Writing the victim : rescripting rape in contemporary American fiction since 1970

Field, Robin Elizabeth, Department of English, University of Virginia
Rody, Caroline, Department of English, University of Virginia
Fraiman, Susan, Department of English, University of Virginia
McDowell, Deborah, Department of English, University of Virginia
Aron, Millicent (Cindy), Department of History, University of Virginia

My dissertation identifies a new genre of contemporary American fiction, the rape novel, which cuts powerfully across color lines to offer a unifying understanding of ethnic American fiction at the end of the 20th century. Critics such as Sabine Sielke and Mieke Bal have argued convincingly that representations of rape in earlier American fiction foremost signify concerns about race, class, and nationality. Building upon this work, I demonstrate how African American, Asian American, Latina, and Anglo-American women in the 1970s and early 1980s collectively challenged the traditional troping of sexual violence that erased female subjectivity and agency. The rape novel not only foregrounds the victim and her story in a textual centering which restores her dignity and self-worth; but it also develops new narratological strategies for portraying violent, disturbing subject matter.

My first two chapters demonstrate how the new understanding of the victim's psyche in rape fiction is derived from two main sources: the literature of the anti-rape movement and autobiographical accounts of sexual assault. My next three chapters describe the rhetorical and narratological strategies – realism, postmodernism, and trauma writing – used to represent the experience of sexual assault in these works. Chapter Three demonstrates how the first rape novels, written in the 1970s, demand that rape be understood as the violation of a woman's person. This rescripting of rape as a figure of violence and disempowerment is achieved through the unflinchingly realistic portrayal of sexual violence on the page. My fourth chapter identifies the central prerogative of rape fiction of the 1980s: to underscore the legitimacy of the traumatic experience by providing in-depth accounts of the physical and psychological repercussions of the assault. My final chapter explains the shift away from realist representations of sexual assault to the more oblique and fractured depictions offered in the rape novels of the 1990s. Ultimately, my dissertation offers a radical reconsideration of the late 20th century American novel, first by underscoring the importance of women's activism upon its form and content, and secondly, by offering the rape novel as evidence for the critical necessity of reading across ethnic literary traditions.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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