Because their task is to recount the world’s atrocities, tragic stories seem a genre particularly well suited to the subject of rape, to exploring its not always extenuating circumstances, to uncovering not only its collective ramifications but its human and individual challenges as well. The study of such a corpus helps identify the characteristics that make this crime a narrative subject; it also draws attention to the victims’ representation of the issue itself and fosters an understanding of its moral and social aspects. Whereas forms of a posteriori consent and judicial reparations often tended to downplay rape, certain authors like Jean-Pierre Camus chose, rather, to focus on the dilemma faced by the victim: saving her chastity or saving her life. The victim was invited to choose death to prove she had suffered an attack, always in doubt. In a society that ignored or minimized the crime, this humanist bishop’s insistence on the viewpoint of the victim reflects a concern with publicly demonstrating the seriousness of sexual assault.
The portrayal of the rapist in Honoré d’Urfé’s novel contrasts with how this figure is usually depicted in pastoral literature. In pastoral plays, the rapist is a stock character: the Satyr. Half-man, half-animal, he causes fear in shepherdesses, yet is ridiculous because he’s a jilted lover whose violent attempts always fail. The Satyr is a comic figure: laughter exorcises fear. The situation changes, however, when the rapist is a shepherd: in this case, his intentions are hidden and it is not certain his attempt will fail. In L’Astrée, the shepherd, though full of tricks, never has recourse to sexual violence: the Satyr’s avatar is Hylas, who seduces shepherdesses instead of ravishing them or using force. On one hand, rape is the act of a foreign monster: it emphasizes the regulation of human relationships through “honest friendship”, which Urfé’s pastoral novel, published during the Catholic Reformation, represents for purposes of moral education. On the other hand, it is an act committed by tyrants, Romans or barbarians: rape in interpersonal relations is the equivalent of tyranny in politics. It is therefore foreign to Forez, a province that has maintained its traditional “honesty.”
Law under the Ancien Régime held that a woman could always resist attempts at rape; fiction suggested otherwise. An examination of a body of short stories and tales in particular (from Cervantès to Aulnoy, Murat, Perrault, Tencin) shows that men are ready to take advantage of any sign of weakness in women for their own satisfaction and that the victim can remedy this defect through marriage: she re-establishes a human bond shattered by the brutality of appetite.
There is a good deal of rape in naturalist fiction. But what is presented as an
inevitable fact of life for women does not lead to actual stories in most narratives. Unlike
the anecdotes, melodrama, serialized novels and romance fiction of the nineteenth century,
naturalism offsets the pathetic and the dramas that characterize the literature of rape. The
issue, in fact, is to present it as a “shared history”, whose conditions and reasons are
rooted in deterministic explanations which tend, finally, to subtract rape from scandal.
Zola, however, through his own specific development, discovers during the course of the
Rougon-Macquart a certain taste for scandal and “dramatic” rape, which he attempts to
formulate and evaluate in sometimes risqué storylines.
Mirbeau’s Sébastien Roch was published in 1890 for clearly ideological purposes. The novel, which deals with the rape of an adolescent by a Jesuit priest in the college he attends, was written from an anarchist point of view. For the author, rape includes, and intensifies, the pernicious effects for every individual of the integration and social regulation mechanisms assured by the family, school, religious community and army. Père de Kern’s sexual abuse is the ultimate injury in a destructive process that ends when the hero’s education transforms his life into an appalling wasteland. But the author’s originality consists in combining this satirical realism with depth psychology, allowing us to explore the consciousness of the victim from within. Thus, the interest of the novel lies, for the most part, in this dual approach to the issue of rape: the restitution of Sébastien’s intimate experience transcends the ideological framework of a satire on social institutions, leading to an attempt to provide a quasi-phenomenological account of the perceptions and emotions that permeate the character’s psyche, thereby revealing the confused feelings that bind him to his abuser.