European Abortion Novels:
Documenting a Fidelity to the Milieu

Jeff Koloze
Reproduced with Permission


Reading anti-life novels produced in the United States can be emotionally debilitating. Forcing oneself to read works of fiction where one knows that the mother will abort and that her lover (rarely a husband) encourages her in the killing makes the goal of reaching the last page (usually well into page four hundred plus) an enervating, masochistic assignment. Moreover, dragging oneself through American infanticide and euthanasia novels where handicapped newborns or the elderly are consigned to a hypodermic death is similarly depressing.

However, plodding through such anti-life works is necessary if I am to make the study of right-to-life issues in fiction my life work. To compensate for the emotional drain, over the past year I developed a mechanism for coping with such negative fiction. When I would finish an anti-life work, I would then read some life-affirming text. Thus, for example, when I finished Paula Sharp's four-hundred page I Loved You All (2000), I shook off the negativity of that novel's world by reading Charles Dickens' eight-hundred page The Pickwick Papers (1836-7).1

After completing Dickens' novel, I realized that something was missing from Sharp's novel which was evident by the concluding chapter of The Pickwick Papers. Perhaps it is what I suggested at last year's conference: a sense of a satisfactory conclusion, a catharsis of emotions, or what Formalist critics have called the principle that the literary work has achieved a sense of unity. Wouldn't it be great if all novels end like one of the nineteenth-century masters? If at the novel's conclusion, all problems are resolved; where the men are happily married -- with women, by the way, or vice versa; and where a Pickwickian character spends the remainder of his or her days enjoying the children of those whom he has loved throughout his life? A Formalist critic's delight!

Then, I noticed something else about the list of authors whose works I enjoyed. Dickens is British. Other authors I have enjoyed, such as Carlos Fuentes who wrote Christopher Unborn (1987) or Graham Swift who wrote Waterland (1983), are foreign, that is, not American. These authors -- and others yet to be identified -- write fictional works on abortion which, although the plots do not necessarily end "happy", do offer the reader not only a sense that the plot has ended satisfactorily, but also that the abortion plot fits into the milieu of the society in which the abortion episode is to take place. This respect or, even, fidelity to the milieu is striking in many of the novels, as I will demonstrate later. I define milieu as broadly as historical (and even New Historicist) critics would. Milieu combines the cultural, economic, ethical, historical, political, and religious forces which constitute a society at any given time.

Since I have written about American fiction on abortion many times previously, for this year's paper I had decided to investigate whether and to what degree international fiction on abortion (that is, fiction not produced in the United States) differs from abortion fiction written by American authors. That focus was much too broad. I quickly discovered that most of the international abortion fiction I encountered was written by Europeans.2 I thus decided to refine my investigation and focus on what makes European fiction on abortion more appealing.

I think the appeal that European abortion fiction has can be attributed not so much to the writer's style or the tone in which the abortion plot is narrated or even the use of highly connotative terms or other stylistic devices. I think that what makes European novels on abortion different from their American counterparts is the incorporation of major historical events which have shaped the writers' countries. In other words, European writers on abortion are faithful to the milieux in which the works are written.

A further claim must be addressed here. If the matter of fidelity to the milieu has serious implications, then its absence likewise has serious consequences for the fiction. I think that the absence of a sense of history has two effects: the historical conditioning of the European novels on abortion not only raise their literary value, but also relegate their American counterparts to an inferior position. Hopefully, the claims I will make about the inherent historical fidelity of European abortion fiction can generate two reactions from you, the readers. First, someone reading this can become inspired to investigate further the qualities which make European fiction on abortion more substantial than American fiction. This further research may thus corroborate my view that European abortion novels have more literary value than American works. Alternatively, my thoughts may inspire someone to refute my claims -- an easy thing to do, since the sample of fiction under review is relatively limited -- by demonstrating that European fiction is just as depraved as American fiction on abortion.

