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Contemporary Literary Theories, Problems with Those Theories, and Why Students of Literature Will Benefit from Right-to-Life Literary Theory

Abstract:  After summarizing contemporary literary theories used in colleges and universities, this paper highlights both the positive aspects of the literary theories and their gaps and deficiencies.  The paper then demonstrates how right-to-life literary theory is a more comprehensive foundational tool to help readers appreciate and critique literature before they apply the standard literary theories.  A passage from Nicki Minaj’s rap song “Autobiography” (abortion), an excerpt from Thomas Rydahl’s novel The Hermit (infanticide), and a portion of the Teri Schiavo television episode from Family Guy (euthanasia) will be examined, using the five questions of right-to-life literary theory.  This paper corresponds with the companion PowerPoint presentation used in the video for the LifeTech 2021 conference. The organizers of the 2021 LifeTech conference posted the video presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqBZ2_KHV_c.

          I would first like to thank the organizers of this year’s LifeTech conference for asking me to consider presenting the following material.  I am not only impressed that a pro-life organization would continue its work despite the social upheaval of a pandemic, but also honored that conference organizers asked me to discuss one of my current research projects.

          [slide 1]  Attendees and, since it will be remotely conducted, viewers of this year’s conference are encouraged to submit their comments and questions either by email or phone.  Since I would like to present this continuing research project at other academic and pro-life venues, comments obtained here may refine my ideas about right-to-life literary theory and therefore improve the presentation.

          [slide 2]  The structure of this presentation is as follows.  After providing a functional definition of “literary theory”, I will first review contemporary literary theories used in academia; most of these theories have been taught in colleges and universities for decades, while some are recent innovations in literary study.  I will then discuss problems, gaps, and deficiencies in most of these theories, particularly from a pro-life perspective.  The presentation then advances to what I call right-to-life literary theory, which consists of five questions.  I then apply the five questions of right-to-life literary theory to three contemporary examples of literature: Nicki Minaj’s rap song “Autobiography” (which concerns abortion), an excerpt from Thomas Rydahl’s novel The Hermit (which includes the topic of infanticide), and a portion of the Teri Schiavo television episode from Family Guy (which attempts to promote euthanasia).  “Literature” is broadly defined in academic circles to include all formats (the written word, the spoken word, the sung word, etc.), but this study will examine the texts of the three examples to demonstrate the utility of right-to-life literary theory.

          Normally, I end this customary introductory slide of my presentations with the notation that time will be reserved for questions and answers or the joke that I would give my audience utterly hopeless deer-in-the-headlight stares.  Since this presentation is online (and not merely online, but asynchronous), any possible embarrassment of my looking like the deer in this slide is obviated.  Joking aside, I would greatly appreciate participants’ comments and questions for the reasons stated above and will answer any queries as quickly and efficiently as possible.

          [slide 3]  Before delving into the various literary theories used in colleges and universities (and, increasingly, high schools), a simple functional definition of “literary theory” may be helpful.  A literary theory is a way to look at literature, and, since there are many perspectives or ways to approach the study, appreciation, and application of literature, many theories have developed over the centuries.  Since ancient times, literary criticism was essential not only to heighten the appreciation of literature, but also to help us learn something from the literature.  Moreover, as mentioned above, “literature” includes not only written works (poems, short stories, dramas, and novels), but also lyrics of songs (for example, the contemporary genres of rap and trap) and material in other formats such as films (both traditional and internet-based) and other items.  Finally, this listing of literary theories is alphabetical for the reader’s/viewer’s convenience.

Archetypal or Jungian Criticism

          Developed by Carl Jung, archetypal criticism concerns dominant symbols, called archetypes, which are common to our culture and which generate the same reactions and responses in all of us.  Colors, seasons, and other symbols can become such archetypes.  For example, red is standardized as the symbol of passion, martyrdom, and whoredom, and white is symbolic of holiness and purity.  How we “universally” react to these colors is culture-bound; for example, while white symbolizes purity in the West, in China white symbolizes evil.  Seasons, similarly, are highly symbolic and conjure the same images and ideas for all of us.  Spring represents the beginning of new life.  Summer is that time or age when our lives are most productive.  Autumn is that time period when we can harvest our goods (either literally, as in garden or farm products, or figuratively, as in 401k wealth).  Winter is the time which symbolizes lives well spent and an era of resting, realizing that death will end our physical existence.

          Archetypal criticism is important for pro-life readers for an obvious reason: we all have the same negative reaction to an abortionist as we all have the same positive reaction to the terms “mother” and “unborn child.”  These reactions occur no matter how forcefully authors may try to change the archetype of an abortionist to a positive one by calling him or her a “doctor” instead of the killer that he or she is.  For instance, the abortionist Dr. Swain in Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel Peyton Place is, for all the “good” work he does for the community, still an abortionist.

Biographical Criticism

          It seems much too simple if not tautological to assert that the facts of a writer’s life may be important to help us understand what he or she wrote.  If one is interested in the background of an author, then one has chosen biographical literary theory as a way to appreciate the literature.

