Ken Follett and Rape

I just finished reading The Pillars of the Earth, a pretty good read. It’s certainly not Great Literature — on the literary front I’d put it somewhere above The Da Vinci Code and below The Lord of the Rings.

But one thing troubled me as I read. I’m certainly not a prude, and I do find that the occasional sex scene in a book can be fun, but the number of graphic rape scenes in this book was really rather alarming. One of the premises of the book is that its primary villain, William, can’t get sexually aroused unless he’s raping someone. I suppose I can buy that: even if most people find rape disgusting, clearly it excites some people or it would never happen.

But did we have to get it in such detail? The omniscient narrator is constantly going inside William’s head, letting us know how much he wants to rape this woman and that woman. When the rape finally occurs, the play-by-play includes abundant descriptions of his arousal increasing in direct proportion to the the woman’s pain and fear. It almost seems as if Follett himself has some kind of rape fantasy or fetish.

This Amazon review discusses the rape scenes:

A rape scene can be handled in any number of ways. If the author did not want to dwell on the rape, but to make the point that it did occur, he could have mentioned it and moved, quickly, on.

If the author wanted to make more of a point of it, he could have dwelled on what the rape did to the victim.

Follett chose to describe the rape from the point of view of the rapist, in a pornographic manner, in a way that would entertain someone who would enjoy such a scene by positioning himself as a vicarious violater. Follett dwells on the physical attractions of the girl, her complete powerlessness, how much she is hurt, and how much the rapist enjoys the rape.

Again, there is no greater point made about women as collateral damage in competitions waged by men for men’s prizes, no greater point made about the status of women in medieval society.

I think what Follett may have been going for was an “honest” depiction of the event, trying to see it through a 12th-century man’s eyes. What bugged me is that we never really saw it through a 12th-century woman’s eyes. Each rape scene — and there were several — went just about the same. There was one attempted rape that was depicted from the woman’s perspective, but in this case, the rape was foiled. Actual rapes were only depicted as male triumphs.

After the fact we do follow one woman as she recovers from her rape, and it’s clearly something that haunts her. But while men’s thoughts, fears, and desires are vividly depicted throughout the book, the rape’s impact isn’t given much treatment at all. It’s not ignored, but it’s not portrayed with nearly the passion as many other less significant aspects of the plot.

So what will I do about this? I don’t know. I wasn’t likely to read another book by Follett anyway — this one wasn’t especially interesting to me, so “boycotting” his work would have had little effect.

Besides, I don’t think Follett should be censored. He has the right to write about rape any way he wants. I just don’t happen to think he does it especially effectively.

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6 Responses to Ken Follett and Rape

  1. Krystal says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

  2. LL says:

    Unfortunately, although I loved Pillars and am now reading
    World Without End, I do agree that Follett over details rape scenes. Yes, there are more in “World.” And they are again described in anguished detail. I also am not a prude, but in one rape scene the victim begins to enjoy it. I’m very uncomfortable with that portrayal.

  3. Zachary T says:

    I noticed this in both Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, too. Then I began reading The Third Twin, which was written around the same time as Pillars, and Follett again brought up rape in the same graphic manner. However, the story is told mainly through a woman’s point of view and depicts the mental anguish it causes. But still– what is it with Follett and the subject of rape?

  4. hi says:

    i think it comes down to comfort level. i personally thought pillars was one of the best books i have ever read. the rape (and any sex scene actually) were excessive but necessary. it was his writing style. direct, to the point, not so much dwelling on feelings and such but more on the actual act that is occurring. and i think by depicting it so violently made the villain of william that much more horrifying and disgusting.

    and perhaps his books have a common theme of rape is because this occurred frequently in that time period. women were often sold and used for sex and no one would do much about it. plus, rape is pretty much the most horrifying experience someone can go through and it is a topic that isnt seen very often because no one wants to talk about it. i think its great how pillars is a story of a woman who overcomes all that and not only survives but is happy with a loving family and husband.

  5. Janine says:

    I totally agree. The fact that Follett continues to wrote about so many certainly says something about him and his internal state. Can’t say exactly what that is, but it does disturb me.

  6. Janine says:

    I feel pretty sensitive to this king of thing. I feel like this book would be completely unreadable to any women who has actually undergone rape or sexual abuse (which is at least 1 in 3 women, I believe) so that alienates a large reading population. Even though it is honest and reflective of the times, I really have a lot of trouble with using rape in such detail as such an important and dwelled on plot device.

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