I have followed three criteria for this study. First, I will concentrate only on abortion fiction which has been translated into English. This criterion is not meant to demonstrate ethnocentrism as much as it admits my ignorance of a thorough knowledge of other languages. Second, the works to be discussed are canonical novels; that is, they are credited with having been major accomplishments in the lives of the individual authors. At necessary portions of this paper, however, I will reference minor works which show how abortion has developed and continues to develop as a theme in European fiction. Third, I have tried to assemble representative fictional works on abortion from a variety of cultures within the European community. The items gathered here have been collated under two constraints -- time, as well as my relatively average research skills using various catalogs and databases such as the Library of Congress, NoveList, and Ohiolink.

Despite the drawbacks of insufficient time and research, I have isolated several representative European works on abortion. The abortion novels to be considered here include: Journey to the End of the Night (1932) by the French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine; The Book of Hrabal (originally published 1990) by the Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy; Hannah's Diary (1998) by the Belgian-French author Louise L. Lambrichs; Nothing Grows by Moonlight (1947) by the Norwegian author Torborg Nedreaas; Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) by George Orwell; Waterland (1983) by the Englishman Graham Swift; and, finally, Young Woman of 1914 (1931) by the German author Arnold Zweig. While not all of these works are considered major for purposes of their abortion content, all will be considered in some degree. Although this list has been alphabetized by author's surname, the presentation of the novels will follow a chronological order. Towards the end of this paper I will also address how some European novels have become "Americanized", that is, have lost a fidelity to their milieux. Finally, I will offer some summary comments.

Chronological Review of Abortion as a Theme in European Novels

For purposes of this paper a retrospective of abortion as treated in European literature must be brief. As early as 1729 Jonathan Swift's ironic "A Modest Proposal" obscures a more serious purpose. Eating the one-year-old babies of poor Irish may not be a serious proposal, but one of the reasons offered for such an outrageous recommendation to alleviate the poverty in Ireland is explicitly pro-life. Swift writes:

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast. (493; italics in original)

Although his proposal is not classified as fiction, the explicit reason for Swift's proposal does show that a concern for fighting against the causes of abortion may be a relatively modern development in European literature.

According to citations in the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, for the next several centuries "abortion" maintained its more medical definition of a premature birth, or the expulsion of an unborn child not capable of surviving outside his or her mother. Often it was used metaphorically in this same sense. It would take developments of the late nineteenth century for abortion to be argued in any sense other than the medical. Often, the term was confused with infanticide.

Recent research has demonstrated that abortion was often a subject of concern to some now rediscovered, late nineteenth and early twentieth century women authors. For example, Helen Bradford has discovered a dramatic continuity of an abortion theme in the novels of Olive Schreiner, the white British South African author who wrote Undine (1929). Bradford writes that

At a time when the word was taboo, she planned to include it in a subtitle. She included abortion motifs in her texts. One or more references to an induced miscarriage occurs in every novel. She provided at least eleven re-enactments of a woman or a man either wanting a pregnancy terminated, or symbolically or actually doing so. (639)

Perhaps Schreiner's obsession with abortion can be attributed to what we would now identify as post-abortion syndrome. Bradford further writes that, while "there is at least as much circumstantial evidence for a miscarriage to which she believed she had contributed," Schreiner's fascination with abortion was an effort "to exorcize her own hidden agony, a perceived abortion that occurred when she was seventeen, in 1872" (641). Such biographical criticism may help to excavate more abortion-related episodes in literature.

However, despite the casual reference here or allusion there, European fiction seriously addressed abortion simultaneous with the economic catastrophe which spread throughout the world during the 1930s. The decade must have been a fertile one (no pun intended) for authors to investigate abortion as a theme in their novels; three works by major authors can be isolated from this time.