          Biographical criticism—curiously, a method of appreciating and interpreting literature which is often ignored in the academy and in textbooks of literary criticism—is crucial for pro-life readers.  Knowing that John Irving is an active supporter of the abortion business Planned Parenthood, for example, will affect one’s reading of his famous abortion novel, The Cider House Rules (1985), as mere propaganda for the abortion industry.  This may account for the film version being beloved by anti-life Hollywood and severely criticized by pro-life critics.

Critical Disability Studies

          The analysis of able-bodiedness and disabilities in literature is a newer literary theory which has produced some interesting interpretations and re-interpretations of literature.  This theory challenges the anti-life idea of “life unworthy of life”, a Nazi concept embraced by anti-life writers and activists in contemporary society, thus contributing to the pro-life movement recognizing this theory as life-affirming.  It is striking, however, that, with notable exceptions, many academics using this theory are hesitant to connect anti-life philosophy with the movement which supports abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia of persons with disabilities.

          Pro-life readers, therefore, have an opportunity to affirm the value of human life depicted as inferior or disabled by adopting the principles of this theory.  Literature which shows disabled or differently-abled characters ranges from the mid-nineteenth-century character Hetty, called “retarded”, in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1841 novel The Deerslayer to the contemporary example of F. X. Toole’s 2000 short story “Million $$$ Baby”, which later became an Academy Award-winning film.

Critical Race Theory

Contemporary activists and parents protesting at school boards have pointed out the inherent racism of critical race theory, yet that was not the original purpose of the theory.  While some textbooks may use confusing nomenclature, critical race theory as a type of literary criticism functions to highlight racial differences between characters, showing, for example, how African slaves were mistreated by white slave owners.

It would be a serious challenge for any pro-life reader to use critical race theory for any purpose except to assert the equality of any human being, no matter his or her race.  Accepting the principles of the aggressive political movement which bases its ideas on radical race consciousness is abhorrent to the pro-life community, since pro-lifers follow the principles of respect for all human life, no matter its condition of dependency, gender, or, in this case, racial identification.  Furthermore, as pro-life social media commentators have noted, critical race theory does more to divide humanity in terms of race instead of uniting them in what should be a concerted effort to stop assaults on human life, the most egregious being the much ignored fact that African-American mothers abort at a rate three times that of whites.  Activists in pro-abortion race-conscious groups and businesses, like Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood, can learn much from Ramona Treviño’s 2015 biography Redeemed by Grace: A Catholic Woman’s Journey to Planned Parenthood and Back.  Nowhere does Treviño, a Latina, blame white society for her abortion decisions, unlike race-centered groups, which deflect responsibility for women’s abortion decisions onto whites.

Deconstruction

          While formalist literary criticism (see below) focuses on the meanings of words as an author intends and looks for the inherent unity of a literary work, a deconstructionist critic argues that words are so inherently unstable that a standard meaning can never be obtained.  While this idea may be a fun exercise in the classroom, this essential criterion is farfetched for many ordinary, competent readers.

          Pro-life readers, of course, can use deconstructionist principles to argue a life-affirming interpretation of literature, especially literature which advances a pro-abortion, pro-infanticide, or pro-euthanasia position.  Thus, pro-life readers can critique Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? not merely as a classic science fiction work, but as a fulfilled prophecy of how abortionists and others degrade human life.

Feminist Criticism

          The earliest form of gender criticism, feminist literary criticism should be distinguished from feminist political activism.  This theory argues that literature shows women as victims of “patriarchy”, the idea that men are oppressing women.  Feminist literary criticism attempts to highlight female characters who overcome such oppression; moreover, the theory argues that women’s writing is different from that of male authors.  One can be a feminist literary critic and still accept the Judeo-Christian heritage of the father being head of the family; one simply looks at literature from a woman’s perspective.

          While the above paragraph severely oversimplifies feminist literary criticism, it should be obvious to all pro-life readers that this criticism is particularly fertile as a means to advance pro-life interests.  After all, if the idea of feminist literary criticism is to emphasize the oppression of women by men, then abortion can easily be documented in fictional literature as the most oppressive force against women and their success in society.  Unfortunately, contemporary anti-life feminist pro-abortion fiction still suffers from the myopic perception that abortion is necessary to overcome patriarchy, as evidenced by Elizabeth Keenan’s tedious 2019 novel for teens, Rebel Girls.  Pro-lifers will enjoy countering biased work like Keenan’s novel, however, by using the principles of feminist literary criticism against what such literature advocates.

Formalism and New Criticism

The standard literary theory used in the academy, if one ever had a teacher or faculty member ask what a term in any story, novel, drama, or other literary work means, then that teacher or faculty member was using formalist literary criticism, the idea that, unlike deconstruction, words have stable meanings and the ideas expressed by an author can be understood.  Moreover, a formalist critic is concerned about the unity of a literary work’s plot, consisting of four steps: the exposition, the problem to be addressed in the literary work; the crisis or crises between the protagonist and antagonist characters; the climax, the essential conflict between the characters; and the denouement, the literary work’s conclusion, which may or may not be satisfactory in the reader’s estimation.

