Margaret Atwood 1977
Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” was first published in the Canadian version of Dancing Girls and Other Stories in 1977 but was omitted from the American edition of the collection. It has become one of Atwood’s best-known works, particularly after its inclusion in the 1985 edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. The story, a first-person narration in which a woman discusses her concerns about being raped, exhibits many of the qualities often associated with Atwood’s work, including biting humor, vivid characterizations, and an exploration of the power struggle between men and women. Furthermore, it highlights many women’s fears of crime and victimization in an urban environment where safety depends on striking a delicate balance between trust and suspicion.
Although “Rape Fantasies” is one of Atwood’s most popular stories, little criticism of her work focuses on it specifically. Several critics have noted that Estelle seems to be a naive protagonist, but that view is rejected by an equal number of reviewers. Estelle and her female coworkers have very different ideas on what romance is and how to obtain it without falling prey to the insidious forces in society. The story is often used as a starting point for discussing the gap between men’s and women’s perceptions of each other.
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on November 18,1939. She started reading and writing at an early age and was particularly drawn to the Brothers Grimm fairy tales because of their active female characters. Greek mythology and its themes of metamorphosis, rebirth, and transformation further excited the young girl’s imagination. Atwood’s father was an entomologist and an avid nature lover. The young Atwood spent much time discovering nature in the wilds of Canada while she was growing up, a fact that is evident in much of her writing. In the book Conversations, Atwood discussed the impact her father’s work had on her: “The most transformative thing you can study is insects. They change from one thing into another, and the thing they change into bears no relation to what they were before.”
As a high school student in Toronto, Ontario, in the 1950s, Atwood began to take writing seriously. In school, she studied mostly British writers, and the idea of a particularly Canadian literature was not common, a fact that she has successfully sought to change throughout her career. After receiving a degree from the University of Toronto in 1961, Atwood came to the United States to study at Radcliffe and Harvard. Cultural differences between Canada and the United States first became an issue when she was attending Harvard University. She discovered that many Americans had only the vaguest notion of Canada. “They seemed to want to believe that my father was a Mounted Policeman and that we lived in igloos all year round, and I must admit that after a while I took a certain pleasure in encouraging these beliefs,” Atwood once said.
Atwood’s first published work was a collection of poems, Double Persephone, which was published in 1961. It was not until 1970 that her first novel was published, The Edible Woman, the story of a reluctantly engaged woman who becomes infatuated with a mysterious man utterly unlike her fiance. As her affair progresses, she becomes unable to eat. Over the years, Atwood has published many collections of poetry, stories, and essays in addition to her novels, and has won acclaim for all the genres in which she writes. No matter what form her writing takes, it often incorporates irony, symbolism, and self-conscious narrators. Her themes usually explore the relationship between humanity and nature, the unsettling aspects of human behavior, and power as it pertains to gender roles.
Now considered one of Canada’s foremost writers, Atwood continues to write novels and stories to wide public acclaim. In 1996 she published Alias, Grace, a fictionalized account of a real-life murder that took place in Canada in the eighteenth century. Other works by Atwood that have proved popular include Cat’s Eye, the story of a Toronto-based artist who is haunted by the memory of a cruel childhood friend; The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that takes place in the future, when childbear-ing women are rare and forced into servitude as breeding machines; and The Robber Bride, in which three very different women lose the men in their lives to the scheming, preternaturally beautiful Zenia. In addition to her fiction, Atwood contributes to the body of contemporary literary criticism through her frequent reviews and essays on literature and writing. She continues to live in Canada with her husband, the writer Graeme Gibson, and their daughter, Jess.
The first-person narrator of “Rape Fantasies” is Estelle, a young office worker who notes how popular the topic of rape has become in women’s magazines. According to Estelle, articles on the subject seem to be everywhere; titles like “Rape, Ten Things To Do About It” appear in capital letters on the magazine covers,’ Like it was ten new hairdos or something.” She recounts a conversation that took place during her lunch hour between herself and her coworkers after Chrissy, a receptionist in Estelle’s office, has read one of these articles. Chrissy interrupts her coworkers’ bridge game to ask if any of them ever fantasize about rape. Each character’s response defines her personality: Estelle would rather continue playing cards, Chrissy and Sondra are interested in trading stories, and Darlene, the oldest and the only divorced woman in the group, finds such fantasies disgusting and turns her back on the women to go to the coffee machine.
Greta fantasizes about a handsome man coming through her balcony doors, a fantasy that draws on romantic television shows and movies. Chrissy relates that her fantasy is for a man to break into her apartment while she is taking a bath. Estelle responds
to both women by saying “those aren’t rape fantasies. I mean, you aren’t getting raped, it’s just some guy you haven’t met formally. . . . and you have a good time. Rape is when they’ve got a knife or something and you don’t want to.” Her comments, however, are not met with enthusiasm, and her jokes are considered inappropriate. When prodded by Chrissy, Estelle describes a rape fantasy that involves being accosted on a dark street by a short, ugly man who is “absolutely covered in pimples.” Once he pins her to the wall, his zipper gets stuck. He starts to cry and she ends up feeling sorry for him. Abruptly, Estelle interjects that she thought moving to Toronto “was going to be such a big adventure and all, but it’s a lot harder to meet people in a city. But I guess it’s different for a guy.” This is the reader’s first indication that Estelle is addressing her remarks to a listener within the story, rather than to the reader.
