Bearing Liminality, Laboring White Ink

Pregnancy and Childbirth in Women's Literature

by Francisco José Cortés Vieco (Author)
©2021 Monographs XVIII, 262 Pages
Series: Cultural Identity Studies, Volume 34


Literature has been a bastion of male creativity, not of female procreativity, which has traditionally inhibited the voices of women and disempowered their self-expression. This book explores the underestimated legacy of women’s fiction and (semi-)autobiographical works about pregnancy and childbirth in Great Britain and North America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting the symbiosis between the processes of childbearing and writing, problematizing female subjugation to the patriarchal institution of motherhood, and compensating for the silence around the experience of becoming a mother in literature.
Drawing on the anthropological concept of liminality, controversies about maternity within women’s liberation movements, and milestones in French feminist theory, this book discusses pregnancy and childbirth as transformative events that can engender both women’s imaginative responses to procreation and re-creations of memories about their prenatal/natal episodes, as well as therapeutic narratives of self-discovery and recovery from pain. Examining the works of authors such as Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Jean Rhys, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Drabble, and Toni Morrison, this book posits a literary corpus of procreativity, written by women with an empowering white ink to defend their (un)maternal freedom and (life-)writings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • INTRODUCTION: The Pregnant/Birthing Body and Mind of White Ink and Liminality
  • CHAPTER 1: The Nineteenth-Century Threshold for Inkless Liminal Women: Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Mary Anne Evans/George Eliot
  • CHAPTER 2: Modern(ist) Liminality for the (Pro)creative Body and Mind: Edith Wharton, Meridel Le Sueur, Jean Rhys, and Anaïs Nin
  • CHAPTER 3: Toward a Contemporary Unity between Creativity and Procreativity: Margaret Drabble, Elizabeth Baines, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Ilona Karmel, and Cherríe Moraga
  • CHAPTER 4: Progression to (In)conclusion, Regression to Margaret Atwood
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Profoundly confessional and introspective, a significant corpus of women’s literature is pregnant with their private lives and intimate experiences. It reproduces narrative offspring that palpate their soma and their psyche toward therapeutic purposes of self-discovery or recovery from pain. With intense psychological and sociological dimensions, gestation and childbirth occupy a continuum of biological phenomena, exclusively enjoyed or endured by women as non-fictional, leading dramatis personae. These life episodes can be potentially spoken or penned by first-hand testimonies in ways to vindicate and celebrate a genuinely distinctive female authorship, only vicariously reproduced by desiring men – always ravenous for stories. The patriarchal architecture of the Western world could not deprive women of their reproductive capabilities, but it has traditionally overwhelmed these unique natural powers with an oppressive male cultural production designed to silence embryonic female voices. Beyond the immemorial, forced absence of women as speaking/writing subjects throughout history, pregnancy and childbirth have rarely been narratives until recently. Naomi Wolf suggests that the information on impending motherhood has remained as “secrets” that new mothers – without freedom – have only dared to “whisper” (2001: 2). The epistemological quest by male writers and philosophers to unravel the riddle of life contrasts with their censorship of or indifference to exploring the organic processes of pregnancy and childbirth. Instead, women, whether depicted as sexual temptresses or saintly mothers, have been the Manichean obsession of male artistic procreators. Indeed, these authors have reflected the erotic desirability of women’s virginity or their divinity in their role of childrearing. Paradoxically, pregnancy and childbirth – as realms of in-betweenness – have seldom been intellectual or artistic objects worthy of scrutiny and contemplation. Moreover, this deliberate hiatus has been strengthened by language. Childbirth has been referred to as confinement, whereas pregnancy has been a period of ←ix | x→female non-existence, during which the body must be concealed from the public gaze. Surprisingly, the swollen belly – what makes a woman more noticeable – is what makes her disappear from sight (Verhage 2013: 303). Childbirth has also been linked to labor. Viewed as the only active occupation or the mandatory vocation of motherhood for all women from puberty to menopause, the privately owned production and the delivery of human beings to the world have ensured the survival of the species and perpetuated two male-conceived institutions: marriage and family. Being unconquerable and erasable by men, but mainly being unnarrated by women under a perpetual cultural house arrest – without pen and ink – does not imply that pregnancy and childbirth are unexplorable or unnarratable – nor unpalatable for readers – but rather, that they have suffered two patriarchal edicts: unnameability and unintelligibility.

