Ellipsis, Ritual, and "Real Time": Rethinking the Rape Complex in Southern Novels

By Patterson, Laura S. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Ellipsis, Ritual, and "Real Time": Rethinking the Rape Complex in Southern Novels


Patterson, Laura S., The Mississippi Quarterly


IN THE MIND OF THE SOUTH (1941), W.J. Cash defines the "rape complex" that has beset Southern literature for much of the twentieth century as a cultural ritual rather than a criminal act with a perpetrator and a victim. Such an analysis of the "complex" leads to a problematically one-dimensional reading of actual rape scenes that subjugates female survivors of rape (both actual and literary) to what Cash characterizes as the "feeling" that

   any assertion of any kind on the part of the Negro constituted in a
   perfectly real manner an attack on the Southern woman. What they [white
   Southern males] saw, more or less consciously, in the conditions of
   Reconstruction was a passage toward a condition for her as degrading, in
   their view, as rape itself. As a condition, moreover, which, logic or no
   logic, they infallibly though t of as being as absolutely forced upon her
   as rape, and hence a condition for which the term "rape" stood as truly as
   for the de facto deed. (1)

Here, Cash taps into the representational (and often misrepresentational) nature of Southern rape as subordinate to Southern racial "folkways." When a literal rape is suspected in Cash's South, the female victim is linked automatically to thousands of fellow women who have endured the "assertions" of African Americans in the South, and the public focus shifts to retaliation, namely, lynching. Hence, the original crime (whether real or imagined) of male-on-female violence in the form of rape is subsumed by a realm composed of ritualized masculine violence which "degrades" the putative victim in yet another way: it renders her voiceless.

Directly following his definition of the rape complex, Cash describes Reconstruction as a time when

   The South was solidly wedded to Negro-lynching because of the cumulative
   power of habit, obviously. But it was wedded to it far more because the
   dominant feeling about it (the feeling which, in time of stress, would
   seize control of the best almost as surely as of the sorriest cracker) was
   that, as an act of racial and patriotic expression, as act of chivalry, an
   entire Southern sentiment, and as an act which had had, in most concrete
   cases, the approbation and often the participation of the noblest and
   wisest of that revered generation of men which was now bending to the
   grave, it was not wrong but the living bone and flesh of fight. (p. 118)

Cash logically follows his introduction of the term "rape complex" with an attempt to understand the horrors of the associated lynching of innocent African-American males. Because of the influence of The Mind of the South on readings of Southern literature, critics have been prone to examine rape much the same way Cash does, as a symptom of larger racial, class, and gender problems or as a precursor to unspeakable violence directed at black men by white men. This approach negates the position of the rape survivor, closes off the possibilities of examining other types of rape (such as white-on-white rape) as specifically Southern in nature, and perhaps most importantly, fails to acknowledge rape as a phenomenon with its own set of power imbalances, independent of retributive, masculine violence. Cash's "rape complex" is, in short, an obsolete interpretative strategy.

In Cash's "rape complex" paradigm, and in attempts to apply this paradigm to Southern novels, the female rape victim disappears entirely. The recent rise of feminist theory as a valid tool for investigating Southern novels makes necessary a reconfiguration of the site of rape--its narrative time-space configurations, as well its writers and audiences. Patricia Yaeger examines rape as an event rather than a cultural ritual, asserting that "to adapt to the trauma of rape when female honor is still a southern rallying cry means to challenge the political order at its roots--to acknowledge rape as an ordinary, terrible crime that should result in neither racial hysteria nor ostracism for its victims. …

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