Formalist criticism is certainly beneficial to a pro-life reader since such a reader adopts, consistent with pro-life principles, the idea that words have stable meanings; “mother”, for example, refers to a female parent, and no corruption of the idea of motherhood with a verbose phrase such as “birthing parent” can destroy the essential meaning of the term.  Regarding the unity of the literary work, a pro-life reader or critic would find much anti-life fiction faulty, especially if the ending of that work results in the killing or death of a human being.  Such is the case with Lisa De Niscia’s 2011 novel Momentary Mother; the denouement leaves the reader wondering why the main character aborted, given what seems to be loose ends in the plot.

Gender Criticism/Gay and Lesbian or Queer Studies

          The category of gender criticism originally consisted only of feminist literary theory, arriving in academia around the time of the second wave feminist movement.  It quickly became apparent that, if literature can be appreciated and interpreted through the lens of a feminist, then it could also be viewed from a man’s perspective, thus creating a masculinist approach to literature.  Persons with same-sex attraction established the gay, lesbian, or queer studies division of gender criticism, the last term sequenced in the title of this heading being politically-correct usage.  Transgender activists have added another aspect to gender literary criticism, and no doubt the category will expand when adherents of other sexually-confused categories claim their right to interpret literature according to their agendas.

          The political machinations of extremist gay and lesbian activists aside, pro-life students of literature can use gender criticism in support of human life threatened by abortion, infanticide, or euthanasia on the principle, stated above, that human life is sacred no matter what condition of dependency or gender recognition (or confusion) may obtain.  In fact, since the aggressive gay and lesbian political agenda has argued that actively homosexual persons or persons with same-sex attraction have the right to exist as heterosexual persons do, activists in any category would appreciate input from pro-life activists supporting their first civil right, the right to life.  After all, no person should be killed because he or she may be confused about his or her sexuality, as happens in, for example, Islamic nations, where gays and lesbians are executed in horrible ways.  Moreover, some gay and lesbian novels can generate sympathy that only pro-life people, who are by definition compassionate, would understand, as in Tim Murphy’s 2016 novel Christodora, a tortured account of persons with same-sex attraction who cannot understand that their actions suggest a yearning for heterosexual normativity.

Historical Criticism

          As with biographical criticism, knowing the milieu in which a literary work was created is eminently helpful to advance the appreciation of the literature.  Unfortunately, contemporary literary critics are more concerned about contentious, if not nonexistent, issues, like “white privilege.”  Knowing the world of 1850 when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his masterpiece The Scarlet Letter should help any reader understand his complex and antiquated language and the importance of the effort to establish an American literature which could match the grandeur of European literature.

          From the pro-life perspective, understanding the historical circumstances of a literary work is crucial in its explication and application to contemporary life.  For example, knowing that a master writer like William Faulkner wrote his abortion novel The Wild Palms in 1939 when it was still an abhorred practice helps the reader understand how dire unplanned pregnancy may have been for hedonistic women at that time.  Similarly, understanding the history of abortifacients, touted as alternatives to risky surgical abortion methods, will help readers appreciate how an anti-life author like Sharon Biggs Waller could presume in her feeble 2019 teen abortion novel Girls on the Verge that what was once an abhorrent practice is standard procedure for young mothers who wish to violate the civil rights of unborn babies and possibly harm themselves with dangerous abortifacients.

Marxist Criticism

As with feminist literary criticism above, one does not have to renounce one’s (pro-life) Democrat or Republican affiliation or be a political Marxist to use Marxist literary criticism.  The theory is dominantly concerned with economic factors and power relationships.  The ideas of “ideology” and “counterideology” are important in this theory, since the conflicts resulting between those who arrange social life in certain ways and those who oppose or want to change society are necessary in Marxist thinking to lead to the creation of a better world.  For example, the United States once followed the ideology that Negroes (the politically-correct term in the 1950s) could sit only in the back of busses; a counterideology developed that Blacks or African Americans could sit anywhere they wanted.  Note that the ethnographic labels themselves indicate a shift in ideology.

The importance of Marxist literary theory to pro-life students of literature is obvious.  If a literary work suggests an ideology that the types of killing called abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are appropriate for society, then it is the pro-life activist’s counterideology to assert the opposite and to generate conflict so that those methods of killing human beings are stopped.  Fictional accounts of conflicts between anti- and pro-life factions are replete in the literature, ranging from the early days of pro-life fiction, such as Stephen Freind’s 1987 novel God’s Children, to Matthew Archbold’s 2020 work, American Antigone.

Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction

Some compilations of literary theories, especially the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, categorize the ancient debate of Plato and Aristotle regarding whether literature serves moral purposes or not as moral criticism.  There is not much more to say about the utility of this category from a pro-life perspective, the assumption being that literature does serve a moral purpose.  That is, people read literary works or watch them enacted in drama or music videos (a format not available to the ancient writers) because they want to be entertained, yet the didactic value of these entertainments cannot be avoided.

Thus, pro-life readers and students of literature can certainly be entertained either by the drug-induced language of Richard Brautigan’s 1971 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 or the linguistic free-for-all of Kathy Acker’s 1986 abortion novel Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream.  Pro-life readers will also learn something about the fantasy worlds that must be depicted in order for the brutal violation of civil rights called abortion to be validated.