She then resumes her original narrative, launching into another rape fantasy. This time, she is bedridden with a terrible cold, and a man who, coincidentally, has a cold too, climbs through her window. “I’b goig do rabe you,” is what he says. Eventually, they end up taking some medication and watching television together. Revealing her awareness of the seriousness of the topic, Estelle then offers a more realistic rape fantasies: she is accosted by a man with an axe in her mother’s basement. She talks to him about the voices in his head, insisting that she hears them too. Her conversation confuses the would-be criminal, and eventually he leaves. Estelle doesn’t like to think too much about this particular fantasy, since, as she says: “Dwelling on [unpleasant things] doesn’t make them go away. Though not dwelling on them doesn’t make them go away either, when you come to think of it.” Vaguely aware that her rape fantasies may be no more realistic than those of her coworkers, Estelle acknowledges that “the funny thing about these fantasies is that the man is always someone I don’t know, and the statistics in the magazines . . . say it’s often someone you do know.” Her monologue takes a serious turn when she goes on to talk about her personal life. She says she is not a drinker, but does not mind going to a nice bar by herself. Yet she obviously worries about the risks involved: “It’s getting so you can hardly be sociable any more. . . . You can’t spend your whole life . . . cooped up in your own apartment with all the doors and windows locked and the shades down.” A crucial statement that hints at Estelle’s motive for her lengthy speech about rape is directed at her listener, who is a customer, presumably male, in the bar she frequents: “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except I think it helps you get to know a person, especially at first, hearing some of the things they think about.” Getting to know a person is, at least in Estelle’s view, a woman’s best defense against rape, since she doesn’t understand “how. . . a fellow [could] do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with. . .”
Chrissy is Estelle’s coworker who initiates the lunchroom discussion by asking, “How about it, girls, do you have rape fantasies?” Estelle describes Chrissy as “a receptionist and she looks like one; she’s pretty but cool as a cucumber like she’s been painted all over with nail polish, if you know what I mean. Varnished.” Chrissy dreams of a rapist who breaks into her apartment while she is taking a bath. Chrissy represents a passive personality, someone who is easily influenced by novels, movies, televisions, and magazines.
Darlene, who is 41, is the oldest woman in the office, “though you wouldn’t know it and neither does she,” Estelle comments. She is divorced and does not participate in the discussion about fantasies. She claims that she never thinks about such things and that the topic is disgusting. Darlene says, “I don’t think you should go out at night, you put yourself in a position,” a comment that insinuates that she does not approve of Estelle’s behavior. She says she would scream if she were accosted by a rapist, and she tells Chrissy that she should do the same thing. These two comments indicate that Darlene is a cautious and somewhat judgmental individual.
Estelle is the first-person narrator of “Rape Fantasies.” She works in the filing department of a large company in Toronto, Ontario. She was brought up Catholic in a smaller town and has only recently moved to the city to be on her own. She is described as tall and clever, and her comments indicate that she has a good sense of humor and that she is adept at sizing up other people.
Her coworker Darlene comments that Estelle has the “mark of an original mind” and that “she’s a card” since once at an office party, Estelle danced under a table instead of on top of it. Along with her sense of humor, she is cautious. Though her monologue reveals that her “rape fantasies” have happy outcomes, the reason for her monologue appears to be more dire. Twice she asks if things are different for men, indicating that the person to whom she is speaking is receiving a thinly veiled warning: “the waiters all know me and if anyone, you know, bothers me. . . .” She also states that her coworkers consider her a worry wart. That assertion is somewhat borne out by her monologue. At the end, she reveals that all her talk about rape is an attempt to start a dialogue. “How could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with?” Her last statement, “I know it happens but I just don’t understand it,” is an indication to some critics that Estelle is a naive narrator, but others interpret her words as merely the conclusion to a long conversation in which Estelle reveals that she is very aware of the issues of power involved in rape.
Gender Roles and Stereotypes
Estelle’s narration is filled with stereotypes of both men and women. For instance, she describes Chrissy as a receptionist who “looks like one.” Atwood relies on the power of the stereotype for readers to envision Chrissy’s appearance; the only details readers are given are that she wears lots of makeup, blushes at the thought of discussing rape fantasies, and “looks like she was painted all over with nail polish.” Some of the story’s humor also lies in stereotypes. When discussing Chrissy and Greta, who wants to be a receptionist, Estelle describes them as blondes who “try to outdress each other.” Estelle is also cognizant of male gender roles, and feels sympathy for the men in her rape fantasies because they do not live up to her preconception of the ideal man, a “Clint Eastwood” type. “I mean there has to be something wrong with them,” she says, after explaining that she imagines rapists to have bad skin or to exhibit symptoms of either physical or mental illness. To Estelle a rapist is a man who does not live up to the ideal of a virile, tall, handsome man able to win a woman by the sheer power of his masculinity. She invokes an age-based stereotype when she states that her boss could not possibly be a rapist because “he’s over sixty. . . poor old thing.” Even in her sympathy, Estelle tends to stereotype people.
Estelle does recognize that even though all her fantasies concern strangers, a rapist is more likely to be someone the victim knows casually. With that in mind, she imagines that a man at work, whom she calls Derek Duck, would be a likely rapist because he wears elevator shoes and has a “funny way of talking.” In the end, Estelle is trying hard to reject the traditional female gender role of being a victim. She fights back in her rape fantasies, or she averts the crime by commiserating with the would-be perpetrator. Both scenarios show her to be an active woman in control of her life and thoughts, rather than a passive observer. The fact that she is probably in a bar by herself hints that she rejects some
Topics for Further Study
- Compare “Rape Fantasies” with another first-person narrative addressed to a silent listener, Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.” Discuss how both authors develop their characters by what they have their characters say.
- Who do you think has a greater chance of being raped, Estelle or her coworkers? Why? Do you think your answer is influenced by stereotypes in any way?
- Examine rape statistics in the United States from 1977 to today. What kind of trends do you see? How does the United States compare with other countries? Give some possible explanations for the discrepancy between U. S. statistics and those of other countries.
- What do psychologists and sociologists have to say about the underlying causes of rape? Do you agree with them?
- Think of some television shows that utilize stereotypes of men and women. Do you think they are accurate? Do you find these stereotypes offensive? Discuss whether or not you think stereotypes should be restricted in the media.
traditional female gender roles: “I’m with Women’s Lib on that even though I can’t agree with a lot of other things they say.”
Victim and Victimization
Though not evident at first, Estelle’s monologue becomes an exploration of victims and victimization. She recounts her fantasies of being a victim, yet the reason she does so is to possibly prevent herself from becoming a victim. Though her coworkers claim she is a worry wart, she sees her fantasies as simply a way of “figuring out what you should do in an emergency.” The fantasies also reveal that Estelle considers her imagined rapists to themselves be victims—of bad skin, of mental illness, or of leukemia. In the end, Estelle’s best defense against victimization is a strong offense. In her fantasies, she actively initiates conversations with her would-be rapists in order to establish their common humanity. “How could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you’re human, you have a life too,” she wonders.
