Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Talia Schaffer

Committee Members

Nancy Yousef

Caroline Reitz

Jenny Davidson

Subject Categories

Literature in English, British Isles | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Women's Studies


rape, sexual violence, otherness, harm, adjudication, the history of the novel


“Awful Nearness: Rape and the History of the English Novel, 1740-1900,” argues that representations of rape and sexual violence have played an unrecognized role in the history of the novel, indeed that such plots epitomize the most important epistemological questions with which the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel grappled. This project is both literary historical and presentist; while it describes a new genealogy of the British novel, it also traces how representations of rape have substantively shaped our contemporary understanding and rhetoric of sexual violence.

Drawing on the work of a wide array of feminist thinkers, I argue that novelistic rape has long been misread due to what I call “adjudicative reading”: the literary critical tendency to attempt to determine whether a fictional rape really happened in the world of the novel. Adjudicative reading treats characters as if they are legal subjects, imposing juridical categories of evidence and intent upon their actions (while, not to mention, ignoring the fictionality of all characters in novels). As I show, this style of criticism has tended to replicate prejudices common in the criminal adjudication of sexual violence.

By contrast, I argue for conceptualizing rape as a capacious category of phenomena, most defined by its use of sexualized violence to structurally disempower women and vulnerable others. The metric by which I identify rape is not the legalistic ‘intent’ but the phenomenological ‘harm’. Ultimately it is my belief that rape, as a social structure and as a literary device, has informed the history of the novel far more fully than we often recognize. This project attempts to describe that forgotten history.