New Historicism/Cultural Studies

          While some more leftist activists may have corrupted the purposes of this literary theory, the foundational principles still have merit.  That is, it is important to consider, or re-consider, past historical events from the position of contemporary life.  Also, it is a valid area of concern to study artifacts in any given culture which contributed to the rise of its literature.  Thus, for example, while Columbus Day is still known as a day to rejoice over the discovery of America, others reinterpret that historical event as the beginning of the European invasion of the Americas.  Reinterpreting a fact of history could lead to a political position justifying the destruction of European culture and ideas in the New World, let alone statues of famous Europeans who saved the aboriginal peoples from human sacrifice.

          Pro-life researchers have accomplished much according to the principles of these theories, as illustrated, for example, by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer’s 2017 Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer, a biography of the infamous abortionist Kermit Gosnell.  If it were not for their research and exposé, a man whom some thought was performing needed “services” for women would have remained that instead of being redefined as the infamous abortionist and serial killer that he is.

Postcolonial Criticism

Unless one reads literary works from former colonies of the European powers, this theory is rare to find in contemporary criticism of literary works meant for the general reading public, although some scholars are trying to rejuvenate this theory by considering the United States as an imperialist power which had “colonies” around the globe or by altering the definition of what constitutes a “colony.”  From a pro-life perspective, for example, if one were anti-life, can could claim that the unborn child is a “colony” implanted by a patriarchal “power” in the body of the woman/mother.  Arguing such a contorted idea may be an interesting intellectual exercise for a classroom when more important matters are completed (grammar or logical fallacies); however, the utility of such a classroom question would be deemed as more evidence that academia has become so leftist as to make anything coming out of higher education irrelevant for the real world.

However, considering fiction from former colonies of the European powers is often an enlightening educational experience, confirming how pro-life the cultures beyond Europe and the Americas are.  For example, pro-life readers will appreciate the angst and post-abortion syndrome which the aborted mother experiences in Buchi Emecheta’s 1994 novel Kehinde.  Similarly, pro-life readers can use this theory to advance the movement by pointing out that anti-lifers use the bodies of unborn babies, whether dead or alive, for “research” as much as colonial powers may have used the people whom they colonized for their purposes.  The difference, of course, is that anti-lifers use those bodies in ways which destroy human life instead of enhance and protect it.

Psychoanalytic Criticism

          While it has been my experience that incorporating Freudian ideas about phallic and yonic imagery in literature to discover the repressed desires of authors or characters often led to comedy in the classroom instead of serious discussion of psychological principles, the core beliefs of psychoanalytic criticism are useful.  It is important to know what an author may have been thinking in the creation of a literary work, as it is important to understand or try to perceive a character’s emotions in the work.  Sometimes the author him- or herself will identify those emotions in interviews or ancillary material; even those disclosures, however, may not be reliable, thus necessitating biographical research to affirm or negate an author’s claims.

          The psychological problems associated with post-abortion syndrome and the medical killing of euthanasia or the killing euphemistically called “assisted suicide” are creating a new genre of literature for pro-life readers and critics to explore.  This theory can assist pro-life readers in reevaluating the evidence of post-abortion syndrome in Graham Greene’s 1988 novel The Captain and the Enemy as much as the depersonalization of a human being, antecedent to euthanasia, in James T. Farrell’s 1978 novel The Death of Nora Ryan.

Reader-Response Criticism

          Of all the literary theories introduced to students over the last two decades, I think most students appreciate reader-response criticism more than any other since this theory gives the reader the authority to interpret a literary work instead of relying or, worse, adopting, how the teacher or faculty member interprets it.  While proponents of this theory argue that a reader must be competent before he or she can derive a valid interpretation of a literary work, reader-response criticism is liberating for ordinary readers who may not be versed in all the literary terms and concepts in which faculty have been trained.  After all, literature is not produced for academics to study and determine if the literary work comports with their ideological positions.  Literature is meant for consumption by ordinary readers, whose opinions about a literary work could differ greatly from those who think they are more qualified not only to read literature, but to discourse and to write about it.  In fact, among today’s highly leftist higher education elites, readers must counter the often contorted opinions of a literary work with their own commonsense interpretations.

          The utility of this theory for pro-life readers is clear.  Pro-life readers are not obligated to accept the received academic opinion of the abortionist Wilbur Larch as a hero in Irving’s The Cider House Rules, nor must they accept the idea that euthanasia or medical killing comports with pagan values, as April Genevieve Tucholke seems to suggest in her 2018 novel geared for teens, The Boneless Mercies.

Structuralism/Semiotics

          I know of no colleague or ordinary person who ever consciously thinks of structuralism or post-structuralist principles before he or she reads a novel, short story, poem, or rap or trap song, let alone anyone who consciously thinks of semiotic concerns of a literary work as academics demand.  If he or she is concerned with the meaning of words used, however, then that reader is probably concerned with formalism literary theory, where the meaning of the words that a novelist or a poet uses are important to determine.