Though she criticizes women’s magazines’ preoccupation with the topic, the detailed accounts she provides of her own rape fantasies prove that she herself thinks about rape a great deal. Estelle has taken to heart the dangers of living alone in an urban area in the 1970s; her predicament is one that many single women identify with. “It’s getting so you can hardly be sociable any more, and how are you supposed to meet people if you can’t trust them even that basic amount?” she asks. Her last comment is deceiving: “I know it happens but I just don’t understand it, that’s the part I really don’t understand.” Though her confusion could be mistaken for naivete, a trait that would leave her vulnerable to victimization, her tactic of initiating such a conversation in the first place suggests otherwise.
Monologue and Narration
A monologue is a speech given by one person in a performance or work of literature. The entire narrative of “Rape Fantasies” is a monologue by Estelle. By creating a story in which the point of view is first person and everything, including the descriptions, actions, and words of the other characters are filtered through the narrator’s perception, Atwood creates a highly subjective story in which much of the interpretation is up to the reader. This is one reason why criticism on first-person stories, including “Rape Fantasies,” often focuses on whether or not the narrator is reliable. If the narrator is reliable, then his or her words can probably be taken at face value, and little other interpretation of events need take place. If, however, the narrator is not reliable, readers must exercise caution in interpreting the events of the story. Atwood provides few clues to suggest how reliable a narrator Estelle is. While she seems to give biting and accurate character descriptions—describing Chrissy as “varnished,” and even commenting negatively on herself as someone who cries at movies, “even the ones that aren’t all that sad”—there is no alternate point of view in the story to corroborate the things she says.
Many readers can identify with Estelle’s predicament about moving to a big city, further adding to her credibility as a narrator: “I thought it was going to be such a big adventure and all, but it’s a lot harder to meet people in a city.” In addition, her speech patterns make her sound like many of the people readers encounter every day. Her speech is not studied or formal; her words sound like everyday conversation: “My mother always said you shouldn’t dwell on unpleasant things and I generally agree with that, I mean, dwelling on them doesn’t make them go away. Though not dwelling on them doesn’t make them go away either, when you come to think of it.” By creating a narrator whose speech cadences are familiar and colloquial, and having her give a monologue that is full of everyday experiences, Atwood implies that the topic of rape should not be taboo. Just like Estelle, Atwood infers that “it would be better if you could get a conversation going.” Once men and women are able to discuss the politics of rape, it might become less common.
Comic Relief and Black Humor
Comic relief is the use of humor to lighten the mood of a story, and black humor is the juxtaposition of humorous elements and grotesque elements used to shock the reader. Both comic relief and black humor are evident in the story; Atwood is known for her biting, sarcastic humor, and “Rape Fantasies” is no exception. From the beginning of the story, Estelle jokes about a serious topic: “Rape, Ten Things to Do About It, like it was ten new hairdos or something.” From the start, it is apparent that not only is the topic of the story rape, but also it is going to be treated irreverently. Black humor is comedy that coexists with horror. This is shown in Estelle’s fantasies. When she is accosted on a dark street by a potential rapist, she rummages through her purse to find a plastic lemon so she can squirt the man in the eye, but her purse is so cluttered, she can’t find her “weapon.” She must ask the rapist to assist her, which he obligingly does. In another instance of black humor, Estelle fantasizes about a rapist who has leukemia, from which, coincidental-ly, she suffers too. On its own, the topic of serious illness is not funny, but in the context of Estelle’s exaggerated fantasies, the elements of rape, illness, and pathos combine to form an absurd—and humorous—fantasy in which she and her attacker decide to live out their remaining days together.
But despite the sarcasm and black humor, the tone of the story turns somber at the end—and the seriousness of the conclusion becomes even more compelling than if the story had been told seriously from the start. With no trace of sarcasm or irony, Estelle addresses her listener purposefully: “I think it would be better if you could get a conversation going. Like, how could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with.” Her seriousness is in stark contrast with her normally irreverent sense of humor, and therefore becomes all the more poignant. Humor is a valuable device, she realizes (and so does Atwood), but it serves a serious purpose—to break down taboos and begin a dialogue that, Estelle hopes, will prevent violence against women in general and herself in particular.
A rhetorical question is a question used for dramatic effect, one that is not meant to be answered directly or literally. At the end of the story, Estelle queries her listener: “How could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you’re human, you have a life too, I don’t see how they could go ahead with it, right?” Her comment is rhetorical, that is, she does not expect an answer. She has argued persuasively through her rape fantasies that if a man and woman come to understand one another, crime and pain will be averted due to their mutual sympathy. Her monologue is an attempt to practice this theory. She has revealed much about herself in the hope that she will not become a victim. However, what Estelle may not understand when she says “I just don’t understand it, that’s the part I really don’t understand,” is that rape is a crime of power, not lust. According to the way Estelle sees it, a person would not want to rape someone he has just had a long conversation with. But date rape and marital rape, which Estelle never mentions, are serious problems, and operate contrary to her logic. Thus, her attempt at cautious sociability may miss the mark, because attaining familiarity with someone does nothing to address the issues of power that often underlie violent or sexual crimes.
Feminism and the Single Woman
At the time “Rape Fantasies” was first published in 1977, the women’s movement had been, for a solid decade, asserting equality for women in many facets of society. Many women entered the
Compare & Contrast
- 1978: John Rideout, the first U. S. man to be charged with marital rape, is acquitted by an Oregon circuit court.
- 1997: A 35-year-old female teacher in Seattle is convicted of second-degree child rape for having an affair with a 13-year-old former student and is sentenced to six months in jail after she gives birth to their daughter.
- 1977: The U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that there are 2.33 rapes for every 1,000 people in the country.
- 1997: The U. S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that incidents of rape have fallen drastically in the past twenty years, reaching an all-time low in 1996 at .90 rapes per 1,000 people.
