lovingly restored chocolaterie where so many people of the town found refuge, a friend to talk to, and transformation. A place that brought people together. Vianne and her daughter Anouk made a home there in the midst of their nomadic life. It has a history with the reader, and that history has been violated. The burnt chocolaterie stands in for rape, the violent trespass that is yet to be revealed.
Father Francis Reynaud, previously the antagonist in Chocolat, has become a dear friend and slightly awkward hero still struggling to come to terms with his sometimes misguided ideas. The town suspects he’s responsible for burning down the old chocolaterie, and he’s lost his position at the church. Father Francis and Vianne operate as two alternating first-person narrators.
If there are any doubts as to the symbolism of the old chocolaterie, nudges at sexual assault are soon reinforced when Father Francis, in his narration, is attempting to restore the building, cleaning off graffiti:
“I scrubbed once more at the spray-painted tag. The paint had sunk into the porous wall, saturating the plaster. The more I scrubbed, the more tenaciously the pigment seemed to cling to the wall. I muttered a curse…
“My friend said [the graffiti is] an Arabic word…It isn’t very nice,” he said. “[She] says it means whore.”(Harris 2012,155-156)
Oblique foreshadowing makes sexual assault both surprising and inevitable. Various methods of misdirection are used to tiptoe around the surprise reveal, but being so aloof means the avoidance of a key player: the rapist. There’s no figure more avoided and so effectively ignored as the rapist. In Peaches, Karim Bencharki is almost more a part of the backdrop than a character in this world. It isn’t until the climax of the novel that readers understand the story is about the consequences of rape and the impact it has on the community at large.
By the end of the novel, readers discover that “Karim was barely seventeen…[when] he raped a girl at knifepoint.” (Harris 2012, 400) Karim’s history as a serial rapist is confessed by his mother, Inès Bencharki, herself a survivor of a rape which resulted in Karim’s birth. She explains her discovery:
“…there had been certain rumours—” Inès gave her harsh little laugh. “I recognized the story. A girl at a party had been raped; but she had been drunk, her account was unclear. Another student had been raped in a park, near a nightclub.
Both were classmates of Karim’s. Both times, his name was mentioned. Neither incident was reported to the police. And yet, I knew. In my heart, I knew.”
Looking through his belongings, once more she found his trophies.(Harris 2012, 401)
In many novels I looked at, the aggressor takes on a very specific caricature, and seems less of a character and more of a prop or narrative object. In a novel with such a rich setting and magical implications, Karim almost blends into the background. His character can be described most efficiently in this statement: “Omi al-Djerba says there are amaar everywhere. They live among us. They even look like we do. But inside they are not human, and all they want is to hurt us.” (Harris 2012, 197).
In Peaches, this is done through subtle, magical qualities and not so subtle glamour. Aggressors are often depicted with extreme good looks, physical strength, charm, influence, and wealth. These qualities imbue rapists with an almost mythological standing, detached from the world, giving the impression they are untouchable. Karim “shows a golden face to the world.
People want to love him.” He is depicted as “well spoken, intelligent; always polite and respectful.”(Harris 2012, 404)
Karim has skills of persuasion and manipulation. As Inès explains: “He lets other people act for him. They think they are making their own choices, but in fact they are simply doing his will. The writing on the wall of my house. The fire.” (Harris 2012, 410)
It almost goes without saying that this façade is soon stripped away when his dark secret is revealed, but there really isn’t much beyond the two faces of the rapist. The face that fools everyone into believing he’s charming and perfect, and the face underneath that’s monstrous and inhuman. Describing the character in such broad strokes has a blinding effect. The rapist lacks any real details or nuance of character.
The majority of rape stories represented in these novels, while they might embody aspects of real situations, are also some of the most extreme and exaggerated instances of rape, often dealing with serial rapists, sadists, and sociopaths. This can have a diminishing effect on stories of rape that are more ambiguous or less extreme (the majority of cases of rape). While metaphor and exaggeration can sometimes help clarify a subtle point, a description of more nuanced situations would probably achieve more in the realm of sexual assault awareness. Harris makes this work in her novel up to a point. Since her characters are often assigned otherworldly or archetypal roles, the villain’s attributes almost appear to be an aesthetic choice rather than cartoonish and pejorative—for a time.