          How difficult, if not irrelevant to the concerns of ordinary readers, the structuralist and post-structuralism theories can be is apparent by how scholars have defined (or attempted to define) them:

[Post-structuralism] concerns itself with the ways and places where systems, frameworks, definitions, and certainties break down.  Post-structuralism maintains that frameworks and systems […] are merely fictitious constructs and that they cannot be trusted to develop meaning or to give order.  In fact, the very act of seeking order or a singular Truth (with a capital T) is absurd because there exists no unified truth.  Post-structuralism holds that there are many truths, that frameworks must bleed, and that structures must become unstable or decentered.  Moreover, post-structuralism is also concerned with the power structures or hegemonies and power and how these elements contribute to and/or maintain structures to enforce hierarchy.  Therefore, post-structural theory carries implications far beyond literary criticism.

(Purdue University, “Post-Structuralism”)

I have written elsewhere about scholarly psychobabble.[1]  If the above quote is challenging for academics to understand, one can only surmise how onerous it is for ordinary readers who, while educated, are unfamiliar with the jargon used by literary critics who function in the academy and seem to be unaware of issues in the real world.

[slide 4]  In discussing the problems of the various contemporary literary theories, I will repeat the phrase “human life is not merely about” followed by the phrase “the total life of the human person is more important than.”  This repetition is necessary to show that, while the various literary theories used in colleges and universities (and, increasingly, high schools) have benefits, they all suffer from a myopic view of human life, ignoring the essential reason why human beings have literature in the first place: literature is written for humans not only to enjoy, but also to aid them in learning deep cultural values.

What, therefore, are some gaps and deficiencies in the standard literary theories?

          Regarding archetypal or Jungian criticism, human life is not merely about symbols or our universal reactions to them; the total lives of people are more important than symbols.  Human life is not merely about the details of our lives as biographical criticism would dictate; the total life of the human person is more important than just the actions one performs or problems one endures.  Human life is not merely about physical conditions of our bodies; the total life of the human person is more important than our abilities and disabilities, as critical disability studies rightfully asserts.  Human life is not merely about the quantity of melanin in our skin, a fatal error in critical race theory; the total life of the human person is more important than his or her race.  Human life is not merely about how some words can be more playful and have multiple meanings than others or one’s inability to determine or establish the meanings of words which human beings have stabilized over the centuries (have deconstructionists never heard of a dictionary?); the total life of the human person is more important than the varied meanings of the words which he or she uses.  Human life is not merely about oppression of women by men, as feminist literary critics would have people believe; the total life of the human person is more important than oppression of one gender by another, whether men oppressing women or women oppressing men.  Human life is not merely about the meanings of words, a key idea of formalist literary critics; the total life of the human person is more important than determining whether the meaning of a term, like “mother” or “woman”, has been stable for millennia.  A near repeat of the entry for feminist literary criticism, human life is not merely about gender; the total life of the human person is more important than whether one’s sex is recognized—not “assigned”, but recognized—either before or after birth as male or female.  Human life is not merely about the chronological circumstances of an event or the historical period in which an author wrote; the total life of the human person is more important than his or her milieu.  Human life is not merely about economics or forces of power, demanded by Marxist literary critics; the total life of the human person is more important than the money that he or she uses or the political influences affecting him or her.  As appropriate and valid as moral criticism is, human life is not merely about whether one perfected one’s moral code or whether what one writes follows the four steps of plot development; the total life of the human person is more important than the sins one commits.  Human life is not merely about how history is interpreted or reinterpreted by one’s contemporaries; the total life of the human person is more important than redefining the importance of Columbus’ discovery of the New World as the beginning of the European invasion of the Americas.  Human life is not merely about the effect of European powers on Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the total life of the human person is more important than the political influences that may have hampered some cultural development.  Human life is not merely about one’s psychological repressions or sexual desires expressed through phallic or yonic imagery; the total life of the human person is more important than whatever deviousness exists in human minds.  Human life is not merely about whether one reader is able to force his or her opinion about a literary work on another person as the best reading; the total life of the human person is more important than any interpretation of literature.  Human life is not merely about worrying about what an author meant when he or she wrote something; the total life of the human person is more important than such intellectually stimulating, yet vapid discourse—especially vapid if people argue over the merits of the structures of works by human authors instead of, for example, understanding sacred scriptures.

          The above paragraph is one which no English professor would ever ask his or her students to write: more than one page, repetitive, complex, with no clear topic sentence.  However, I trust that I have made my point that every literary theory has a flaw, sometimes a fatal flaw, in that, while it may appropriately concern some aspect of human life, it neglects the essential criterion, the idea that the literary work exists to benefit human life.  Thus is born right-to-life literary theory.

          [slide 5]  I developed the idea of right-to-life literary theory for a paper in 2018 on the right-to-life issues in gay and lesbian literature.[2]  Having studied and used the various literary theories established in the academy and, most importantly, knowing what those theories leave out (the importance of human life), I formulated the following five questions which I use to examine all literature, especially works which concern the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

  1. Does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?
  • Does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?
  • If the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?
  • Does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?
  • When they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?

The balance of this presentation will apply the five questions of right-to-life literary theory to three works of literature.  The questions are repeated for each literary work, followed by brief commentary for each question.  It is hoped that students of literature can perceive that each brief response can be expanded into a lengthier analysis or, for college and university students, a research paper.

          [slide 6 and 7]  Nicki Minaj is one of the most successful rap artists in the world.  I recently wrote about her because I wanted to understand what a contemporary cultural force such as Minaj had to say about abortion and what we, her auditors, can learn from her experience.  (Readers: please consult the appropriate slide for the text of Minaj’s “Autobiography” to be studied.)

