Birth and Pregnancy in Literature, Part Two

This Monday, we looked at the general state of pregnancy in literature, and today, I wanted to highlight two examples that I felt did an amazing job of keeping their focus on the pregnant women involved in their narratives. One is dramatic, the other comedic, but both have the woman front-and-center.

The first passage is from Anna Karenina. Most of the time, Tolstoy is guilty of the usual “swaddling-sensibility” of his time, having Kitty sheltered from any activity that might be harmful or taxing, but this section, just before the birth, looks at Kitty’s labor in a very unique, positive, woman-centered way

He hurriedly jumped up, hardly awake, and kept his eyes fixed on her, as he put on his dressing gown; then he stopped, still looking at her. He had to go, but he could not tear himself from her eyes. He thought he loved her face, knew her expression, her eyes, but never had he seen it like this. How hateful and horrible he seemed to himself, thinking of the distress he had caused her yesterday. Her flushed face, fringed with soft curling hair under her night cap, was radiant with joy and courage.

Though there was so little that was complex or artificial in Kitty’s character in general, Levin was struck by what was revealed now, when suddenly all disguises were thrown off and the very kernel of her soul shone in her eyes. And in this simplicity and nakedness of her soul, she, the very woman he loved in her, was more manifest than ever. She looked at him, smiling; but all at once her brows twitched, she threw up her head, and going quickly up to him, clutched his hand and pressed close up to him, breathing her hot breath upon him. She was in pain and was, as it were, complaining to him of her suffering.

And for the first minute, from habit, it seemed to him that he was to blame. But in her eyes there was a tenderness that told him that she was far from reproaching him, that she loved him for her sufferings. ‘If not I, who is to blame for it?’ he thought unconsciously, seeking someone responsible for this suffering for him to punish; but there was no one responsible. She was suffering, complaining, and triumphing in her sufferings, and rejoicing in them, and loving them. He saw that something sublime was being accomplished in her soul, but what? He could not make it out. It was beyond his understanding.

During the rest of the birth, the narrative does focus on Levin, which is understandable, since the story centers around him and Anna and their dual plotlines, but this one passage made it remarkable, especially for its time.

And here is the birth passage from But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The whole piece is very tongue-in-cheek, from the point of the author, but the characters themselves seem entirely serious. The spelling errors are the fault of Lorelei, the character writing the diary, and while she is not the most devoted and caring mother (she isn’t the most devoted and caring wife, either), the narrative does show how the birth affects her and her actions, rather than showing her as a victim or focusing on everyone else’s point-of-view.

“Well, the day finally came when the ‘Little Mouse’ was due to arrive, and Dorothy and I were having luncheon at the Ritz. And after luncheon Dorothy was going shopping and then she was going to an informal tea. So she invited me to acompany her. Well, I am really fond of nothing as much as shopping, and even informal teas, but I finally decided I had better not go, so I went home instead. And when they put the ‘Little Mouse’ in my arms that afternoon, I felt repayed for giving up everything.

But I called up Dorothy at the tea party to break her the news that it turned out to be a boy. Well, nothing touches people’s hearts so much as a girl they are acquainted with, going through the ‘Valley of the Shadow,’ and coming out with a baby. So everybody at the tea wanted to come right over. And I sat up in bed, in my early Italian bed jacket, and we held quite a party to welcome the ‘Little Mouse.” I mean people kept coming in, and coming in, and I had to keep telephoning to Reubens to send over more sandwiches. But the nurse would only give us a small glims of the ‘Little Mouse,’ because noise and cigarette smoke are not good for little babies the day of their arrival.”

I know many women’s birth experiences were not glorious, but these seem to overwhelmingly populate the literary field. From my own experience, there is much more to pregnancy than aches and pain, nausea and worry, and I think authors need to get a little more creative (and perhaps do a bit more research) before they give us one more story where pregnancy has little or no meaning to the one person most involved.

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren

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