Adolescent Fiction on Abortion:
Developing a Paradigm and Pedagogic Responses from Literature Spanning Three Decades

Jeff J. Koloze
Reproduced with Permission

Table of Contents

I. Justification for This Study and Criteria for Novels

II. Paradigm for Teen Abortion Novels

III. Analyses of the Novels
The House on Coliseum Street (1961)
Growing Up in a Hurry (1973)
Mia Alone (1975)
Edith Jackson (1978)
Lauren (1979)
Unbirthday (1982)
Beginners' Love (1983)
Lucy Peale (1992)
Too Soon for Jeff (1994)
What Kind of Love? The Diary of a Pregnant Teenager (1995)

IV. Critical Evaluation and Pedagogic Responses: Attacking the Paradigm

Works Cited


I. Justification for This Study and Criteria for Novels

Consider these following possible first lines:

"It was a dark and stormy night...."

"The inspector looked at the knife protruding from the back of the deceased...."

"Tiffany wondered whether she would ever meet the man of her dreams...."

Each opening line indicates in what genre the work of fiction can be categorized. For Gothic fiction, for example, the paradigm seems to be that there must be a dark, ruined castle. There must be a heroine or some other damsel in distress. There must be a sinister presence. The opening section, if not the opening paragraph or the opening line, must address certain meteorological circumstances (accounting for the derivative line ridiculed in much fiction "It was a dark and stormy night..."). And there must be love.1

A detective novel will situate the reader immediately so that he or she will be hooked into reading about how someone has been murdered.

For a romance -- whether it is a Harlequin or a Danielle Steel or a paperback which features a Fabio-type2 stud on the cover holding a sweet virginal and buxom young woman lest she fall -- certain other criteria of the paradigm must be met (including some already facetiously stated here).3 Although feminism has empowered women to unparalleled degrees in the last thirty years, the contemporary romance is still much fashionable with young American women and appeals to them for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the appeal of the glossy-covered paperback romances indicates just how successful the romance paradigm is in the marketplace of ideas. Women buy these books or borrow them from the libraries because they follow a basic pattern: girl meets boy; boy and girl fall in love; girl and boy fall out of love; boy and girl are tortured for a time; and finally girl and boy fall in love again and live happily ever after (whether that living is done in a sacramental union or not is up to the individual writer's tastes and religious and moral persuasions).

Before analyzing details of a possible paradigm of the typical adolescent abortion novel, we must consider an important presumption of this paper. Why should we even care what our students read when they were teens when they are now in college or university? After all, we who are on the faculties of colleges and universities have much more important matters to lecture about and cannot worry about what our students read when they were still teens. While there are definite civil rights and biological rights involved in answering this question, I will propose a more pedagogic response, based on some recent classroom experiences with adult abortion fiction. The following example of literature discussion will demonstrate why we should care.

Recently, while teaching Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants", the inability of the students to sympathize with the female main character, Jig, was striking. First, of course, few students know on an initial reading that the story is about abortion. Secondly, even after a traditional New Critical close reading, few students came to understand how tortured Jig feels about being coerced into having an abortion. This inability to appreciate Jig's anxiety is further complicated for the student because there are no "stage directions" -- markers which indicate, for example, with what tone of voice a line of dialogue should be read -- to help the student understand certain key passages. Consider the following lines from the story.

"You don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it."

"So have I," said the girl. "And afterward they were all so happy."


"Do you feel better?" he asked.

"I feel fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." (Hemingway 322, 324)

These lines can be read in multiple ways, especially because, although the prime marker is one of hyberbaton used in the first sequence and none in the last two lines of the story, the author himself gives no indication what words should be emphasized more to indicate the tone of the character's voice. For example, Jig's last line can be read so that emphasis is given on the first-person pronoun: "I [meaning not you, American man, but I, your lover] feel fine" or "There's nothing wrong with me [meaning this pregnancy is a problem for you, American man, but not for me; I want the child]". With such emphasis, the entire result of this story moves from life-negating to life-affirming.

Some mechanism prohibiting satisfactory interpretation similarly operated in my literature classes. Nearly every student presumed that Jig acquiesced in the American man's effort to force her into abortion.4 When I asked my students if they have ever read anything like Hemingway's story before, the inevitable negative answer made me ask further: what did these new college students, most of whom are just out of high school, read before?

I realize that was a loaded question. As we know not only from our own experience in the classroom but also from Hirsch's seminal work, the databank of "common knowledge" is disappearing among American students.5 E=mc2? Huh? The Madonna as opposed to Madonna? Wha? When did World War II begin for the British Empire? Duh... Similarly, while it can be argued that what most of my students, especially the ones from government schools, said to me may be true (that they never read a book through all of high school), I thought that they must be reading something. The libraries continue to buy paperback novels geared for teens. These novels enjoy high circulation. And many of these novels are about abortion. And so I began to investigate abortion as a topic in adolescent fiction.