1.  Does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?

          Critical thinking skills must be used to answer this first question of right-to-life literary theory, since, on the surface, life as a philosophical good is not explicitly stated in this excerpt of the song.  However, one can conclude that the persona of the song (Minaj herself or the “character” singing the song) does consider life as such a good.  Why would she want to have the child with her if she thought that existence in real life was not a noble thing?

2.  Does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?

Here, also, more critical thinking must be used to reply to this question since the words of the song do not seem to recognize the paramount inherent right of all human beings to exist.  The persona recognizes that the conception (fertilization) of a human being is a good thing and that “leaving” that human being is neither in the child’s or the persona’s best interests.  It is interesting to note that the idea of leaving suggests that our rights are connected with our responsibilities, and the persona in this song is keenly aware that she has neglected her responsibility to the aborted child.

3.  If the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?

          The integrity of the family is a glaring issue here; the persona is obviously the mother of the aborted child, and the child him- or herself is “present” because he or she is being addressed.  The father, however, is absent.  One could write much about the dire situation of the African-American family, which is dominantly matriarchal.

4.  Does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?

          That the mother talks to the aborted child is clear evidence not only of her compassion for him or her, but also of the hope that the child has an existence in the afterlife.

5.  When they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?

Using the words “God’s plan” is rare to find in a rap song, especially one which concerns abortion.  Their inclusion here indicates that the persona does have a sense of the divine presence in the world, one which can overcome even a seemingly definitive act of killing called abortion.

          [slide 8]  Thomas Rydahl’s The Hermit (2016) is noteworthy first as a murder mystery novel with a variety of interesting characters and, second, as a lengthy European work which contains a strikingly sympathetic view towards newborn human life.  (Readers: please consult the appropriate slide for the text to be studied.)

1.  Does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?

          This excerpt indicates intense sorrow over the child’s death.  The effort that the police and investigators have taken indicate that the child should be alive, and, if they think this, then they must consider that life is a philosophical good worth experiencing.

2.  Does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?

          This question, also, can be answered in the affirmative as question one, with an important notation: lacking a name, the dead child is called most affectionately the “boy”—not a cadaver to be buried, or a deceased newborn, but a more loving term.  The individuality of the dead child is thus affirmed.

3.  If the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?

          This passage clearly indicates that the heterosexual normativity which should obtain in any family has collapsed.  The characters note that the father and mother, “the mum and dad”, are gone and left only their son, affectionately called “the boy” (51).  The lack of heterosexual normativity of the dead boy’s family is further highlighted by the fact that the investigators have researched all the remaining couples who recently had newborns, even to the point of giving an explicit number, 187 children.  That the dead child cannot be included in that large number of children born to couples increases the pathos of the situation.

4.  Does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?

          While no commentary is apparent from this excerpt about the inherent right to exist of other categories of human lives (from the unborn to the elderly), the use of a vulgarism is further evidence of the sadness over the boy’s death.  The use of “fucking” (51) is entirely appropriate and consistent with the depiction of these male characters as tough men.  The term indicates the rage that men who see an innocent person killed would feel, their anger at such injustice manifested not by copious tears that a female character might display, but a solid vulgar term that a man would express.  The vulgarism demonstrates not only the man’s anger at the injustice of a dead baby boy, but also his frustration of not being able to rectify the injustice.

5.  When they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?

          Answering this question from this brief excerpt is not possible; the entire novel must be read and various other passages and references to religious entities studied.  One can suggest, however, that the unanswered rhetorical question, “How can someone abandon a child?” (51), set off as its own paragraph, indicates that at least one character has internally recognized a divine precept that no one should abandon a child.  If this recognition were not supplied, then the characters would be perceived as no better than male cats killing newborn male kittens as happens in nature.

          [slide 9, 10, and 11]  The final passage to be considered is the Teri Schiavo episode from the television program Family Guy, which attempts to justify her starvation.  As I argue elsewhere,[3] this episode is inherently not comical yet attempts to use humor to persuade the viewer that the killing of Teri Schiavo was justifiable.  (Readers: please consult the appropriate slide for the text to be studied.)

1.  Does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?

          This excerpt makes it clear that human life is not a philosophical good, and one can base this primarily on the high estimation placed on the technology used to maintain Teri’s life.  The respect for technology over human life is further evident when one character expresses disdain for vegetables, which, like human life, is another item of God’s creation.

2.  Does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?

          While all of us know the conclusion to the story (Teri is starved to death), one cannot determine from the excerpt whether individual rights are respected.  Again, as with question one, it seems that non-human entities deserve more respect than the human beings, whether it is the technology used or, towards the end of the segment, the reference to the United States Constitution, a document written by humans but more deserving of respect than the humans themselves for whom it was written.

3.  If the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?

          Since Teri herself is a silent actor in this episode, it is clear that Michael Schiavo does not meet the standards of what a husband should be, especially in his role as protector of the family.  In fact, one can argue that the excerpt shows not only Teri’s dehumanization by calling her “The most expensive plant you’ll ever see”, but also her reduction to a child instead of the adult that she was by calling her “a lively little bugger.”  The implication is profound; if Teri is a child and not the equal partner in sacramental marriage with Michael Schiavo, then Michael can treat her in a subordinate position as any parent would a child.