There’s a common defense among accused rapists (and sometimes their defenders) along the lines of “I don’t need to rape anyone. I’m too attractive.” Or, “I don’t need to rape anyone because there are so many people willing to have sex with me.”
While authors like Joanne Harris are doing well to dismiss this defense by illustrating how handsome men can also be rapists, they are nevertheless buying into the rapist’s narrative rather than taking a truly objective stance. Such statements are inherently indicative of a sense of entitlement, the perspective of someone who might not be receptive toor even aware of a “no” answer when it comes to consent. The concept of attractiveness is subjective, and authors of these novels fail to maintain its subjectivity. Readers accept the author’s authority to guide them, not only in terms of the way a character is perceived by other characters, but also in terms of the actuality and truth that make up the fabric of this world of the novel. As a result, authors, however inadvertently, accept and reinforce the rapist’s “attractiveness” as a given. If they didn’t, there would be dissenting perspectives and the transformational arc of the rapist would be more varied.
The transformational arc of the rapist tends to be entirely external—from an attractive man to an irredeemable monster. Once called out, rapists lose all of those qualities that were previously non-negotiable, as if a mask has been pulled off. Both faces, though, establish a character who is basically impervious. Impervious through qualities like charm and influence, blinding good looks, extreme wealth, physical strength; or impervious through his demonization which effectively gives the aggressor power he doesn’t possess. The rapist becomes archetypal, and he is let off the hook for some very real, very human actions. Karim is far worse than a monster: he is human, capable of monstrous acts. This is an altogether more difficult situation to deal with, apparently, because authors tend to avoid it. It’s easier to dismiss a monster.
The transformational arc of the villain might then be described as going from alive…to dead. Among the most prevalent patterns that emerged with consistency in these novels is the death of the rapist. There’s an element of spectacle reminiscent of public execution. The rapist is exposed, often in front of a group of people, and dies a sudden and typically brutal death.
In Peaches for Father Francis, it happens like this:
The growing crowd was gathering. (Harris 2012, 416)
There was a click, and then a whoosh, and then all of these things seemed to happen at once: A kind of sigh came from the crowd as Karim’s right arm blossomed with flame . . . and for a split second I saw Karim’s expression through the heat haze; his ecstatic look changing to one of realization as the flames leapt on to his face, turning from blue to yellow…he fell sideways against the balustrade…the wood was brittle, old pitch pine bleached blond by two centuries of sun and rain, and the force of the impact was enough to send [them] over the edge, trailing rags of fire and smoke, into the slipstream of the Tannes.”(Harris 2012, 432)
“The bodies of Inès and Karim Bencharki were found by police divers on Monday.”
In Big Little Lies, he’s pushed off a balcony. In My Absolute Darling, he’s killed in a brutal shoot-out. In Peaches for Father Frances, he sets himself on fire and is shoved into a deadly river.
A very natural desire for retribution is fulfilled, but it’s a flimsy, momentary sense of empowerment. Highly cathartic and yet ultimately fleeting. When the rapist dies, he escapes scrutiny. The reader’s mental process is interrupted, cut short, because of the finality of this false solution. The brain stops seeking ways to deal with a persistent issue. The outcome is dismissive of all the variations and ambiguities of sexual assault, and it’s vengeful. It can’t accurately be referred to as a “resolution” even though it claims that position in the plot of the story. It may feellike a satisfying conclusion, but it’s ultimately disempowering. There’s an underlying sense of futility communicated through this pattern.
Furthermore, others—the victim, the community, the children—are left to deal with the consequences alone. The rapist is spared the uncomfortable situation of having to take responsibility for the harm they inflicted. No wonder victim blaming becomes a problem in society when they’re the only ones left standing while the perpetratoris nowhere to be seen.
Death isn’t the only method of avoidance used to deflect attention from the rapist. Harris also uses a false antagonist, Inès Bencharki, as the town scapegoat. Her character also provides an interesting example of how the impervious quality possessed by the rapist might be dispelled, if the book went in another direction.