- 1977: Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a controversial and popular movie, in which a young teacher is murdered after picking up a man in a bar.
- 1997: Push by Sapphire is a controversial novel, telling the story of a young woman who has been beaten, abused, and raped for most of her life.
work force during the decade, more and more were attending college and postponing marriage and child-bearing, and they began to enter traditionally male occupations, such as law and medicine, in greater numbers than before. As women gained more economic and social independence, some unforeseen effects began to emerge. Traditional rules of courtship began to wither. It was no longer a given that men would ask women out, and if they did, men and women both were unsure of what the expectations of such an arrangement were supposed to be. The so-called “sexual revolution,” spawned by available and reliable birth control and the legalization of abortion, led to supposedly higher levels of sexual activity among single people. Sometimes, the dictates of the “me decade,” namely, “if it feels good, do it,” had tragic consequences. Judith Rossner’s 1975 novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar told the story of a young teacher who explores her freedom with abandon after a sheltered upbringing. Her social life revolves around singles bars, where she meets a variety of men. Her indiscriminate encounters eventually cost her her life.
During the 1970s, Helen Gurley Brown was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, the type of magazine that, as Estelle says, not only prints articles about rape, but also acts like “it’s something terrific, like a vaccine for cancer. They put it in capital letters on the front cover.” Brown got her start as the author of the 1962 best-seller, Sex and the Single Girl, which became one of the earliest literary works celebrating the independent, career-minded woman who knows how to take care of herself. In the 1970s, Brown corralled this image into the formation of Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Cosmo girl,” a sort of female counterpart to the readers of Playboy. The Cosmo girl encompassed all the changes attributable to the youth culture; she was young, attractive, fashionable, independent, sexually active, and interested in politics, art, and current events. By the late 1970s, however, Brown was the target of backlash against the “Cosmo girl,” a stereotype that feminists claimed was nothing more than the fulfillment of male fantasies. Outspoken in her opinions on the changing roles of women in society, Brown countered feminists’ attacks on the “Cosmo girl” by stating that “a feminist should accept it if a woman doesn’t want to realize her potential.” In sharp contrast was Ms. magazine, founded by Gloria Steinem in 1972. The magazine, a handbook of the feminist movement, proved enormously popular upon publication of its first issue, and Steinem subsequently became a leading spokesperson for the women’s movement. Part of Steinem’s popularity stemmed from the fact that she advocated liberating men as well as women from gender stereotypes. According to her logic, only after both gender roles are sufficiently examined can society truly move forward toward equality.
By this time, though, others had found ways to capitalize on the progress of the women’s movement as well. Advertisers formed ad campaigns that celebrated women’s newfound independence and their increased power as consumers. Virginia Slims cigarettes proclaimed “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and suggested that women were asserting their equality by taking up smoking, a habit that was once the sole domain of men. A television commercial for perfume praised women’s ability to compete in the workforce all day, earn their own money, and still find time to cook dinner and lavish attention on the men in their lives. Many women, like Estelle, agreed with many components of feminism, but were uncomfortable with others. In 1979, women’s wages were an average of 57 percent of men’s, a fact that angered even conservative women. Obtaining the right to equal pay and equal jobs became a crusade for many, even for those who could not abide the more radical elements of the women’s movement, such as bra-burning and urging the armed services to make women eligible for combat duty.
Representing the milder forces of feminism on television was Mary Richards on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary was single and independent, and worked as a television news producer. Most importantly, however, Mary did not tie her self-worth to marriage, men, or family. In the early 1970s, Mary Richards was somewhat an anomaly, but by the end of the decade she had much company on television. Strong women characters ran the gamut from The Bionic Woman to those high-fashion, female crime-fighters, Charlie’s Angels. The women’s movement had enough popular support to urge Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973, but support faltered by mid-decade, and the amendment failed the ratification process in the early 1980s.
“Rape Fantasies” is frequently anthologized and is commonly taught in high schools and colleges, but critics often tend to ignore this story and focus on Atwood’s novels. The writers who have commented on the story, however, often note the humorous tone of the story, which seems to be at odds with the serious topic of rape. Lee Briscoe Thompson in her essay “Minuets and Madness: Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls,” notes that in “Rape Fantasies,” “the cutting edge seems thoroughly dulled by the sheer zaniness of the dialogue.” Another Atwood critic, Sherrill Grace, in Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood commends the story for “offering moving, indeed profound, insights into human nature and the problems of human relationships, without over-burdening the story form.”
The most controversial point of the story concerns the narrator, Estelle. Some commentators take her to be a naive woman, while others laud her tactical maneuvers in self-defense. Barbara Hill Rigney claims that Estelle is a “naive narrator” who believes rape can be avoided “by simply reasoning with the rapist.” Sherrill Grace and Lisa Tyler, however, assert that Estelle is just the opposite. In her essay, “I Just Don’t Understand It’: Teaching Margaret Atwood’s ‘Rape Fantasies’,” Tyler discusses how students often find the story too “provocative,” others “sail through the story blithely,” and yet others are “scandalized” or “indignant” that rape is spoken about in such a cavalier fashion. Tyler notes that through the technique of a dramatic monologue, the reader must first sympathize with the speaker in order to understand the work; then and only then can the reader judge the speaker’s character or even recognize the pathology of emotions presented. Thus, readers must sympathize with Estelle before judging her. Estelle does not withdraw from human connection; she struggles to establish connections in spite of her vulnerability and fear.
Critic Sally A. Jacobsen admits in an essay for Approaches to Teaching Atwood that “Atwood acknowledges that rapport is no defense,” especially considering that date rape or acquaintance rape—relationships in which conversational rapport has presumably been established—is more common than rape by a stranger. Jacobsen’s students have also agreed “the term rape fantasy is dangerous, for it fosters the mistaken perception that women want to be attacked and ‘ask for it’ in dress or behavior.” Her students did “credit Atwood with dramatizing the absurdity that women desire rape.”
