I feel like pregnant women get one of the worst roles in literature. Their experience is used as a means to complicate the plot, to firmly entrench the woman’s role in the family, or sometimes, as a way of removing the woman altogether (as in stories where the woman dies in childbirth, like Downton Abbey, where Sybil’s pregnancy conveniently removed her from all future episodes). But it rarely seems to further the woman, as a character, by herself.

It can be done well, as shown in this post, but this seems to be the exception.

In many novels, particularly those of the 19th century, pregnancy is either hinted at through euphemisms (in the case of minor characters), or it involves swaddling the wife as though she’d suddenly been turned to glass. This happens in Can You Forgive Her?, as Lady Glencora is no longer permitted to travel as much as she had before. They crawl their way back to England because she is pregnant with what everyone hopes is the long-awaited son and heir to the Plantagenet family.

And pregnancy often shows us more about the man involved than the woman (like rape and its revenge themes; the focus is on what the man does after the fact, rather than with the woman who lives through the changes and difficulties). In these kinds of stories, after the unmarried woman discovers she’s pregnant, the “wild” young man is faced with the choice of whether he should confess his involvement or not. The plot examines what the man has to lose, or gain, and what he ends up doing, but it all has very little to do with the female character herself. It is one more thing for or against her, depending on the novel’s perspective, but she rarely receives any kind of positive focus after she is pregnant.

This happened frequently in 18th and 19th century novels. A young woman succumbed to the seduction of a rich young man and became pregnant, and she never regained her place in the plot after that. In some stories, like Nature and Art, the woman lives the rest of her life, with her child, in poverty, while in the back story of Pamela, the woman meets another young man, more in her class, and they start a family and go off to America, leaving her first child behind in the care of the man who seduced her because she could not bear the shame.

And when it comes to actual birth scenes, women’s roles don’t tend to improve. The focus is often on the husband, or the doctor, or on some female attendant; anyone, almost, but the woman herself, presumably since the woman is too great a pain to be of literary interest. Sadly, this attitude doesn’t seem to have changed that much.

In the Twilight series, for example, Bella’s pregnancy causes all kinds of consternation among her Vampire in-laws, and her delivery involves surgery and becoming a vampire herself (hardly focusing on the child and what becoming a mother means to Bella). One of the first things she does, post-delivery and post-surgery, is kiss her husband in such a way that everyone else in the room becomes uncomfortable.

And the 50 Shades series doesn’t seem to be much better (as it is a spin-off of Twilight, in some ways, perhaps this is to be expected). The pregnancy is one more reason from Christian and Ana to fight, but while it is important, and while Ana fights to keep the baby, the actual birth of their son seems to be discussed only as a memory. When Ana is pregnant with their second child, she recalls that the first birth was a long, complicated affair that eventually required a C-section after she’d labored for over half a day and nearly died (if online information is to be believed).

In cases like these, pregnancy seems to be a plot point for the couple rather than a life-changing experience for the woman. I’m not saying that the husband’s perspective isn’t interesting or valuable, for it is, but it tends to get more than its share of attention. The woman’s side of things is neglected, despite many of the changes in our attitudes towards women. The mother, in literature, is still distant, and the pregnancy seems to be happening to her: an outside force or action, like an illness, rather than a transformation.

Perhaps this is a side-effect of C-sections and epidurals; we don’t remember the moment of birth or the details of pregnancy through the haze of pain killers and anti-stretch creams?

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by jeltovski, Creative Commons

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