Rape Narrative in the American South

Author: Denise R. Shaw
This study examines how sexual violence, specifically rape, is used as a trope to understand the complex and dysfunctional makeup of the South. Southern writers from William Faulkner to Dorothy Allison use rape as a means of figuring individual and collective disenfranchisement and perpetuate a vision of the South immersed in violence and melancholic nature. Sexual violence, then, is situated as a reaction to historical and cultural changes, tenuous race relations, deeply imbedded mores, social taboos, and rigid class distinctions. The study is informed by the trauma theories of Freud and Caruth, the abjection theory of Julia Kristeva, and Jessica Benjamin’s theory of mutuality.


“Denise Shaw’s book provides a new and illuminating look at a genre that I thought I knew: the modern American rape narrative. Having written my own book on representations of sexual freedom and sexual violence in literature of and about the sixties era, it has been both challenging and exciting to read Shaw’s work on the Southern American rape narrative and to become convinced of the meaningfulness of that regional designation. ... In Shaw’s analysis, rape is the mechanism for lashing out against abjected parts of the self, those abjected aspects represented by even more vulnerable subjects: namely women and African Americans.” - Pamela E. Barnett, Associate Director, McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning, Princeton University

“Denise Shaw offers a timely and discerning analysis of the trope of rape in the Southern novel between 1930 and 1995. ... Shaw argues convincingly that such actions are an externalized lament for a lost South whose mores are inevitably re-inscribed, even by those authors who set out their stall for change. As such, Shaw’s work makes an important contribution to contemporary discussions on gender and violence in Southern literature, particularly with regard to the trope of rape.” - Professor Carl Jenkinson, University of South Carolina

“Although sensitive to the cultural forces that have compelled novelists from 1930 to the 1990s to trace and retrace patterns of loss in narratives of sexual violence, Shaw holds modern Southern novels accountable for the failure to move beyond the cyclic mourning of past losses. Her book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the rape-haunted South and provides a powerful argument for the honest witnessing needed to heal it.” - Professor Judith Giblin James, University of South Carolina