When Vianne returns to Lansquenet, she finds a divide between the locals and the new Muslim community across the bridge in Les Marauds. There appears to be a cultural clash, and Inès is blamed for the ill-feelings.
There’s no close contact with Inès until the end of the novel. Most of the information gleaned about this character comes from small-town gossip and assumptions. Even Vianne allows her imagination to fill in for the character before she materializes: “I imagined [Inès] watching me, hidden away; watching with feral, suspicious eyes.” (Harris 2012, 232)
“Feral, suspicious eyes.” Such qualities to assign to someone she’s never met. Like Karim, Inès takes on almost mythological characteristics. She’s portrayed like an evil witch in a fairy tale: “Aisha Bouzana says she heard that Inès…stole Du’a as a baby because she couldn’t have children herself…I’ve even heard some people say that Inès isn’t a woman at all, but some kind of Jinn, an aamar who whispers waswaas into children’s minds and delivers them to Shaitan.” (Harris 197) Many of the characters in Peaches are compared to the otherworldly or archetypal figures—Jinns, angels, scorpions, court cards in the Tarot, figures from parables. Portraying a character as inhuman creates separation, an implication of otherness that makes them suspicious to the other characters. When people are different, especially when they’re not seen as human, it is easier to reject, dislike, or hate them. Easier, even, to kill them. If they’re not human, they’re that much closer to not existing anyway.
The major difference in the treatment of the false antagonist and the true antagonist (Karim) is the manner inwhich Inès is humanized. The narrator Vianne identifies with her. As such, so does the reader. Even before the reader learns that Inès is a decoy for the true villain, subliminal clues are already in place. For example, Inès rented the old chocolaterie after Vianne, and was the occupant when it burned down. This links Vianne to Inès. They inhabited the same space. It elicits sympathy from the reader, because Inès has been placed in the same position as the beloved protagonist. Inès is also presented as a single mother with a daughter, like Vianne. It’s this identification—the narrator, and hence the reader, finding connection with the vilifiedcharacter—that makes Inès human.
When the misunderstandings of the village are explained, “Inès is no longer the Woman in Black – she has a face, and in spite of those scars, I recognize it very well. We are alike, she and I.” (Harris 2012, 402)
Inès goes through an opposite transformation to Karim’s. Not charmer-to-monster, but from villain-to-human through identification and understanding which generates empathy and compassion.
For all the differences in its story, setting, and writing style, Big Little Lies treats the rapist, on an essential, archetypal level, in a remarkably similar fashion to Peaches. In BLL, Jane moves to a seaside community on the Sydney peninsula with the secret motive of confronting the man who date-raped her five years earlier.She doesn’t know exactly why she wants to run into him. Perhaps, she thinks, to introduce him to their son.
The author, LianeMoriarty, explores themes of date rape and adds a bit more nuance to situations similar to those addressed in Harris’ novel. Jane is initiated into a community of women whose children attend Pirriwee Public School with her son, Ziggy. One of the women Jane befriends is Madeleine, the primary protagonist of the novel. The third-person narration follows Madeleine closely, and she’s the link connecting many of the events unfolding in the community.
A murder occurs early in the book, and the novel unfolds in the six months leading up to it, with an alternating timeline shown through fragments of police interviews investigating the murder. Like in Harris’ novel, suspense is a key component that lends to the twists and misdirection we’re familiar with from the previous example.