The first major Depression-era novel to address abortion is Arnold Zweig's Young Woman of 1914 which was published in 1931. Although the action of the novel takes place during the First World War, and although it is essentially the love story of Werner Bertin and Lenore Wahl, Young Woman of 1914 can be considered the first full-length fiction work devoted to the effects of abortion on a romantic relationship. The abortion that Lenore considers after the first fifty pages of the novel culminates in the actual abortion fifty pages later. Fifty pages after this, when Bertin has been sent to the war, Lenore resents that his letters to her say nothing about her abortion. Seventy pages later Lenore's abortion is called "her little 'affair'" (226) -- and Zweig calls attention to the term by enclosing it in quotation marks. A hundred pages later, at their wedding, Bertin and Lenore realize that "it [the abortion] was fifty weeks ago to the very day" (330). That's odd, isn't it? To think about an abortion when you are marrying your beloved? When Bertin's leave from his war duties ends, Lenore's goal of having something said about the abortion itself ends abortively: she never broaches the subject again.

Surrounding the abortion theme in this novel is an acute awareness of historical developments. Bertin is twenty-six when the novel opens in April 1915. Bertin and others in the novel think, as most Europeans did at the time, that the war would be over within a year. Lenore is a typical woman of her historical circumstances; she "thought the time had come when, by the passionate worship of beauty, by art and literature, humanity had been raised to a higher level" (Zweig 63). Although both Bertin and Lenore are ostensibly Jewish, Lenore's religious apathy is indicated more identifiably by the statement "for her there was no comforter, no faith, only the empty heaven of the ordered universe" (68). Bertin's faith is just as materialistic; he believes in "the bewildering physical facts that first made possible the existence of life upon the earth" (131). Much later in the novel Zweig derides the superpatriots who determined the bases of the war in three episodes.

Perhaps the attention given to the anti-Semitism and superpatriotism of the Prussian ruling classes can be attributed to Zweig himself. Born to a Jewish middle class family, Zweig fled Germany during the Hitler years and lived in Palestine. He returned to East Berlin in 1948. What better person to document the coming horror than the Jewish writer deemed a non-person? Zweig was able to chastise his society by showing the futility of such a catastrophic war. Since the Nazi concentration camps were not operating when the novel was written, the full horror of the effects of such a war and the philosophical foundation of German superiority are shown through the abortion of one child.

The second major novel from the Depression-era to address abortion is the 1932 work by the French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night. This work is one of the first to include economic reasons for abortion, a feature which later fiction writers will repeat. Celine includes an abortion episode which spans, in the copy I am using, ten pages. At one point in the novel the main character, Bardamu, opens his medical practice in a village distant from Paris. The entire chapter is devoted to exploring the conditions under which French women would undergo abortions. Bardamu describes the stench of his tenement, which is, appropriately, an aperture into a minor character's discourse about the need for abortion. Madame Cezanne, a concierge in the apartment complex, says:

"Personally," she advised me, "if I were in your place, I'd get pregnant women out of their difficulties.... On the quiet like. There are some women in this neighborhood who live -- you've no idea what a life they live! And there is nothing they'd like better than to give you work.... It's a fact. There's more to that than attending to tupenny-ha'penny little clerks with varicose veins.... Especially as it means good pay." (Celine 266)

Another novel which mimics the reasons which Madame Cezanne provides for abortion is Nothing Grows by Moonlight by the Norwegian author Torborg Nedreaas, originally published in 1947, fifteen years after Celine's novel. The unnamed narrator who tells her abortion story describes what happens to women with an unexpected pregnancy:

"I wonder if any man can understand what a woman feels while in such a doctor's office, the first time she sits in the waiting room with that particular errand. There she sits, a double offender, quite alone. Yes, a double offender. She has sinned, that's number one. And then she wants the doctor to help her commit another offense. It is really an offense.... If she's a maid she risks being fired. If she works in a factory she has to be off work because there is no one to properly care for little children. So women prefer to have it removed, and there are so many women who have to get rid of it you wouldn't believe it." (97-8; italics in original)

The third and final major work from the Depression era addressing abortion is George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Orwell's novel is unlike the first two novels for two reasons. First, Celine's and Zweig's novels are inherently serious not only in their prime subject matter (depicting the disillusionment of a young man in post-World War I France or the disillusionment of a young couple in the Kaiser's Germany), but also in the matter of abortion. Admittedly, the abortion motif in Zweig's novel is certainly not secondary, but there is still a seriousness attached to the abortion episode and its consequences.

