Portrayal Of Violence Against Women In Literary Fiction

Deya Bhattacharya

November 23, 2018

Who has a monopoly on telling stories of sexual violence in fiction? Should survivors be the sole storytellers when it comes to sexual violence? What does it mean for survivors when entire novels are dependent on a sexual assault scene? Should sexual violence be used as a literary device? Should narratives of sexual violence be removed from fiction altogether, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement? Is there a need for the responsible depiction of sexual violence in fiction? These are significant questions that one must pose to the literary world as a new paradigm shift in the women’s rights movement occurs.

Over the past several decades, violence against women in fiction appears to have been normalised, and the #MeToo movement is set to turn this around. It has, in the past two years, encouraged public conversations about sexual violence and power. It is important, in this context, to discuss how the movement will influence the ways in which narratives of sexual assault and harassment of women and other marginalised groups are depicted in fiction. More significantly, the movement will affect how such stories are told and who gets to tell them.

Is Point of View Important?

When Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel, My Absolute Darling, came out in September 2017, it had all the hallmarks of the “great American novel” – it was depicted as a high-concept literary fiction and received a lot of praise for its narrative style. The story, told in the third person, revolves around a young woman, Turtle, whose childhood has been wrought with sexual abuse by her father. When Turtle finally comes of age and understands that her life has been shaped by continuous abuse, she seeks refuge in Jacob, an aspirational example of masculinity. My Absolute Darling was criticised for a lot of things, but especially for how it represents survivors of sexual assault.

The novel is riddled with gruesome descriptions of sexual violence, which Tallent states are absolutely necessary, “We need books, like this, about survivors and abuse.But the use of violence against women is only a literary device; it is used to shock and disturb its readers. Tallent’s form of storytelling is masculine – he appropriates the “intimate and violating parts of a woman’s body for critical acclaim”, while not tackling the issue of sexual violence as a whole. Roxane Gay, in her review, describes this book aptly when she says that “the sexual violence was written, all too often, with an uncomfortable amount of romance (…).” There is no room, in his book, to understand Turtle’s sense of tumult as she is repeatedly violated by her father, a person whom she trusts the most. In fact, her meeting with Jacob is “transformative” – she becomes a wholly new person with autonomy when he provides her with refuge. The way Tallent describes sexual violence and its aftermath, the men in Turtle’s life continue to hold power.

In George RR Martin’s A Song Of Fire And Ice series, violence against women is normalised to a disturbing extent. In a 2015 statistical analysis by a Tumblr-user called Tafkar, we come face to face with the portrayal of sexual violence in the books as well as the television series. The analysis suggests a conservative estimate of about 214 acts of rape and 114 rape victims in the series. Tafkar is correct when she says that Martin uses “nameless women” as a device for the character development of male antagonists in the series – “Rape victims serve as props and set decoration to illustrate a man’s depravity”. The storyline moves through a deluge of sexual violence, always from the perspective of a man: Ramsay orders Theon to participate in the rape of Jeyne, Drogo repeatedly rapes Daenerys, Ramsay violently rapes Sansa Stark, and Tyrion rapes a slave girl who isn’t even given a name.

In these books, the reader almost always experiences the narratives of rape from the point of view of the perpetrator, and when this happens, we are left with the dilemma of whether at all Martin intended these scenes to be sexual assault, or simply of strengthening the machismo of the male characters. The survivors of rape in the series are not given agency by Martin to raise their voices and tell their own stories to the reader. When survivors of rape try to shape their own narratives, they either become villains for avenging their sexual assault, like Maz Duur or, fall in love with their perpetrator, as Daenerys does with Drogo.

Violence against women, for a long time, has been used as content to mould and shape male characters, to titillate readers and to depict the women who seek justice for sexual assault as meek, infantilised characters who need protection or as villains. In fact, in a bid to mitigate this, author and screenwriter, Bridget Lawless founded the Staunch Book Prize aimed at writers of thriller novels “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. While this is interesting, it ignores writing that promotes brutality, instead of challenging prejudices that writers may have. Having said this, it is generally difficult to situate women in violent narratives because the writers have left no space for survivors to have a voice. This is not just astonishingly misogynistic but also abets the pervasive classifications of female characters as prudes, sluts and whores.