It should come as no surprise that the rapist in Big Little Lies is handsome, charismatic, and extremely wealthy. He goes by the pseudonym, Saxon Banks (a name borrowed from his cousin). In broad terms, Jane describes the man who introduced himself to her as Saxon Banks as “funny and sexy.” As she notes: “It’s not very hard for an older man with a black AmEx and a chiseled chin to make a tipsy nineteen-year-old swoon.” (Moriarty 2012, 198)
The predator is not who we think he is—not Saxon Banks, but Perry, the charismatic husband of Celeste. His unmasking is driven by the physical abuse in her son’s elementary school. Five-year-old Ziggy is accused of choking a little girl in his class—a violent act mirroring the abuse Jane suffered at the hands of her rapist, and bringing up the question: Is violence a genetic trait? In a way, this was taken for granted in Peaches. Little was revealed to link Karim to violence other than his father’s background of which he had been unaware. BLL takes different tack. Ziggy was in fact falsely accused, and the violence was acted out by Max, another boy in the class, the son of Perry and Celeste, who was following the example set by his parents when he witnessed their physically abusive relationship. Their realization is expressed in this scene:
Perry’s face changed, cracked open. “The boys have never—”
“They have,” cried Celeste. She’d pretended so very hard for so very long and there was nobody here except the two of them. “The night before the party last year, Max got out of bed, he was standing right there at the doorway—”
“Yes OK,” said Perry.
“And there was that time in the kitchen, when you, when I—”
He put his hand out. “OK, OK.”
She stopped.(Moriarty 2014, 412)
Celeste and Perry fulfill the trope of an attractive, happily married, power couple—with a
“There was something about the way Perry and Celeste held themselves, as if they were walking onto a stage; their posture was too good, their faces were cameraready…it was like Perry and Celeste weren’t in costume; it was as though the real Elvis and Audrey had arrived.”(Moriarty 2014, 416)
The story unfolds through dialogue and character interactions as Jane becomes close to and eventually confides in Madeleine, and her close friend, Celeste, about her traumatic past. But Jane doesn’t know her rapist is Celeste’s husband until the night of his death.
With flashbacks and fragments from police interviews, the story goes through the period of time leading up to a suspected murder, leaving the readers asking—who was murdered and in such a public spectacle? You guessed it. Moriarty paints a satisfying and slightly humorous death scene, made comical by the setting (elementary school trivia night) and the costumes (Audrey Hepburn and Elvis themed.)
Upon being unmasked, the rapist is promptly killed in the same scene. The death scene occurs on the balcony when Jane is introduced to Celeste’s husband for the first time and recognizes him as the man who raped her. When Jane identifies him, Perry’s mask of the perfect husband slides off, and he slaps his wife in public. This creates a sort of unifying domino effect with the women present on the balcony, all of whom had some drama playing out between them prior to this moment. One of the women present shoves Perry.
She saw his hand grab for the railing and slip.
She saw him flip back, his legs high, like he was romping on the bed with the boys.
And then he was gone without making a sound.
An empty space where he’d been.(Moriarty 2014, 448)
Perry’s death is unadorned and poignant, but in “the empty space where he’d been” is an expression of the clean disappearance that most revenge fiction seems to hinge on. Not only the public execution style of these scenes, but also an avoidance of holding him accountable. Death is so convenient.
The rapist’s sudden demise leaves the question of justice unanswered. It falls back on the women in the book to take responsibility for the reverberating impact of his crimes—the trauma Jane has already been dealing with all this time.
BLL describes a more nuanced instance of rape as it shows Jane’s difficulty talking about her experience in that vocabulary. When she shares her story with Madeline: “Jane shook her head as if she’d been given something she didn’t deserve. ‘Well. It’s not like I got raped in an alleyway. I have to take responsibility. It wasn’t that big of a deal.’” She writes it off as a “bad sexual experience.” (Moriarty 2014, 204).
She rationalizes and minimizes her experience: “She was there to have sex with him. She did not change her mind. She did not say no. It was certainly not rape. She helped him take her clothes off.” (Moriarty 2014, 199) But after a point, the one-night stand turns violent, and “Saxon Banks” starts choking her:
He squeezed. His eyes were on hers. He grinned, as if he were tickling, not choking her. He let go.
“I don’t like that!” she gasped.
…You just need to relax, Jane. Don’t be so uptight…”
But he did it again.(Moriarty 2014, 200)
When Jane shares the story of date rape with her friend: “Madeline wanted to sweep Jane into her arms and onto her lap and rock her back and forth as if she were [her daughter]. She wanted to find that man and hit him, kick him, yell obscenities at him.” (Moriarty 2014, 203) Oh, don’t we all, and don’t we all wish he would just fall off a building, too?
