Pregnant poetics and gestational narratives in eighteenth-century English literature
MetadataShow full item record
In this project I examine eighteenth-century literary representations of the pregnant or birthing female body—the woman who herself straddles the line between subject and object, Self and Other, life and death—and what she signifies in the Enlightenment cultural imagination. Throughout the project, I examine how the overriding metaphors of gestation and birth inhabit the act of writing itself, as well as the structures underpinning these authors’ narrative and verse. The works I examine propose that reproductive women have a special relationship to metaphor—both in the specific representation of writing-as-birth, and the figurative function of metaphor in general. Combining affect theory, feminist psychoanalysis, medical and scientific history, and formal literary analysis, I investigate what the eighteenth century tells us about what it means to be human, and the Enlightenment encouraged us to perceive human subjectivity as intimately bound with feminine reproduction. In my first chapter, I discuss the Enlightenment’s embryological debates and the monstrous maternal imagination as they appear in The Dunciad and elsewhere in Alexander Pope’s life and works. In my second chapter, I consider how knowledge exclusive to reproductive women joins with narrative structures of concealment in Eliza Haywood’s 1720s short fiction. Her representations of pregnant women’s bodies and minds first convey, then challenge the abjection of pregnancy and parturition. My third chapter explores how Mary Wollstonecraft translates abject reproductive imagery into a affective scrutiny of the maternal mind in Maria and elsewhere. Wollstonecraft shows how the reproductive woman is susceptible to socioeconomic, material, and emotional pressures that can make her an object without agency. I end by offering an overview of representations of reproduction in agrarian and industrial environments. The authors I examine participated in the emerging science of embryology and in the gendered discourses of sensibility and sentiment. Their works demonstrate the political uses of pregnancy and birth. I participate in the ongoing critical reclamation of feminist history by probing literary representations of one of the most ostensibly appreciated—but oft-derided—times in a woman’s life: the transformative, dangerous, confusing, contradictory, metaphor-rich events of pregnancy and childbirth.