by Doreen Thierauf
For the past two years, #MeToo activists have insistently argued that rape culture prevents the maturation of a strong sexual subjectivity, especially among girls and young women. Such subjectivity is necessary for the realization that you own yourself—that you are, in fact, a person. Feminist critics like Frances Ferguson have long studied the psychological and legal intricacies of the rape plot as well as that plot’s power to help bring about the modern novel form. Eighteenth-century scholars often highlight the important role of Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) in pitting the pressures of heterosexual social configurations against the heroine’s longed-for, but ultimately impossible, claim to liberal self-possession. Yet some nineteenth-century works such as George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1878), imagine rape—marital rape, to be precise—as a way for willful women to ascend into moral selfhood, to become more fully human by being dispossessed of their own person in marriage.
The insight that rape in the nineteenth century—as today—functions as an occasion to create liberal subjects, an occasion that proves that women ‘have’ interiority to begin with and that they deserve some form of state recognition, is slowly being integrated into the larger scholarly project of fighting rape culture. We must foster stronger awareness among scholars that rape is not a singular occurrence attributable to isolated agents, but a system of behavior for which all parts of the societal system are, in some part, responsible and whose harmful effects we should center in our analysis. Rape is not an individualized phenomenon that is repeated randomly across societies; it’s not a private crime of passion or the result of natural sexual urges. It is a politically significant, “group-based injustice that constitutes a violation of the victim’s civil or human rights,” as Susan Brison noted in 2013. The fact that we often don’t perceive rape to be a random anomaly, but that rape testimonies appear plausible and predictable, means that we have naturalized, maybe even neutralized, rape culture, even as we try to counteract it. The pervasive psychological, physiological, and material fallout of misogyny in all its forms is a collective one.
George Eliot knew this. In my essay on marital rape in Daniel Deronda, I trace the extent to which Eliot held systemic, rather than merely individual forces, responsible for marital rape, a symptom of and contributing factor to the demise of upper-class moral power. When Eliot confronts the representational barriers erected by legally entrenched gender and class privileges, she depicts the female body as animalistic or pathologically hysterical, or uses Gothic, sensational imagery. Eliot’s narrative techniques negotiate married women’s claim to greater legal independence and tell stories for which public intellectuals had not yet developed a language. However, such stories were so well known by the late 1870s that the registers available to Eliot risked literary triteness, barely disguising a reality of systematic elite marital violence.