Shifting the Paradigm on Violence Against Women in Literature

With the advent of the #MeToo movement, it is imperative to change the way readers view survivors of sexual assault in literature. A flawed form of storytelling would push readers to feel pity, intrigue, revulsion or even sexual attraction towards fictional survivors of violence. This kind of storytelling is unimaginative and lacks empathy. What is required is the employment of a feminist perspective where the author replaces the imagery of escalating brutality of sexual violence narrated by male perpetrators with conversations on women’s agency, decision-making power and their own realities.

In The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, the protagonist, Greer goes through a horrifying incident of campus sexual harassment that shapes her understanding of the positionality and power of women in the world. While this incident never leaves her mind, even years after it has occurred, it does not fracture her life – the reader does not pity young Greer; instead, Wolitzer ensures that the reader wants to walk the path of feminist conversations with Greer.

Similarly, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife is Meena Kandasamy’s fictionalised account of her own abusive marriage. The book is intensely discomfiting to read not just because of its content but also because Kandasamy uses immensely stark language to describe the events. Her book is the reflection of a real person underneath the bevy of data available for domestic violence, cruelty and marital rape; and the story is narrated from the viewpoint of the survivor, thus, indicating to the reader that though the survivor was subject to sexual violence, she still holds power and the reins to her life. The narration of the book shakes its readers as they realise that Kandasamy has used fiction to bring coherence to her own experiences, “The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. [t]he rape whose aim is to make me understand that my husband can do with my body as he pleases. This is rape as ownership.”

In An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, the privileged Haitian-American protagonist, Mireille Duval Jameson’s near-perfect life is upturned as she is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of armed men. As Mireille awaits the ransom from her father, she is held captive by a man who calls himself the Commander and is violently raped. The book looks at sexual abuse as intersectional; Gay positions sexual violence as a weapon of terror, while simultaneously delving into questions of gender, class and parental responsibilities. She constructs Mireille as a woman who has a life of privilege, but whose life changes completely after this horror. We see her negotiating with herself as she is just kidnapped, “Kidnapping is a business transaction”, and gradually, we see her resolute spirit break, “I was becoming a woman who could be disgusted by nothing.” The storyline is searing and emotionally exhausting but Gay intermittently breaks from the sexual violence narrative and flashes back to Mireille’s courtship and marriage to her husband. She also talks about the politics of the situation and how Mireille is a pawn, a device whose agency is controlled and withheld by the savagery of her kidnappers.

In these books by Gay, Kandasamy and Wolitzer, we confront sexual violence head-on, and it is in this way that violence against women must be portrayed. The sexual violence fragments in the book do not define the characters; what defines the characters is the way they assert themselves over and above what happened in their lives. The voices that tell the stories are the survivors’ themselves; and not once, even amidst intense violence, do the characters lose their power and agency. They are not reduced to being the subject of their perpetrators; in each word, they are alive, they are powerful.

The #MeToo movement has finally opened up debates in the literary world as to who gets to tell stories of violence and how. The world is finally understanding the power of women’s voices, both in real life as well as in the literary world.  It is important that authors think about the positionality and development of their female characters, instead of merely painting them as hapless victims to move the stories forward.

What is your opinion of the way violence against women is portrayed in literary fiction? Do you agree with Deya’s analysis? Share your thoughts below.

Deya Bhattacharya

Deya Bhattacharya

Deya is a human rights lawyer by day, and by night, a book nerd, who is constantly running out of shelf-space. Her small apartment in Bangalore, where she is based, has already been swallowed by her meandering bookshelves. Truth be told, this might also be her ultimate plan to avoid all human contact. Deya tweets about feminism, women's rights and (mostly) all things books at @LadyLawzarus.

Read her articles here.