Orwell's novel, in contrast to these other Depression-era abortion novels, is primarily a novel criticizing the advertising bent of capitalism of his day, and this criticism is often quite humorous. Whatever political critique the novel has is intertwined with the romance between Gordon Comstock and Rosemary Waterlow. Gordon is a frustrated poet; only one hundred and fifty-three of his books have been sold. Gordon is well aware of political currents of his time and considers as reprehensive the only two alternatives to socialism, "suicide and the Catholic Church" (Orwell 110). Gordon, or at least Orwell the narrator, is quite knowledgeable about literature. At one point Gordon realizes that "Time's winged chariot was hurrying near" (262), an appropriate reference to Marvell's seventeenth-century poem "To His Coy Mistress" (appropriate because Rosemary will not "prove" her love for Gordon by having sex with him until they are married). Like Marvell's coy mistress, Rosemary surrenders to Gordon's pressure; she becomes pregnant. Gordon renounces his Marxist principles and hatred of facile advertising slogans when he accepts his paternity and marries Rosemary. With such weighty evidence of political ideology in the novel, it is easy to see that abortion is distinctly a secondary element of the plot.

However, it is the possibility of abortion that leads to the traditional climax of the novel. Rosemary considers having an abortion to solve the difficult economic circumstances in which the young couple find themselves. This possibility leads to the significant change in Gordon's character. Once Gordon identifies with his unborn child, he is literally transformed. Gordon would prefer to follow his own desires, but "there was the baby to think about" (Orwell 283). Immediately on hearing that he is a father, Gordon does peculiar things. He investigates what an unborn child looks like by studying depictions of the fetus in obstetrics books. Interestingly, the illustrations of unborn babies shock him: the pictures are ugly. Unlike an anti-life character, however, Gordon does not use the ugliness of the fetological development as an argument against the humanity of the unborn child. Instead, Orwell writes that "their ugliness made them more credible and therefore more moving" (Orwell 286). When he renounces his anti-money views and becomes a part of the world again, the narrator reports that Gordon felt simple "relief" (290). Gordon marries Rosemary, they settle into a rather blissful middle-class life, and he is now content writing advertisements for foot odor products.3

Graham Swift's Waterland (1983) is perhaps the most historically conscious European novel on abortion from recent decades. The abortion which fifteen-year-old Mary undergoes is surrounded by the narrator's reflections on the meaning of history, of life, and of his place in the world. The actual abortion which Mary undergoes at the hands of Martha Clay, a reputed witch and abortionist, is not described. What is described throughout the novel is the sense of history interweaving with the events in the lives of the young people. Tom, the narrator, delights in correlating aspects of the French Revolution with what is happening in his life. The historical framing of the abortion in this novel occurs at the very beginning: the Latin word historia is defined for the reader. Tom, later a history teacher, recalls how his mother used to tell him stories at bedtime. From this beginning Tom realizes that history is essentially narrative. The New Historicist tenet that all history is merely a revision of past narratives seems appropriate to account for the novel's writing and rewriting of past events. Often the reader will wonder if the novel is indeed the narration of events in the lives of two English teenagers or a deconstructionist's effort at just having fun -- jouissance, which Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray define as the "attitude of pleasurable playfulness with which practitioners of deconstruction approach literary texts" (184).