Frank Davey, in Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics, notices that Atwood portrays the rapists as inept men, and he argues that Estelle “insists naively, on the essential humanity of even a rapist.” Furthermore, Estelle’s fantasies are closer to the “nurse romance” variety, Davey says, since she sends one rapist to a dermatologist and takes care of the other’s cold. In this characterization, Atwood highlights how some women want to save men from themselves and even to improve or fix their destructive tendencies. Jacobsen best reveals the most common dilemma of reading “Rape Fantasies,” that is, the importance of understanding that “Estelle is performing an intellectual exercise, or devising a heuristic, to demonstrate the impossibility of a female ‘rape fantasy’—showing that rape is an act of power, not of sexual attraction, and that one can refuse ‘victimhood’.”
Walter is an instructor of English at Pennsylvania State University. In the following essay, she discusses the difficulties in determining the character of Estelle on the basis of her monologue.
With her usual caustic wit, Margaret Atwood uses humor to examine women’s power and powerless-ness and to exploit the distinction between fantasy and fear in her story “Rape Fantasies.” Atwood, through the voice of the narrator Estelle, shows readers how hard it is for women to laugh at themselves when they have been conditioned by the media to take themselves and their desires far too seriously and their safety not seriously enough. It is implied that only a rare woman like Estelle analyzes what her “rape” fantasies mean and how they have originated, suggesting that television and magazines help inspire a woman’s fantasies of submis-siveness to a strange male. Estelle especially condemns magazines that
have these questionnaires like the ones they used to have about whether you were a good enough wife or an endomorph or an ectomorph, remember that? with the scoring upside down on page 73, and then these numbered do-it-yourself dealies, you know? Rape, Ten Things To Do about It, like it was ten new hairdos or something.”
This playfully sardonic line suggests that women must suffer many subtle indignities and condescending attitudes that are publicly sanctioned. The magazines prey on women’s feelings of inadequacy but in a seemingly inoffensive, snappy format. Yet Estelle reveals how her intelligence is insulted by the magazine’s fashionable coverage of such a devastating topic: “You’d think it was just invented . . . I mean what’s so new about it?” she asks. She recognizes rape is an ancient violation and exposes the sensationalist way the magazine article presents the issue. Estelle appears to resent the idea that women are often not in control of their own bodies, whether it is in preventing a forcible entry, or preventing society’s forced perception of how that body should look.
Because of her awareness, Estelle realizes how different she is from her coworkers: Chrissy, the varnished receptionist, and gullible Greta. Greta and Chrissy are excellent foils for Estelle and she sums them up this way—“They’re both blondes, I don’t mean that in a bitchy way but they do try to outdress each other.” Estelle’s comment highlights the superficial values the two women have. Their fantasies reveal their acceptance of the magazine’s views of women. Chrissy can avidly quote the magazine to support her views: “It says here all women have rape fantasies.” Clearly, the magazine’s generalization of “all women” is damaging since Chrissy accepts fantasy as fact. The magazine’s pop-psychology can be dangerous when, for example, in Chrissy’s fantasy she is attacked, but she does not defend herself, even by screaming. Chrissy mentions, “But who’d hear me? Besides, all the articles say it’s better not to resist, that way you don’t get hurt.” It is significant that Chrissy is helpless in her fantasy since the magazine condones her helpless passivity. “I can’t very well get out of the bathtub. The bathroom is too small and he’s blocking the doorway, so I just lie there.” Chrissy believes in the image of women as desirable only when they are defenseless.
Magazines are not the only medium to exploit women. When Chrissy discloses her fantasy about a man all dressed in black wearing black gloves, Estelle says, “I knew right away the [TV] show she got the black gloves off, because I saw the same one.” Both TV and magazines encourage the idea that unreality is better than reality. Estelle finds her coworkers’ fantasies impossibly silly after listening to one fantasy story about a man who climbs eighteen floors with a hook and a rope. The media can become a double-barreled shotgun aimed at women, especially when the fantasies seem like innocent little dreams; “and then he, well, you know,” and the magazines and shows do not describe the violent, unwilling sex, but rather only inspire romantic fantasizing. Overall, though Estelle blames not only magazines and TV for their marketing-inspired nonsense, but also the women themselves who buy into the fantasy.
Estelle points out the harm of these fantasies with humor, but her coworkers do not laugh at her teasing jokes. Estelle describes their reactions: “I swear all four of them looked at me like I was in bad
What Do I Read Next?
- The Edible Woman (1969), Atwood’s first novel, concerns a young, recently engaged woman who finds herself paralyzed by the decisions she must make about her future.
- Judy Brady Syfer’s classic essay, “I Want a Wife” (1971), often provokes strong reactions from both men and women in its definition of what the duties of a wife entail.
- Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1978) and Annie John (1983) are works that explore how women socialize each other into subservience to men.
- May Swenson’s poem “Bleeding” (1970) looks at power plays between victim and victimizer.
- Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand 1996) explores the differences between how men and women communicate.
- Marge Piercy’s poems “The Token Woman” (1976) and “Barbie Doll” are acidic comments on what it means to be female.
- Angela Carter’s story “The Company of Wolves” (1979) reworks the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood and explores the relationship between romanticism and violence. It was also made into a movie.
- Robert Browning’s famous poem “My Last Duchess” (1842) dramatizes one man’s perceptions of women.
taste, like I’d insulted the Virgin Mary.” Here, Atwood slyly reinforces that the public worships the image of women in a peaceful, but mostly passive, role. After all, part of the Virgin Mary’s myth is that she also did not resist. Estelle recognizes that saintly women are somewhat safer than the average woman. This is illustrated in her fantasy in which she tells her rapist that she will “be giving birth to Saint Anne, who will be one day giving birth to the Virgin Mary.” If a woman is to be narrowly seen only as a sex object or a saint, it is much safer to be saintly. Estelle tells her coworkers their “rapes” are too safe to be actual rapes.
Only Estelle defines the difference between a fantasy and an actual rape, telling her coworkers that their fantasies are not true rapes: “You aren’t getting raped, it’s just some guy you haven’t met formally . . . and you have a good time. Rape is when they’ve got a knife or something and you don’t want to.” To Estelle rape is about anxiety, panic, confusion, loss of will, disgust, and fear. Estelle may feel she needs to remind her coworkers to believe this negative side of sexuality still exists in a civilized, modern time when sexual and gender roles are changing. Women have the right to say no, but do they have the power to be believed? Greta knows she will not, so she will not even try to say no.
