Anyway Estelle is the only thoroughly developed character in Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies.” Though she is the narrator and quite thoughtful of the ideas and reactions of the story’s supporting players, it is her almost obsessive preoccupation with a singular topic that actually prompts her to fully illustrate her own ideas and reactions, drawing a character far more compelling than any of the men or women she will attempt to describe. Estelle begins her story and ruminations swiftly.
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She considers rape, how rape has recently been treated like a new scourge, and how essays and tips on rape prevention have become something of an institution themselves. Estelle recalls a conversation during a recent bridge game, where “rape fantasies” was the topic and her lunchmates each offered a feeling about it, from disgust to confusion to admitted interest in elaborate, particular fantasies. Estelle, during the course of these conversations, makes observations about the women, subtly revealing her method of focus and her sense of the important, telling less about the characters of the women and more about Estelle herself. These constant, critical, and often silly observations are the very thing which clearly draws the character of this narrator. Her disregard for dreadful concepts and her ability to make light of serious situations are the very character qualities that make believable her carelessness in the end.
The anecdotes about each of the bridge players indicates the comfort Estelle finds in gossip, unfair criticism, and the sharing of the particulars of her own rape fantasies. Estelle tells of a moment when one of the bridge players, Darlene, seemed to address her directly; Estelle thinks that “I may have been mistaken but she was looking at me.” Without ever giving Darlene the benefit of the doubt, or even considering the minimal power of such an insult, Estelle is quick to remind the reader how she believes she has the upper hand to this older woman: “She’s forty-one though you wouldn’t know it and neither does she, but I looked it up in the employee file…I mean, not everyone has access to that file…” Another player, Greta, pipes up the slightest opinion, this one having nothing remotely to do with Estelle, and she is disregarded as frivolous. “She worked in Detroit for three years and she never lets you forget it, it’s like she thinks she’s a war hero or something…” Estelle puts each of them into what she feels is their place, and never once looks at herself with the same eye.
Estelle is above such criticism only because she can relate to her own feelings, and she is ready to trivialize and criticize the other characters because she believes she cannot relate to them, considering mostly their flaws. But it is the clear similarities between Estelle and the women, shown vividly during this collective speculation on the “rape fantasy” topic, which realizes Estelle’s character to the audience. Of all the women at the table, only Estelle tosses out obnoxious humor, and it is the reaction to this obnoxiousness that unifies the group and identifies Estelle: they’re thinking of her the same way she’s thinking of them, but with better reason to do so. Estelle’s own rape fantasies show her creativity and her willingness to explore a topic, but it is her haphazard movement from one idea to the next that indicates Estelle’s lack of discipline, and effectively shows her character’s careless tendencies. When considering a rape fantasy where she’s a kung fu expert, ready to defend herself against an attack, her mind drifts away from the point almost immediately: “…or I flip him against a wall or something. But I could never really stick my fingers in anyone’s eyes, could you? It would feel like hot jello and I don’t even like cold jello.” This chaotic transition is important to recognize because it shows how easily this woman’s attention can be diverted.
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No longer is it a wonder how simple statements that don’t involve Estelle can all of the sudden lead to fiercely critical thoughts about her fellow bridge players; Estelle rarely stays to the point, and shifts from one thought to the next to keep herself from becoming too serious. She makes light of all of the possible rape scenarios in which she can imagine herself being involved; and she cannot, ironically, be too critical of theoretical rapists. To her rapists she is sympathetic, and her rapists are always receptive to this sympathy. She sees their frustrations and their reasons for acting the way they do: “I feel so sorry for him, in my rape fantasies I always end up feeling sorry for the guy.” This sense of understanding is never once present for the women at the bridge table, where no one is trying to rape Estelle, but where everyone is burdened by the limits of Estelle’s perception of reality. The late introduction of Estelle’s location during the telling of the story–a singles bar–emphasizes the character elements that have been introduced throughout. Not only has the audience of her rape fantasies been the reader, safely removed from Estelle, but it has been a faceless, unfamiliar person who has quite possibly noticed all of the character traits that cheapen Estelle. In this instance, Estelle shows that she is quite capable of practicing her benevolent behavior in her rape fantasies, whether she realizes it or not. “…how could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with…?” she asks, not thinking once about the person to whom she’s speaking. She gives this person the benefit of the doubt, reveals many intimate details about herself, and gives this faceless person more credit and more candidness than the women at the bridge game.
It is not only the rapists that do not get criticized by Estelle, but anyone who hasn’t had the chance to disappoint her in some way. In Estelle’s world, only strangers are capable of this status of perfection, and therefore worthy of hearing things like gossip, criticism, and the particulars of her rape fantasies: things she would never reveal to anyone else. Estelle is, then, revealed best when the author simply allows her to speak. To have told the story in the third person would have removed the tone and wealth of information that hearing Estelle’s voice provides. Her character is developed richly and efficiently through the moments of humor that surround her absurd fantasies of rape; her voice and thought process is illustrated clearly through the transitions between serious concepts and silly ones; and it is these transitions that reveal the contradictions in her thinking that she is unable to recognize.
Estelle is unsure of some of the most important rape questions but is somehow satisfied in this uncertainty. The author shows this attitude to be a constant in Estelle’s character, present whether she considers concrete or abstract ideas; and it is this trait, so deeply embedded in her very fiber, that negatively affects her humor, creativity, and other redeeming qualities so completely. In the end–after she has reiterated herself to be vulnerable and sympathetic to strangers, and after she has made this clear to none other than a complete stranger–she considers the idea of rape in a vague statement: “I know it happens but I just don’t understand it, that’s the part I really don’t understand.”