The heretofore non-discursive, non-literary nature of pregnancy and childbirth resides in two facts. Firstly, these bodily experiences are exclusively known by women with an historically marginal status to (re)produce speech and discourse. Women have also been ontologically defined for their natural capacity to conceive, gestate, and deliver human life, so their anatomical and procreative specificities that differentiate them from men have wrongly conflated the female and the maternal. Secondly, a misconception from the Judeo-Christian roots of Western civilization has posited the perverse nature of women’s biology and sexuality. The Biblical myth of Original Sin was triggered by the evil Eve seducing the innocent Adam – as the first woman and man exiled from a blissful existence in Eden – and brought them the knowledge of sinfulness, or the postlapsarian curse of work, painful childbearing, and mortality. This connection between woman, sex, and evil is a foundational pillar of Western patriarchy, placing the blame on the female only, to be reified as a sexual object (Millett 2000: 54). Such an ancestral dehumanization of women has generated multifarious religious, medical, legal, and sociopolitical dogmas of patriarchal imprint, to convert female physicality and sexuality into unnamable taboos, as well as to set women’s fixed roles as daughters, wives, and mothers against any plea of individual identity and free will. Tied to sexual intercourse, women’s gestating/birthing bodies have been viewed as dirty, shameful, and impure; prone to insanity; contaminated ←x | xi→or physically unavailable for men’s pleasure; monstrous in their swelling and shrouded by blood at labor. Out of wedlock, illicit pregnancy leads to the social punishment and murder of single mothers, but as Simone de Beauvoir holds, married women could also be suspected of criminal maternity as a consequence of adultery, or the “crime of high treason” of introducing an illegitimate child into the family (2011: 118). Unnameability and proscription have also affected women’s agency to write about the organic processes of pregnancy and childbirth, because such textual expressions to articulate an unprecedented female subjectivity, could dangerously disarticulate prevailing structures of male supremacy and universal truths of the world as defined by men.

Unintelligibility bathes the most ordinary miracle on earth: conceiving human life. The traditionally dominant phallocentric language declares that pregnancy and childbirth are realms of muteness and obscure mystery. Too nebulous, intricate, and cryptic as pre-Symbolic objects of speculation and artistry, these two physiological phenomena are impossible to be decoded and encoded by semantic, syntactic, and grammatical rules, so they are incompatible with the Symbolic act of writing. Any author daring to write about these experiences recurs to “silences, stammerings, and ambiguities,” due to the clash of language with the darkened screen of a culturally repressed experience (Mazzoni 2002: 90). Nevertheless, such colossal defenses against the mental penetration of female corporeality into speech and literature – as weapons of male privilege – are challenged by modern attempts by feminists and women writers to create a genuine corpus of cultural reconceptions with a language of their own, which discovers, uncovers, and recovers the female (procreative) body and its subjectivity, in alliance with Western women’s liberation movements and the so-called sexual revolution during the 1960s and 1970s.

Literature traces a faithful itinerary of our past, plagued with corporal invisibility, sexual unproductivity, gestational silence, and birthing barrenness. This written legacy permeates hegemonic discourses of male supremacy and fixed patriarchal conceptions, proscribing and prescribing compulsory ideas of femininity, sexuality, procreativity, and maternity to women, while obstructing their individual deliveries of plural or dissident subjectivities with ink and pen. To compensate for the abundance of ←xi | xii→torn, forgotten, and blank pages in the history of female (life-)writings, this study explores women’s literature about pregnancy and childbirth in Great Britain and North America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This enterprise aspires to three purposes. Firstly, to dissolve the male-led edicts of unnameability and unintelligibility governing pregnancy and childbirth. Secondly, to reconcile the workings of the female body and the mental activity of writing, so that literary authorship embraces biological authority. And thirdly, to unravel the potential artistic creativity of procreativity, while inaugurating new avenues of female empowerment in literature and celebrating embryonic voices – pregnant with prenatal/natal concerns – as a valuable heirloom for contemporary women writers.

The Introduction to this study captures thorny academic debates against the masculinized institution of motherhood, but only partly in favor of female demands of maternal rights and mothering practices, led by antagonistic factions of women’s liberation movements since the second half of the twentieth century. This work heavily relies upon Anglo-American and French feminist theory. In particular, Hélène Cixous’s Écriture Féminine with white ink – or feminine writing with the female body – is used to perform a critical and empathic analysis of women’s procreative narratives in the following chapters of this study. Likewise, it is given prominence to the unexplored relationship between the anthropological concept of liminality and the biological continuum of pregnancy and childbirth, as a transformative and transitory time, space, and identity of in-betweenness for the materno-fetal unit and its later division into two separate entities: mother and child. Indeed, women’s narratives of procreativity are explored as liminal experiences of crossing thresholds and becoming a new female self in later sections of this work, with emphasis on social, physiological, and psychological implications, not for (un)born children, but for pregnant/birthing women in isolation.

