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.