Addressing his students, Tom argues:

Children, there's something which revolutionaries and prophets of new worlds and even humble champions of Progress...can't abide. Natural history, human nature. Those weird and wonderful commodities, those unsolved mysteries of mysteries. Because just supposing -- but don't let the cat out of the bag -- this natural stuff is always getting the better of the artificial stuff. Just supposing -- but don't whisper it too much abroad -- this unfathomable stuff we're made from, this stuff that we're always coming back to -- our love of life, children, our love of life -- is more anarchic, more subversive than any Tennis Court Oath ever was. That's why these revolutions always have a whiff of the death-wish about them. That's why there's always a Terror waiting round the corner. (178)

Later, towards the end of the novel, again addressing the children in his school, Tom recapitulates the importance of the French Revolution:

When the children of the French Revolution threw off their tyrannical father Louis XVI and their wicked step-mother Marie Antoinette (who, as it turned out, were only like figures in a puppet show, you could pull off their heads, just like that), they thought they were free. But after a while they discovered that they were orphans, and the world which they thought was theirs was really bare and comfortless. So they went running to their foster-father Napoleon Bonaparte, who was waiting by the old puppet theatre; who'd dreamed up for them a new drama based on old themes and who promised them an empire, a purpose, a destiny -- a future.
Children, there's this thing called civilisation. It's built of hopes and dreams. It's only an idea. It's not real. It's artificial. No one ever said it was real. It's not natural, no one ever said it was natural. It's built by the learning process; by trial and error. It breaks easily. No one ever said it couldn't fall to bits. And no one ever said it would last forever. (290-1)

What does all this facetious, fairy-tale style rumination on the French Revolution have to do with Tom's telling us the story of his girlfriend's abortion? Perhaps a major plot development that I left out should be stated here. Although moving in medias res (from present time to past events in an English village in the 1930s and 1940s and to the present again), Tom's narration mostly occurs in present time when he is fifty-three years old. His girlfriend Mary became his wife. Since they could not have children (Mary became sterile after her abortion), she does the next best thing and kidnaps a baby. His teaching career is ruined with all the adverse publicity because...because why? Did they not learn a key lesson from history: that negative actions performed in the past can come back to haunt one? Just as the French revolutionists did not succeed with their cataclysmic overthrow of authority, is this novel which can only come out of Europe teaching us that the negative act of abortion will come back to haunt us?

Moving into the 1990s, examples of the interconnection between historical commentary and abortion include two recent European works: Peter Esterhazy's The Book of Hrabal (originally published 1990) and Louise L. Lambrichs' Hannah's Diary (1998).

Esterhazy's polyvocal The Book of Hrabal concerns Anna, the wife of a Hungarian writer and mother of three children, who is pregnant with a fourth, unplanned child. God sends two angels to earth to try to stop the abortion. Determining whether they succeed or not is difficult, probably because the narration is provided by an omniscient narrator, by Anna, by God Himself, by the angels, and also by a limited narrator (perhaps a personification of the author). However confusing the material becomes, while the omniscient narrator comments on the characters or develops one of numerous tangential ideas, he or she also interjects passages narrating episodes from recent Hungarian history. This fidelity to the milieu grounds the abortion question in the novel to historical events of which Americans are largely ignorant: the fall of Hungary to the Communists, the violent crushing of the 1956 rebellion, and subsequent repression of the Hungarian people until democracy was restored.

One example of Esterhazy's difficult prose can reflect not only the torture of the Hungarian people about whom he writes, but also his fidelity to the milieu of Hungarian society:

If, for instance, we were to count how many among Anna's and the writer's parents and grandparents were beaten by state forces, say since 1919 (to obtain a "more historical" perspective than, say, since 1945), and if we count as a beating the severe police chastisement suffered by the writer's mother in 1957 (shadow punches thrown, being called a whore -- a still-life with two spiteful, tired men in a little grey room), we'd end up with six Hungarian individuals who were beaten out of a possible twelve (one parent, and two grandparents on each side), which makes fifty per cent. So then, there are some who were beaten, and some who were not. They beat up everyone, every family; there is no street, no house in Hungary they did not hit.... If this much horror and infamy was [sic] visited upon one family ("Your uncle was executed today"), then how many went down in all? And who keeps count? I do, said the writer, resolved to be emotional, for it was his lot to recall everything and everyone; his mother's memory was in his keeping, and so was his father's, whether he wanted it or not, and his brother's, all.... (20-1)

A similarly critical and lengthy paragraph about Communist corruption and violence against persons occurs a mere twenty pages later.