Chapter 1 voyages back to the unprecedented creativity of nineteenth-century British women writers and to their literary experiments with procreativity. Female conceptions of Gothic monstrosity, mental insanity, body camouflage, and moral (in)decency are scrutinized in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818/31), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), and Mary Anne Evans/George Eliot’s Adam Bede ←xii | xiii→(1859). It is intended to reflect the paradoxical textual absence of the physical presence of pregnancy and childbirth, yet not the social stigma and emotional barrenness found in liminal/marginal heroines of literature, in contrast with the narrative profusion of the patriarchal ideal of domestic motherhood. Chapter 2 travels between the United States and Europe to propose new interpretive itineraries for the following Modernist/modern progeny: Edith Wharton’s Summer (1917) and Twilight Sleep (1927); Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl (1939); Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning, Midnight (1939), and other life-writings by Jean Rhys; and Anaïs Nin’s story “Birth” and her diaries from the 1930s. Ellipses and disruptions from these authors’ gestational minds – when their transatlantic heroines confront or elude to confront pregnancy and parturition – are discussed, while considering diverse ideological stances, social-class differences, or the rapid changes in hostile urban contexts during the early twentieth century. Impregnated by white ink, Chapter 3 is an incomplete journey exploring the deliveries of recent or contemporary narratives about liminal episodes from the gestating/birthing body, together with ambivalent feelings and reverberating patriarchal threats, which still menace the encounters of women (writers) with prenatal, natal and postnatal realities, including trauma, fear, imprisonment, fight, insanity, (self-)hatred, or male tyranny. This is the candelabra of literary invitations from British and American women writers found in this chapter: Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (1965), Elizabeth Baines’s The Birth Machine (1983), Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976), Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987); Ilona Karmel’s An Estate of Memory (1969); and Cherríe Moraga’s Waiting in the Wings (1997). Oscillating between female empowerment and victimization, progresses in the feminist agenda and subjection to male interventionism, this section shows the good health of women’s creativity to conceive, bear, and labor stories of procreativity, before Chapter 4 – as the conclusion of this study – is sealed or unlocked with Margaret Atwood’s futuristic vision reflected in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Concealed, institutionalized, ritualized, pathologized, or criminalized, pregnancy and childbirth are transformative rites of passage for expectant mothers, who have been traditionally dehumanized or silenced by patriarchal institutions. Today, as individualized experiences, these ←xiii | xiv→two biological processes are understood to be not only transcendental episodes in women’s lives, but also compelling sources for inspiring narratives of genuine female subjectivity. Laura Chester holds that once a woman becomes a mother, she is more aware of the fragility of life and the possibility of tragedy, which humanize her writing, because mothering gives a direct access to the greatest themes in literature: birth and death, love and loss, often intertwined (1989: 4). This study captures the artistic significance and potentiality of the mental introspection into gestating/birthing bodies, their (re)discovery, homage, and translation into symbolic white ink toward women’s self-expression and empowerment in life and literature. From nineteenth-century textual absences to overt nakedness in contemporary times, the narratives of pregnancy and childbirth in Great Britain and North America studied in this work denounce the sexist appropriation of women’s reproductive powers by patriarchal productions of discourse. Nevertheless, these same literary testimonies also become weapons toward gender equality and caresses of motherly/sisterly solidarity and sympathy for female addressees as rightful reading/speaking/writing subjects on procreativity.

←xiv | xv→


I could not have written this book without the help of some institutions, mentors, friends, and family members on both sides of the Atlantic. I wish to thank José Julián Bayle Palomino, Evelia Vieco Olivares, and Susan O. Stevens for their love, encouragement, and patience. I owe special thanks to Prof. Mercedes Bengoechea Bartolomé, Prof. Isabel Durán Giménez-Rico, and Prof. Elizabeth Lunbeck for their generous advice over the years. I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable support of University of Alcalá, Complutense University of Madrid, University of Edinburgh, and Harvard University, particularly the Department of the History of Science and the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard University. And finally, I wish to express my gratitude to all women writers, whose literary progeny is explored in this book, for breaking the silence and for courageously writing about pregnancy and childbirth.


XVIII, 262
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Pregnancy and childbirth in women’s literature Sexual reproduction and maternity in British and North American Literature Liminality and French feminist theory applied to English literature and Gender Studies Francisco José Cortés Vieco Bearing Liminality, Laboring White Ink
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 262 pp.

Biographical notes

Francisco José Cortés Vieco (Author)

Francisco José Cortés Vieco is Associate Professor at Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) in Spain, where he lectures on English Literature and Gender Studies. He holds a PhD in Gender Studies (University of Alcalá) and a PhD in Literary Studies (UCM), both recognized with outstanding thesis awards. Thanks to a postdoctoral scholarship, he was a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University in 2018. His principal research interest is women’s literature in English-speaking countries, with an emphasis on the female body, sexual violence, maternity and nervous disorders, and on approaches from medical humanities, French feminism, and trauma studies. He is the author of almost forty publications, including peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, critical editions and translations of Victorian poetry into the Spanish language, and a monograph on sexuality and suicide in women’s literature (Alcalá, 2016).


Title: Bearing Liminality, Laboring White Ink
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