The novels which I will discuss in this paper have been selected on the bases of four criteria. First, the novels must primarily concern abortion as an actuality or potentiality within the plot development. This necessary condition excludes many other novels which may happen to include teens as subordinate characters but whose true protagonists and antagonists are adults whose actions affect (and may even effect) the actions of young people.

Secondly, these novels must be established teen fiction. The novels I have selected have stood perhaps the most important criterion which demarcates whether a work is to be canonized, the test of time. Granted, while the issue of abortion has a relatively longer history in the adult American literary canon (one thinks of Fitzgerald's novel Tender Is the Night published in 1934 or of William Faulkner's The Wild Palms of 1939), for teenagers the abortion issue did not hit young adult fictional concerns until the early 1970s. It is striking that adolescent fiction should have had such a delayed reaction from the swarm of controversy as represented in adult novels on abortion. And yet there may be definite reasons to account for this delayed reaction. As Zena Sutherland, a commentator of children's books writes:

Many children today have seen more violence and more sexual titillation on television and in the news than children knew of in the past; almost every child has heard rough language that earlier generations never heard -- or didn't hear until they were adults. Not all of these issues affect every child directly, but almost every child knows about them. These facets of contemporary society have appeared in adult literature and, following a pattern of long standing, after a time, they began to appear in books for adolescents, then in books for younger children. Beginning in the late 1960s, one taboo after another was broken in children's literature. (15)

Thus, whatever is meant by the "pattern of long standing", it seems that the world of adult fiction was the testing ground for explosive issues which eventually filtered into the adolescent category. Furthermore, Ramsdell affirms that reading interests of teens changed in the late 1960s, stating:

During the 1940s, 1950s, and well into the 1960s, most of the female teenage population was eagerly devouring the light romances.... Many of them, of course, also dealt with the more substantial issues.... However, the general tone was always innocent and upbeat, and serious topics such as divorce, pregnancy, sex, marriage, drug and alcohol abuse, or death were rarely discussed. With the advent of the "problem novel" in the late 1960s, things did an about-face. Romance was out and reality was in. Typically, these realistic, often urban-set novels reflected the turbulent times, and social themes such as alienation, isolation, abuse, pregnancy, death, drugs, prejudice, poverty, divorce, injustice, and sex were the rule. (212)

Thirdly, the novels to be discussed are popular not only with the library community (especially young adult librarians whose recommendations often determine whether the books will be purchased for public and school library collections).6 These novels are also popular with the readers themselves in terms of theme. Teen readers want to read about the lives of such experiential-based characters. As Diana Tixier Herald indicates in her study of teen reading preferences in her recent book, Teen Genreflecting: "Even with the escalating rate of teen pregnancy and the prevalence of teens keeping their babies, teens still want to read about how others cope with the situations caused by early parenthood" (86). A subdivisional point of this criterion is that, with one significant exception, all novels had to be American in production or authorship. If the United States is the greatest advocate of abortion legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy, then studying how American teens respond to abortion fiction may suggest what tone future voters will bring to political resolution of this biological rights question.7

Finally, the titles I will examine will be what I consider the best for either the span of years they cover in the real world of abortion politics or for the subject matter it expounds.

II. Paradigm for Teen Abortion Novels

To begin a discussion of the novels, I propose that a template can be helpful. As there are various genres of fiction addressing adult reading interests, each of which has a necessary template, I argue that adolescent fiction on abortion has a template, a paradigm, which orders the novel, the world being depicted, and the characters who move within that world.8 More importantly, perhaps my paradigm will convey some common themes in teen abortion fiction to which we in higher academia can respond.

Paradigmatic Elements of Adolescent Abortion Fiction

  1. A teenaged girl (unmarried, seventeen years old, and irreligious) reluctantly discovers that she is a mother.
    1. The young mother usually can recount several previous sexual adventures with the father of the child.
    2. She has difficulty telling not only the father of the child (who is usually the same age and equally irreligious), but also her family about the pregnancy.
    3. She expresses fears that she will be rejected by the father of the child and her family.
  2. The reaction of the teen father to the pregnancy has three immediate effects.
    1. He usually accuses the mother of not having used contraception effectively.
    2. Either not thinking or not aware about alternatives to abortion, he may renounce his child completely; he may also renounce the mother herself.
    3. The teen father will either encourage or pressure the mother of his child to have an abortion.
  3. The mother agonizes over deciding whether to abort or to give birth.
    1. She sees concrete instances of young mothers who are burdened with their newborns and few examples of young mothers who are happy.
    2. She thinks that her decision on abortion is constrained by medical or legal limits regarding when abortions can be performed.
  4. The decision regarding abortion can generate two significant outcomes for the mother.
    1. If the mother aborts, especially if the abortion was arranged by either her parents or others, the mother immediately regrets the choice; the relationship with the father inevitably deteriorates, and the novel will end either clearly negatively or ambiguously.
    2. If she does not abort, the mother will become more mature (whether she decides to keep the baby or put him or her up for adoption); novels which depict that this choice has been exercised will invariably end positively.