As with Graham Swift's extensive rumination on the French Revolution, what does this excursion into historical criticism of Hungarian society have to do with abortion? Why does it frame the debate which Anna has with herself about whether to abort this fourth child? I can only venture this guess: that the abortion which Anna contemplates is as abusive as what Hungarian political powers -- whether post-World War I or after the Communist takeover of the country -- committed against the people. Does she have the abortion? Does the novel end "happy"? Granted, Anne seems ambivalent about the abortion. At one point she wants "to abort this baby, just a little" (116; italics in original). However, there is evidence that Anna has learned something about the tragedy from Hungarian history. When she meets with a near-deaf doctor for the purpose of seeking an abortion, he misinterprets her desire. She in turn interprets this miscommunication by saying, "We have received the sign, and oh, what joy in our humble abode! The old, deaf doc, that's the sign. The one we've been waiting for. In which case it's all right. It's OK. We have been shown. Shown the way. The Word cited" (123). One of the angels whom God sends to earth to evaluate this situation states near the novel's end that "The infanticide, you should excuse the expression, she just barely avoided (with a little help)" (139).

The second of the more contemporary European abortion novels from the 1990s, and the final one I will discuss in this section, is Lambrichs' Hannah's Diary, which consists solely of diary entries. This novel concerns an abortion which the diarist, Hannah Perier, had in 1943, the psychological effects of which lasted until shortly before her death. The story of Hannah's aborted baby girl does not end with her abortion: Hannah dreams of her throughout the years. Hannah "raises" her through the stages of girlhood and adolescence. Hannah states: "I have worked out that each time my dream showed her at the exact age she would have been if she had lived" (Lambrichs 49). Louise (is it coincidence that the name of the aborted child is the same as the author's?) does all the normal things that a little girl and teenager would: she has birthday parties; she goes to school; she gets sick. Hannah keeps the existence of Louise secret, even from her husband. One effect of the abortion is that Hannah is unable to sleep soundly; she sees numerous doctors to try to cure her sleep disorder. One doctor finally does cure her rather simply, just by letting her talk. Hannah confesses not only her abortion, but also Louise's existence to him. Immediately on this confession, Hannah's psychological health is restored and she no longer needs to dream about Louise.

This novel would be an ordinary one about what we would identify as post-abortion syndrome of a French mother were the novel not interlaced with commentary about the historical situation in France from the Second World War to 1981 when Hannah dies. It is because the novel is, as I claim, faithful to its milieu that Hannah's Diary is not merely another abortion novel, this time with some interspersed French vocabulary. Hannah gives us much evidence to show that she is faithful to the milieu. Originally, her husband Robert cites the milieu of occupied France as sufficient reason for an abortion. After the abortion, however, Hannah questions the validity of such a claim: "What sort of a world are we living in...if men can voluntarily turn into the butchers of their own children?" (17). She reflects on the importance of what one should learn from history:

One would learn not to trust political speeches that claim to be based on history instead of on moral values. Hitler would never have come to power if someone had cut out of his speeches all the so-called historical arguments he stuffed them with. (52)

Hannah's abortion becomes a basis for questioning her own life: "Can something as commonplace as an abortion really change a women's [sic] life for good? What then can one say about the war, the atrocities that everyone around me has been through?" (99). Perhaps the most philosophical statement in the book occurs when Hannah reflects that

People do not kill because they hate other people[;] they kill to avoid killing themselves, because they hate themselves. Murder, in mankind, in every nation, is the last defence against suicide. But the more they kill, the less they can bear themselves, and that is how wars carry on and never stop. (144)

This reflection written in her diary in 1948 stems directly from her ruminations on the abortion she had five years earlier. I cannot imagine any statement from an American novel on abortion which could be as grand philosophically as Hannah's insight.

Next Page: "Americanization" of European Abortion Fiction
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