4.  Does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?

          The episode requires a negative response to this question, if only because mocking human life as happens here does not comport with the nature of comedy.  The episode does, however, illustrate well the disrespect of a human being who needed medical care and compassion more than a legal authority to sanction her starvation.

5.  When they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?

There is no evidence in this excerpt that any character recognizes a divine presence in the world.  If anything, Michael’s reliance on the Constitution shows that he and presumably the other characters have replaced God with a man-made legal instrument.  These characters apparently do not perceive how unstable their foundation justifying the killing of Teri Schiavo is.

          I trust that this presentation has been not only interesting, but also helpful for participants who must engage in the battle against the anti-life movement in the courts, in the sciences, at the sites where killing occurs, and in an area of great importance which pro-lifers have been slow to engage, the humanities, specifically literature.  I further hope that what has been discussed here will assist pro-life readers to construct significant reviews of literature that they have read on the life issues.  Great work needs to be done to communicate to the general public our objections to literary works which do not support the right to life and our affirmations of those works which do.  Whether conference attendees write reviews for Amazon, Goodreads.com, some other social media outlet, or their own blogs, I hope that what has been presented here will increase the quality of their work significantly.

[slide 12]

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream. Grove, 1986.

Archbold, Matthew. American Antigone. Resource Publications, 2020.

Brautigan, Richard. The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. 1841. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, [n.d.].

De Niscia, Lisa. Momentary Mother. Whitepoint, 2011.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Del Rey, 1968.

Emecheta, Buchi. Kehinde. Heinemann, 1994.

Farrell, James T. The Death of Nora Ryan. Doubleday, 1978.

Faulkner, William. The Wild Palms. Random House, 1939.

Freind, Stephen. God’s Children. Morrow, 1987.

Greene, Graham. The Captain and the Enemy. Viking, 1988.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter and Other Tales of the Puritans. Ed. Harry Levin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

Irving, John. The Cider House Rules. William Morrow, 1985.

Keenan, Elizabeth. Rebel Girls. Inkyard Press, 2019.

Koloze, Jeff.  “Critical Disability Studies and Fiction on the Right-to-Life Issues: Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and the Million Dollar Baby Franchise.” Life and Learning XXIX: Proceedings of the Twenty-Ninth University Faculty for Life Conference at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois, 2019. Ed. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. Bronx, NY: University Faculty for Life, 2019. 225-52.

—. “Making Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia Funny: Determining Whether Five Principles of Comedy Derived from Ancient Writers Apply to Attempts at Humor by Contemporary Comedians.” Lifeissues.net. 30 July 2020 http://lifeissues.net/writers/kol/kol_46abortionandcomedy.html.

—. “Right-to-Life Issues in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature.” University Faculty for Life: UFL Life and Learning Conference XXVIII. http://www.uffl.org/pdfs/vol28/UFL_2018_Koloze.pdf.

McElhinney, Ann, and Phelim McAleer. Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer. Regnery, 2017.

Metalious, Grace. Peyton Place. Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Murphy, Tim. Christodora. Grove Press, 2016.

“Nicki Minaj–Autobiography (Official Music Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Apr. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHbFm6UfCX4.

Purdue University. “Moral Criticism and Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-Present).” Purdue Online Writing Lab, 27 October 2021, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/moral_criticism_dramatic_construction.html.

—.  “Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism (1966-Present).” Purdue Online Writing Lab, 27 October 2021, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/postmodern_criticism.html.

Rydahl, Thomas. The Hermit (Oneworld Publications, 2016).

“Terri Schiavo: The Musical.” Family Guy Wiki, https://familyguy.fandom.com/wiki/Terri_Schiavo:_The_Musical.

Toole, F. X. “Million $$$ Baby.” Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner. HarperCollins, 2000, pp. [61]-101.

Treviño, Ramona. Redeemed by Grace: A Catholic Woman’s Journey to Planned Parenthood and Back. Ignatius Press, 2015.

Tucholke, April Genevieve. The Boneless Mercies. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018.

Waller, Sharon Biggs. Girls on the Verge. Henry Holt, 2019.


[1] See my “Critical Disability Studies and Fiction on the Right-to-Life Issues: Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and the Million Dollar Baby Franchise.”

[2] See my “Right-to-Life Issues in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature.”

[3] See my “Making Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia Funny: Determining Whether Five Principles of Comedy Derived from Ancient Writers Apply to Attempts at Humor by Contemporary Comedians.”

Categories
Book reviews

Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)

Although dated, Bobbitt’s work, a scholarly treatment of statecraft, can help the pro-life world understand how Big Tech could corrupt the market-states, which, the author argues, is replacing nation-states.

Reading Bobbitt’s work is equivalent to a semester (or two) of college credit without the leftist lunacy that most colleges and universities now interject with their distortions of “social justice” (gender equality, which distorts heterosexual normativity; bashing the United States, which they think is the Satan of nations; or affirming racist groups like Black Lives Matter).  Thus, the general reader will delight in whipping out his or her smartphone to learn more about historical events and persons mentioned in the text or defining polysyllabic and rarely-used words, like the wonderfully mellifluous “vertiginous” (703).