Two points must be remembered while I read this paper. I will group all subdivisional aspects of a Roman numeral level from my outline together for easier discussion. Moreover, the functions of each primary level of the outline could be collapsed into four dependent phrases: Roman numeral I: the Teenaged Girl Becomes a Mother; Roman numeral II: the Father's Reaction; Roman numeral III: the Mother's Decision; and Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision.9 While there are details in individual novels which I will consider which do not fit the paradigm exactly, most novels on abortion for adolescents which I have read and researched generally reinforce the structure presented above to a surprising degree.

Now to analyze specific fictional works.

III. Analyses of the Novels

While the decade of the 1960s offers few examples of fiction solely devoted to teenagers dealing with abortion, there are several good examples which can be considered a prelude to the format of most other teen abortion novels. One of these is Shirley Ann Grau's The House on Coliseum Street (1961) which depicts what can happen to a young woman who is wealthy, aware that she can attract many men, and who is sexually promiscuous.

Roman numeral I: the "Teen" Mother

Although she is twenty-years-old (27), three more years than what the paradigm would suggest is the standard, Joan's behavior is reminiscent of an adolescent. She is unable to develop social contacts, even to the point of taking an obscure job in the library far away from other people where she attends college (71). In fact, Joan's self-esteem is so low that she manifests masochistic tendencies (51-2). She is unmarried, a lapsed Catholic (8), and is reluctant to acknowledge that she might be pregnant. Joan has had a variety of sexual experiences: not only does she engage in intercourse with her steady boyfriend (83), but she also becomes attracted to a wilder type of man, whom she later discovers is a professor at the college she attends (115). Although her mother asks her if she is being "careful" (86), the reader discovers much later in the story that Joan had been using a diaphragm as her main means of contraception (219).

Roman numeral II: the Father's Reaction

When Joan becomes pregnant, Michael places blame for the pregnancy on her, saying that he thought she would be "careful" (124). In many ways, their conversation about the three ways to handle the pregnancy is presented on the page in ways similar to Hemingway's story. Using clipped dialogue, the man is for the abortion while the woman expresses some doubts (125-7).

Roman numeral III: the Mother's Decision

Although there is little to suggest that she suffers agony in the decision regarding abortion, Joan is able to personalize the unborn child, even though dehumanizing terms are simultaneously used. While she refers to the unborn baby as "the child" in one place, she later says, "it would look something like a shrimp, or a piece of seaweed" (119). Joan acknowledges that the unborn baby is "another generation inside of me. A tiny point of life, a floating point of life" (138).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

Since this novel is written in medias res, the reader learns early on that Joan's mother arranged for the abortion (9); Joan herself derisively thinks how organized her mother became to make arrangements for it (132-3). Although the problems attending the abortion decision seemed to have been lessened for her since her mother and aunt were the ones who planned the abortion, Joan suffers greatly after the abortion is performed.

Amazingly, once the abortion had been performed, Joan "had forgotten to tell Michael", the father of the child (141); later, however, he was happy that she had the abortion (153).

With the beginnings of what we would now call post-abortion syndrome, Joan minimizes the effect of the abortion by literally minimizing the aborted child: he or she becomes "a tiny speck of a child" (154). A few pages later she is having regrets about the abortion (156). Elsewhere, she wonders what would have been done "with the little shrimp child" (174). She cannot eradicate the memory of the child, though. Joan still recalls the baby (204) and assumes that "the hurt will stop when I'm pregnant" (217); many pages later she still thinks of the aborted child (241).

Joan's social life deteriorates considerably. She skips classes and becomes no longer interested in her steady boyfriend Fred (176), who later confronts her about the abortion (178-80). Joan tries to get Michael fired from his teaching position at the college by saying he arranged for the abortion (235-8). She does this to get revenge against Michael, who now has not only merely one new girlfriend (a younger student), but also a second new girlfriend, Joan's younger sister. The ending of the story shows the effect of Joan's life destroyed: after she tells the dean of the college about Michael's supposedly urging her to have an abortion, she knows she has to "leave"; at novel's end Joan is symbolically locked out of her house, sitting on the porch (242).

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