CW: Discussions of Sexual Violence.
“‘Yes, honey,’ says the woman with the tattoos. ‘We all did the right thing.’” (138)
“‘I love you,’ I say, because I really, really do.
‘I know,’ says Polly, because it’s true.” (242)
“Hey, is that book really about a bear?” a woman asked me at my shift at the library.
I had just finished reading the scene that Hermione wakes up in the nurse’s office and realizes that she was raped. I was unsure of what to tell this woman, afraid of making her uncomfortable, and honestly taken aback at her question, so I just tried to laugh. “No, this is for my Honors project. It’s like a YA book. Pretty serious and sad, actually”
At that point, she asked if she could read the inside cover, and I reluctantly agreed. The summary has the word “rape” in it, and I was afraid that this high school teacher would be upset by what I was reading. Instead, she asked to take a photo of the book’s cover, because she thought that it sounded interesting.
I’m always afraid of talking about rape, because I don’t know what others have experienced and what will make someone relive painful memories.
However, this book approaches the topic of rape in a way that I’ve never seen before. First of, it’s based of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but is more an extension than a retelling. It takes pieces of the original narrative and brings those elements into the modern day. I think it is interesting that this novel remodels the work of one of the most famous white men into a young woman’s coming of age in a culture of rape. I also think that the title—taken from a famous stage direction—is interesting with this novel, because the “bear” of this novel, I argue, could be the rapist himself or his threat throughout the novel (since we’re not ever really sure who did this to Hermione and much of the tension is tied up in that fact).
More importantly, this book is sad (for obvious reasons), but I don’t think the overall tone is one of hopelessness. I read Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It this past summer and was profoundly depressed for hours after reading it, because it was the harsh realities of rape culture.
However, Exit, Pursued by a Bear shows the brutal realities but also confronts them head-on, namely in Hermione’s friend, Polly. At one point, a reporter is victim blaming, and Polly pipes up, “Would it be a better story if Hermione had known what she was drinking? If her skirt were two inches shorter” (194). Throughout the book, Polly is the supportive, loving friend that is there to defend and support Hermione at every turn.
So much of the book is about this support and love and how that can help to overcome the trauma that Hermione experiences. Even though at times she is frustrated and annoyed with her supporters, she knows that she has people who love her and would do anything for her. No one ever doubts her. No one ever blames her. No one ever questions her choice to get an abortion. They simply support her in any way that they know how.
This sort of support—particularly female friendship—is seen clearly in the quotes I placed at the start. The first is one of the women at the clinic voicing the fact that they have all made the right choice. The second, Polly and Hermione confirming their love for oneanother. In her author’s note, Johnston stated that “it was very important to [her] that Hermione had an excellent support system” and goes on to acknowledge that many victims of sexual assault are do not have this.
However, alongside more brutal portrayals like Asking for It, I think it important to have more hopeful tales like Exit, Pursued by a Bear. It presents the real terrors of rape culture but also shows the importance of support of those affected by it. Polly provides a great model of friendship and affection, and I think this story is an important one for people to read.