Perry’s death is delivered in such a clean fashion when so often, rape is not clean at all. It’s messy and convoluted. While it’s vital to share the experience of the victim, to delve into the trauma and the impact it has, not only on theperson receiving that violence, there’s a missed opportunity to explore in depth the person responsible for all the trouble. Moriarty gets a little closer to humanizing the character.
When Celeste threatens to leave him to escape the domestic abuse, Perry is upset:
He took a sharp intake of breath as if he’d experienced a sudden pain. He put his face in his hands and leaned forward so that his forehead was pressed to the top of the steering wheel, and his whole body shook as if with convulsions…His face was streaked with tears. His Elvis wig was askew. He looked unhinged.(Moriarty 2014, 413)
This is somewhat of a shortcut for simulating a multi-dimensional character. Whether Perry’s response comes from genuine remorse for what he’s done or if the pain is rooted in thevanity or narcissism of an uncaring, sadistic character, we can never be sure. Humanizing a character doesn’t require the character to be sympathetic. Showing Perry as vulnerable or in pain doesn’t humanize him. What’s required is a level of understanding.
While the novel deals with themes of identity, and the truth of characters, where assumptions were previously made, are cleared up, the villain is still only an unsubstantiated figure in the imagination. For example:
Celeste saw the expression on Perry’s face when Bonnie screamed at him. It was the same mildly amused face as when Celeste lost her temper with him. He liked it when women got angry with him. He liked getting a reaction. He thought it was cute.(Moriarty 2014, 448)
This is an assumption about what Perry’s thinking—it’s a reliable assumption, but it’s still an imagined understanding of the character’s motivations when the character portrayed is a trope.
The solution isn’t a simple matter of switching it up and writing a story from the point of view of the aggressor, though. This particular attitude tends to carry over to those stories. In the rapist’s monologues in My Absolute Darling or the internal thoughts of William in Pillars of the Earth, the focus is very self-satisfied and intentionally infuriating. The rapist fulfills a standard caricature as a sadist.
No matter whose viewpoint these novels are told from—whether it’s Father Francis Reynaud and Vianne Rocher, or the third-person narrator of BLL, all of whom have indirect connections to the rapes—the perspective still essentially belongs to the victim.
Authors communicate, unintentionally, about aggressors in terms determined by the aggressor. Ironic that authors, like victims, like the villagers of Lansquenet who were under Karim’s influence, like the community that regarded Perry with respect and awe, are taken in by the narrative the rapist has perpetuated. If characters are taken in, that’s one thing, but the author being taken in and reinforcing that narrativeis something else. As a result, more page space is taken up illustrating the way sexual assault is avoided rather than exploring trauma and uncovering adequate solutions. The stories that are being conveyed tend toward a stunted healing process—one that’s necessary, but incomplete. When the author adopts only the rapist’s narrative, the novel is subtly undermined.
There is a level of accuracy in these portrayals, but often it isn’t happening deliberately.
The author seems unaware that they’re keeping the reader out of touch with the suffering of the aggressor, because the aggressor is out of touch with their own pain and suffering.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie takes a different approach and serves as a modelfor an objective rape scene. It might help that the entire novel doesn’t hinge on sexual assault. There’s a broader context. The novel takes place in Nigeria during the Biafran War. Careful attention is given to character development. Ugwu, while a prominent character, is one of three alternating perspectives. The reader follows Ugwu from a young age, and into a time of war. It’s only towards the end of the novel that he’s taken against his will to become a soldier.
Shortly after, he walks in on his fellow soldiers gang-raping a waitress in a restaurant.
Ugwu is pressured to participate. Right away, the line between victim and perpetrator is blurred. Ugwu has already been taken against his will to become a soldier, and now he is pressured to participate in a rape. The scene depicts his attempt to withdraw, his surprise at his erection, and the “self-loathing release” when he climaxes and looks at the woman, registering her “calm hate.” (Adichie 2006, 365)
This is an altogether different portrait of a rapist. He isn’t depicted as charismatic or evil.