In sharp contrast to passive Greta, Estelle likes power; she is not helpless in her fantasies. Her fantasies of being a Kung-Fu expert demonstrate her wish for control over her body and her safety. Estelle can outwit, confuse, and fool her fantasy rapists; in fact, she hopes she is not too vicious to them. By calmly listening to her rapists or starting a conversation with them, she attempts to assert herself. She can relate to and give advice to her rapists. They can even watch the late show together. Truly, Estelle’s rapists are as unrealistically obliging and polite as her coworkers’ rapists were romantically accommodating. These fantasy men are definite failures at raping Estelle, but they are more successful at having a relationship with a woman than the “successful” rapists. Ironically, the men even leave her feeling sorry for their unsuccessful attempts at rape. For example, Estelle mentions one rapist who gets his zipper stuck as he starts to undo himself and begins to cry, at “one of the most significant moments in a girl’s life, it [rape]’s almost like getting married or having a baby or something.” So Estelle dismantles the traditional view of rape and rapists. The rapists in her six fantasies get cancer and colds. Some even have suicidal wishes. They are vulnerable. Estelle might not want to admit it, but she humanizes her rapists, so that she does not have to live in terror. It is her way of imagining control and of having power over them.
Despite her earlier ridicule, Estelle reveals that she does consider the magazine’s statistics: “the funny thing about my fantasies is, that the man is always someone I don’t know, and the statistics in magazines say it’s often someone you know at least a little bit [like Estelle’s boss, who, she is sure]. . . couldn’t rape his way out of a paper bag, poor old thing.” It becomes clear that the only way this narrator can discuss the fearsome topic is with defensive humor. She may not want to believe a rapist could be someone she knows.
Estelle also cannot completely successfully laugh off her fears of rape through her humorous fantasies. Her reputation as the “office worry wart” seems to contradict her jovial verbal portrayal of herself. Overall, this makes Estelle an entirely believable, well-rounded, all-too-human character. At first, although she appears merely an intelligent observer of human nature, Estelle morphs into a talkative and nosy person who investigates her coworkers’ personnel files. Still, Estelle enjoys a good time and she is quite witty, so surely she cannot be a neurotic, hysterical woman afraid of being raped? Readers may hesitate to shift their opinions and view her in a negative light because in judging Estelle too harshly, we could be looking too closely at our own human foibles and learn that our fears can unbalance and unnerve us. In a sarcastic modern society, Estelle’s coping mechanism of denying her fears by making fun of them, so as not to submit to advertising’s brainwashing or live out her life in paralyzing fear, is clearly recognizable.
Despite her fears, a woman like Estelle wants her independence as well as her safety. Estelle says, “You can’t spend your whole life in the Filing Department or cooped up in your apartment with all the doors locked.” Estelle hopes to be able to go for a drink in a nice place, even if she is by herself. But, when Estelle casually mentions, “I’m with Women’s Lib on that, even though I can’t agree with a lot of other things they say,” we begin to wonder to whom she is speaking. Estelle appears afraid of being thought too militant or even unfeminine by her listener. Furthermore, she nonchalantly says that the waiters in the bar know her. Through such nervous chatter, Estelle reveals her situation; she is talking to a stranger who could harm her—possibly to a man she fears could be a rapist.
Thus, the entire story is revealed as her oneway conversation. That we never hear from the man Estelle is talking to may show Atwood feels Estelle needs defensive measures and has a fear of opening up. Estelle may be ambivalent about her independence since she knows the high price of freedom is responsibility for her actions. Entering a bar and having a drink with a strange man might allow some to blame her and say she deserved the rape. There is also a lot of dialogue in her fantasies, which are often mere attempts to get a conversation going since “once you let them know you’re human, that you have a life too, I don’t see how they could go ahead with it. I know it happens, but I just don’t understand it.” We realize that Estelle seems to have been manipulating the man into this conversation, so that she will feel safer with him, although she declares, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.” Thus, even though Estelle says, “I’m totally honest and I always am and they know it,” at this point in the story, we may suspect that Estelle may not be as entirely honest as she would have us believe. She is not being entirely honest about herself and her fear of being raped. Atwood, however, has honestly portrayed the vulnerability that even strong independent thinkers can have as well as the fear that can occur between unacquainted men and women.
Estelle is the ultimate unreliable narrator. She laughs, but she is a seriously hypocritical clown. Critical of her female coworkers for not fearing rape, she then takes those fears too seriously herself. In Estelle, Atwood asks which is better—to be powerless or powerful, to be a victim or victimizer? For Estelle, it may be good to have some fear, but she may be at the risk of being consumed by it.
One other final aspect that makes this story so powerful is it is not written by man condemning women’s fears and fantasies, but rather it is written by a woman who sees—and makes us see—the flaws of one imaginary woman’s psyche and that makes this story more believable and frightening, that Atwood, a woman writer, exploits the fears of some women and exploits the way women are themselves exploited.
Source: Catherine Walter, “The Unreliable Feminine Narrative Voice in ‘Rape Fantasies,’” for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
Tyler is an Associate Professor of English at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. In the following essay, she warns that students must balance sympathy with judgment when interpreting the inflammatory content of Estelle’s dialogue.
Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” is an unusually provocative short story. Atwood or her publisher perhaps judged the short story too provocative for American audiences, since it was omitted from the American hardback edition of the collection Dancing Girls and Other Stories. Whoever made that decision may have been right. While some students in my introductory literature classes sail through the story blithely and enjoy its offbeat humor, others are scandalized.
In the story, the first-person narrator, a woman named Estelle, recounts that she and her coworkers shared their rape fantasies over a bridge game in the women’s lunch room. The other women’s fantasies involve sex with a romantic stranger. In Estelle’s, she asks the rapist to hold the contents of her purse while she hunts through her purse for a plastic lemon—which she promptly uses to squirt him in the eye. The lunch group breaks up, but Estelle nevertheless goes on to recount several other, equally ludicrous fantasies involving unusually cooperative would-be rapists.
