Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


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Wayne Koestenbaum

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Women's Studies


This project seeks to explain the prevalence of narratives that feature sexual violence against women in the tradition of the Anglophone novel. To this end, it posits the existence of a sadistic reading practice that coincides with readers' sympathetic identification. A sadistic reader takes pleasure in the bodily violation of the woman at the center of a novel; such a reader enters the text expecting violence, and experiences a sense of narrative gratification when the inevitable violation plays out. These expectations emerge from repeated interactions with a literary tradition in which victimized heroines are routine. To explore such sadism, I follow two lines of inquiry. The first examines the literary mechanisms that create meaning and pleasure from textual violence, and determines what devices exist within the text to engage the reader in a virtual complicity with that act. The second explores how violent representations implicate the culture at large: to what extent do these texts reify cultural attitudes towards violence against women, to what extent do they code sexuality, and to what extent do they react to existing sexual norms?

Combining historical theories of the novel, reader response theory, and psychoanalysis, I trace the uneasy relationship between readers and female protagonists. Although readers sympathetically identify with a novel's heroine, her bodily vulnerability makes her a fraught site for such identification, and, in the moment of her violation, she is easily maneuvered from the position of the sympathetic "me" to the abjected "not-me." Thus readers can enjoy identifying with the heroine throughout her narrative, while still rejecting her vulnerability. I explore this seeming paradox by analyzing the works of Angela Carter, Joyce Carol Oates, and J.M. Coetzee. These authors self-consciously examine the rape narrative as it operates in the literature of the postmodern era. Their respective novels The Magic Toyshop, Blonde, and Disgrace, consider both the influence of literary history on the self-perceptions of the modern heroine and demonstrate the complex, shifting form of identification through which readers interact with novelistic heroines.