He doesn’t take sadistic satisfaction in what he’s doing. No other novel in my memory describes a rapist with the capacity for self-loathing. The scene isn’t written with any intent to elicit hatred for the rapist. The scene leaves the reader, not with the usual dose of anger and vitriol, but a sense of pity for all the characters involved. The emotional context is more textured and compassionate. The result is humanizing.
In this case, the author has taken a character for whom the reader has already developed a degree of empathy and placed him in this situation. The reader’s followed Ugwu’s growth—a boy who was eager to please, enthusiastic to learn and do well, and proud of what he’d come to know. He’s a character the reader has, perhaps, developed affection for and worried over when he was taken off the streets and forced into the war. After the rape, he’s a character the reader feels disappointed in.
The scene itself is clearly depicted as an act of violence which alone sets it apart from many other rape scenes in which a sadistic perspective is overlaid on the text, making scenes blur sex and violence.
Often in stories of sexual assault, there seems to be a division when it comes to emotional experiences. The domain of the victim is sadness, distress, helplessness, and indignation. The domain of the aggressor tends toward anger, ill will, derision, and scorn. In Adichie’s novel, there’s no division. The rapist and the victim have access to a full spectrum of emotion, as well as the misery that’s not only shared, but transmitted to the characters around them and to the reader.
The narrative that vilifies the rapist is still vital for understanding the victim’s viewpoint, and to see the perpetrator as a monster. In the perpetration of the rape, they are a monster. But in order to reach resolution, rapists need to be seen, not as cardboardvillains, but for their failed humanity. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie goes past the anger and denial, to a part that’s not typically explored. It’s a space for villains to explore their humanity and their failings. Not to condone their actions. Not to grant approval or make them sympathetic, but to make them more understandable.
Sometimes it seems that writers approach a villain by asking something like, “What would an evil character do?” or “How would someone who’s bad behave?” This might make a reader wonder, “How could a person do something like that?”
What if, instead, the goal was to make the reader wonder: “Could someone I care about do something like this?” or even, “Could I do something like that?” or even, “What would it take for me to be in that position?”
Fiction addresses these topics by creating an illusion of distance for the audience who finds it easier to face an invented story rather than a true account, or by providing a necessary buffer, a level of anonymity, for an author sharing a personal experience. But these stories are often told from a place of wounding rather than healing, from a desire for relief rather than resolution, and it shows through unyielding violence and too-easy catharsis.
Ironically, violence often carries its greatest impact when it’s understated. Finding the most extreme examples of pain and suffering is sensationalism.We already know rape is bad, and that point doesn’t need to be belabored.
In Wired for Story Lisa Cronestablishesthat stories are lessons for survival.I intentionally examined novels that I think do a pretty good job in order to aspire to do even better. There are still novels (and TV shows and movies) that romanticize rape scenes, going through exquisite detail that turn acts of violence into gratuitous sex. A rape scene is not a sex scene.
Portraying the rapist as superhuman, as done in Peaches for Father Francis and Big Little Lies, makes us miss out on the fact that the villain is a person whose humanity is failing. This isn’t about being on their side, but about recognizing that they are human and not something apart from the reader. The writer is in an unparalleled position to elucidate that, especially in fiction.
In true accounts of rape, there isn’t room to move around, to find a different outcome. In fiction, there are fewer constraints.New stories mean a new surge of ideas, new connections to be made on old problems, inspiration for change. Many people still don’t know what rape is and won’t learn from stories about brutal serial rapists and sadists, but they might learn from stories that deal in subtleties.
It’s necessary to give a voice to the injured party, to share and listen to those stories, exercise empathy and expand our capacity for compassion. It’s also important to truly look at the person who is doing harm. What conditions caused them to do that? What is their thought process, intention, and motivation? Not just what the author imagines their thought process to be.
Not just based on the aggressor’s interpretation, because they might not possess the faculties necessary to evaluate what has impacted them, so writers must be compassionate observers. If sexual assault requires the buffer of fiction for readers to take it in, then fiction writers have a responsibility to handle it well, to provide accurate representation in those stories, and to devote part of their process to imagining new possibilities.
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