Indignant female students scold Atwood and her narrator, Estelle, for treating rape too lightly, for not taking it seriously enough. Some readers classify Atwood’s story with the magazine articles Estelle criticizes in the story’s opening paragraph, those which glamorize rape. No woman who had experienced rape could discuss it in such a cavalier fashion, some of them angrily say in class discussions—and a handful speak from painful personal experience.
In her brief critical study of Atwood’s works, feminist critic Barbara Hill Rigney echoes this judgment, referring in passing to “the naive narrator of ‘Rape Fantasies,’ who believes that rape always happens to someone else and is an event that might be avoided by simply reasoning with the rapist.” Jerome Rosenberg makes a related observation, noting Estelle’s “curiously benevolent voice.” Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs describe Estelle as “bright but superficial” and add, “The actual violence and brutality of rape, in short, are unreal for her.” Similarly, Lee Briscoe Thompson criticizes Estelle’s “simplistic and determined optimism” and lambastes “the sunny normalcy of this lady’s world view”; Thompson later comments that in this story, “it becomes apparent that the naive narrator’s innocent premise is the power of the word.”
But is Estelle naive? She scornfully dismisses her friends’ romantic fantasies of sex with strangers as having nothing in common with real rape: “Rape is when they’ve got a knife or something and you don’t want to.” She elsewhere describes a short fantasy in which she physically disables a would-be rapist and goes on to remark: “. . . in real life I’m sure it would just be a conk on the head and that’s that, like getting your tonsils out, you’d wake up and it would all be over except for the sore places, and you’d be lucky if your neck wasn’t broken or something. . .”. That hardly suggests naivete; Estelle is obviously cognizant of the violence and fear associated with rape. Far from being blithely naive, Estelle is clearly terrified by rape and consequently obsessed with it: “. . .it’s getting so you can hardly be sociable any more, and how are you supposed to meet people if you can’t trust them even that basic amount?” She feels guilty or at least self-conscious about her dating, as her sensitivity to her coworker Darlene’s comment demonstrates:
“I don’t think you should go out alone at night,” Darlene said, “you put yourself in a position,” and I may have been mistaken but she was looking at me.
Estelle acknowledges that the “girls” at the office consider her a “worrywart,” and she obliquely suggests that her mother does, too: “My mother always said you shouldn’t dwell on unpleasant things and I generally agree with that, I mean, dwelling on them doesn’t make them go away. Though not dwelling on them doesn’t make them go away either, when you come to think of it.” But Atwood elsewhere endorses what some readers might see as Estelle’s irrational fear:
. . . [I]n a society like ours where people are pretty much out there on their own hook, there’s no real social support system for them, no small tribe or clan or integrated structure that’s going to support an individual in it; so fear is a real motivating factor. And because you don’t really know where the danger is coming from, fear takes the form often of a generalized anxiety or paranoia. You don’t know who the enemy is. You don’t know what direction you’ll be attacked from. So everybody ends up constantly swivelling around, looking for the next threat. People are afraid of whatever’s out there. And rightly so.
This is precisely Estelle’s situation; she specifically comments on how difficult it was for her to negotiate the urban environment of Toronto: “I’m telling you, I was really lonely when I first came here; I thought it was going to be such a big adventure and all, but it’s a lot harder to meet people in a city.” Estelle tries to overcome her fears so that she can comfortably go out on dates, but she remains “uneasy,” to use a student’s apt term.
In trying to encourage students to judge Estelle less harshly, I sometimes point to the story’s final two paragraphs, where she says:
I’m not what you would call a drinker but I like to go out now and then for a drink or two in a nice place, even if I am by myself, I’m with Women’s Lib on that even though I can’t agree with a lot of the other things they say. Like here for instance, the waiters all know me and if anyone, you know, bothers me. . . . I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except I think it helps you get to know a person, especially at first, hearing some of the things they think about.
Students rarely notice the clues in this passage on their own, but if I point them out, they are able to interpret them. “Who is she talking to?” I ask. When, I ask them, does a woman go to a restaurant or bar (a place with waiters) to spend time with a man whom she apparently does not know well? “A first date,” they will say, “maybe even a blind date.” Perhaps she is picking men up. We know the listener is probably male because Estelle twice wistfully alludes to sexual difference, acknowledging that “maybe it’s different for a guy.”
I then ask them why a woman would tell her date about a series of so-called “rape” fantasies in which the rape never occurs. She is warning him, they suggest. She sees him, too as a potential rapist—a contention shared by critics Frank Davey, Sally A. Jacobsen, and Dieter Meindl.
In a sense, “Rape Fantasies” is a prose variation on the dramatic monologue associated with the poetry of Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Atwood, who studied nineteenth-century literature in graduate school, is certainly familiar with the genre; she specifically mentions studying Tennyson, whose dramatic monologues are almost as well known as Browning’s. The dramatic monologue traditionally has several characteristics: It involves a speaker and often an at least vaguely identified auditor. More seriously, as Robert Langbaum points out,
. . . [T]he meaning of the dramatic monologue is in disequilibrium with what the speaker reveals and understands. We understand the speaker’s point of view not through [her] description of it but indirectly, through seeing what [she] sees while judging the limitations and distortions of what [she] sees. The result is that we understand, if not more, at least something other than the speaker understands, and the meaning is conveyed as much by what the speaker conceals and distorts as by what [she] reveals.
Langbaum, author of a key study on the dramatic monologue, contends that what distinguishes dramatic monologue is a tension between judgment and sympathy. Confronted with “the pathology of emotions” that the speaker demonstrates, the reader must first sympathize with the speaker in order to understand the work; then and only then can the reader judge the speaker’s character or even recognize the pathology of the emotions presented. What I attempt to do in class is encourage students to sympathize with Estelle before they judge her.
Students unused to reading and analyzing literature sometimes rush to achieve closure and begin interpretation rather than ensuring first that they understand the characters’ behavior and motivation as fully as possible. Teachers can aid the latter process by pointing out elements in the text that problematize students’ initial readings (or misreadings). It is, I think, incumbent upon us as more experienced readers to slow students down, to point out what they have overlooked in the text in their haste to pronounce a verdict. After reading Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” for example, younger students in particular seem ready to condemn the narrator as a poor mother for neglecting her child—until I point out the line that reads, “It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression.” Students may not initially understand what the term “pre-relief” means or what the Depression meant in terms of unemployment, so we discuss the implications of that sentence in class. If students can slow down in their rush to judgment, if they first try to understand the character, they will gain a better appreciation for the plight of the young mother.
Similarly, if students can be persuaded to suspend their judgments about the apparently inflammatory content of Estelle’s fantasies, they may discover that Estelle is a likable character with whom they can readily sympathize. She is frightened at the prospect of dating potentially dangerous strangers, but she is frightened, too, by the prospect of a solitary life. She chooses, caught in this dilemma, to take risks rather than protect herself through isolation. Barbara Hill Rigney contends that in Atwood’s novels, “Atwood argues . . . for a recognition of and a commitment to [the] human condition, no matter how malignant, and for an engagement with life, with reality, no matter how brutal or absurd.” In this respect, Estelle is admirable. She possesses a sense of humor, and she struggles to cope as cheerfully as possible with her fear of rape. She does not withdraw from human connection; she struggles to establish such connections in spite of her vulnerability and fear.
Why, then, do so many readers see her as naive? Her comic fantasies brand her as naive because in those, again and again, she is able with relative ease to dissuade remarkably rational rapists from actually committing the intended rapes. These fantasies, of course, provoke another, more puzzling question: Why does Estelle have rape fantasies in which no rape ever takes place?
One student (who is taking a psychology course) perceptively suggests that fantasies gratify wishes that would otherwise be unfulfilled. Estelle, then, repeatedly fantasizes that she could verbally fend off a rapist—precisely because she knows that she cannot protect herself completely in real life. As one critic observes of two of Atwood’s novels, “To see the world and the self as funny, to refuse to take things seriously, is a means of protection against that which threatens and terrifies.” Estelle knows that she cannot defend herself physically. She can’t even manage to keep a plastic lemon in her purse: ” . . . I tried it once but the darn thing leaked all over my chequebook . . .”. She acknowledges her vulnerability when she mentions an improbable fantasy in which she defeats her attacker using kung fu:
. . . I could never even hit the volleyball in gym, and a volleyball is fairly large, you know?—and I just go zap with my fingers into his eyes and that’s it, he falls over, or I flip him against a wall or something. But I could never really stick my fingers into anyone’s eyes, could you? . . . I feel a bit guilty about that one, I mean how would you like walking around knowing someone’s been blinded for life because of you?
In each of her other fantasies, Estelle relies upon conversation to disarm her rapist. She establishes an empathetic connection with her rapist, and once that connection is established, the would-be assailant can no longer go through with the rape. Part of Estelle wants to believe that a man could not rape someone he knew, someone with whom he had talked. In this respect, Estelle may be behaving in a particularly “feminine” way—that is, in a way that our culture’s construction of femininity fosters. Carol Gilligan, writing about different fantasies, nonetheless makes a point that seems particularly germane here: “If aggression is tied, as women perceive, to the fracture of human connection, then the activities of care, as their fantasies suggest, are the activities that make the social world safe, by
“Estelle is obviously cognizant of the violence and fear associated with. rape. Far from being blithely naive, Estelle is clearly terrified by rape and consequently obsessed with it.”
avoiding isolation and preventing aggression . . .”. Estelle gives the rapist her cold medicine, then, or the name of a good dermatologist, in order to forestall his aggression: “In her imagination she turns constantly to conversation and sympathy as a civilized and sympathetic method of blunting the edge of potential violence.” In effect, the story as a whole is another variation on the theme of Estelle’s various rape fantasies: Estelle is attempting to establish that empathetic connection with the potential rapist she is dating in what she knows is a vain attempt to ensure her personal safety.
I identify with Estelle. What she doesn’t understand about rape is what an occasional student will eventually admit that she (and the student who speaks up is usually a “she”) doesn’t understand:
Like, how could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you’re human, you have a life too, I don’t see how they could go ahead with it, right? I mean, I know it happens but I just don’t understand it, that’s the part I really don’t understand.
I don’t understand it, either.
Source: Lisa Tyler, “‘I Just Don’t Understand It’: Teaching Margaret Atwood’s ‘Rape Fantasies’,” forthcoming in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 1998.
Sally A. Jacobsen
Jacobsen is on the faculty of Northern Kentucky University. In the following essay, she discusses teaching “Rape Fantasies” as a means of opening discussion on the sensitive topic of rape, a topic which students of both sexes find both interesting and disturbing.
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Source: Sally A. Jacobsen, “Themes of Identity in Atwood’s Poems and ‘Rape Fantasies’: Using The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women,’ ’ in Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Other Works, edited by Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, The Modern Language Association of America, 1996, pp. 70-6.
Lee Briscoe Thompson
In the following brief excerpt, Thompson talks about “Rape Fantasies,” specifically the inabilityof language to allow effective communication between men and women.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Source: Lee Briscoe Thompson, “Minuets and Madness: Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls” in The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson, Anansi, 1981, pp. 107-22.
Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics, Talonbooks, 1984.
Grace, Sherrill. Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, Vehicule Press, 1980.
Greenspan, Karen. The Timetables of Women’s History, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Ingersoll, Earl G., editor. Margaret Atwood: Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1990.
Olsen, Kirstin. Chronology of Women’s History, Greenwood Press, 1994.
“Margaret Atwood,” in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by Sheila Fitzgerald, Gale, 1989, pp. 1-23.
Contains reprinted criticism focusing on Atwood’s stories.
“Margaret Atwood,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 84, edited by Christopher Giroux, Gale, 1995, pp. 1-59.
Contains reprinted criticism covering all of Atwood’s work, including stories, novels, and poetry.
“Margaret Atwood,” in DISCovering Authors Modules, CD—Rom, Gale, 1995.
Contains biographical information and critical excerpts on Atwood’s work.
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