Pro-life readers will especially appreciate being able to “connect the dots” of Bobbitt’s study with current events two decades later, and the epiphany that they will receive should motivate them to even greater action than reading Senator Josh Hawley’s exposé of Big Tech, demonstrated in his masterly book The Tyranny of Big Tech (Regnery, 2021).

Of course, while Bobbitt’s book is dated, all readers will appreciate his discussion of five developments that challenge the sovereignty of nation-states (xxii); or his commentary on cutting regulations and taxes (241), which will lead the reader to conclude ineluctably that President Trump was right on those topics and that the inept Joe Biden and his fellow anti-American Democrats are wrong in their $3.5 trillion tax increases; or the “the six modalities of U.S. constitutional law” (660).

Bobbitt’s work has at least one glaring omission of an important person who made world history.  There is no mention of St. John Paul II and his role in the discussion of the collapse of communism in Europe (61), nor is the saint mentioned in the discussion of Poland’s labor union Solidarnosc (622).  There isn’t even an index entry for John Paul II.  I trust that Bobbitt doesn’t think that it was only President Reagan or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who worked to end Communism in Europe.

While some items in Bobbitt’s work, since it is dated, must be disregarded, such as the woefully outdated internet information (788), more items must be corrected or updated.  Reading that “The democratic, capitalist, and parliamentary state no longer faces great-power threats” (8) is cringeworthy; Communist China was an enemy of the United States in 2002 as it is now, even more so, as President Trump showed us during his administration.  Regarding his comments on the Second Amendment, a vital update is needed because of the destruction and death caused by Antifa domestic terrorists (237).  Similarly, there should be an update regarding enemy states; the claim that “None really threaten [sic] us” (268) is naïve when we Americans know that Communist China wishes to destroy American intellectual and political power or that the Taliban has seized an entire nation from which international terrorism has a base, no thanks to the inept Joe Biden.

Furthermore, since “corporations” in 2021 include the more powerful social media companies created by leftist billionaires who mine our personal data for their bank accounts, several of Bobbitt’s statements about corporations and their involvement in the market-state need revision.

For example, Bobbitt’s claim that “Business corporations cannot try people and jail them” (337) needs to be corrected.  Big Tech social media companies try (as in determine the political correctness of users’ opinions) and then jail (as in ban, block, censor, or quarantine) users if the leftist social media companies don’t like what is posted.

Similarly, Bobbitt’s claim that Nazi ideology as a governmental form has vanished from the globe is woefully premature: “The disgust and horror experienced by civilized people everywhere [over Nazi death camps] effectively removed fascism from the list of possible choices that nations might consider in forming states and marginalized it forever to the dormitory rooms of misfits” (610).  Abortions performed in “clinics” run by companies like the monolithic Planned Parenthood are the death camps of today, and the Nazi “misfits” of the 1940s are today’s Antifa domestic terrorists, financed by Democratic Party operatives.

Moreover, the claim that feminism “has thus far been quite marginal” (658) is either utterly naïve or blatantly ignorant.  Anti-life feminism, the kind that, unlike pro-life feminism, supports abortion, has managed to coerce corporations and governments to support abortion with donations (from the corporations) and tax dollars (from the governments) all in the name of “equality”, a corruption of the Western ideal so that the unborn child’s life is not equal to that of the mother and his or her father.

As a corollary, if Bobbitt cannot recognize anti-life feminism’s impact on the globe, then no wonder he can assert the tiresome and misleading statistic that AIDS is the “leading cause of death among Americans under the age of twenty-one” (709) and not perceive or be bold enough to state that abortion is the number one killer of youth.

Instead of faulting his research, contemporary readers can use Bobbitt’s commentary about the market-state to see how Big Tech is trying to corrupt (hopefully, not already has corrupted) the market-state.  According to Bobbitt, “the market-state promises instead to maximize the opportunity of the people and thus tends to privatize many state activities and to make voting and representative government less influential and more responsive to the market” [211].  If this definition is true, then Big Tech would love the market-state because it’s all about money: “the market-state is largely indifferent to the norms of justice, or for that matter to any particular set of moral values so long as law does not act as an impediment to economic competition” (230).

Bobbitt’s commentary about political leaders in the new market-state is almost prophetic.  “I speculate that leadership for this move [“to encourage the development of entrepreneurial states”] is likelier to come from the leaders of multinational corporations and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) than from leaders of the national security apparatus and the political establishment” (337).  While it would be disastrous to think that Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Jack Dorsey (Twitter) are those “leaders”, I think a better example of such a leader who can function in the new worldview and who supports the pro-life movement was and is President Donald Trump.  How desperately we need more leaders like him to counter the leftist ones in Big Tech who would destroy Western civilization!

Fortunately, Bobbitt clearly identifies the Achilles’ heel(s) of the market-state: “the market-state’s inherent weaknesses—its lack of community, its extreme meritocracy, its essential materialism and indifference to heroism, spirituality, and tradition” (290).  Thus, if Big Tech thinks it can flourish in such a political arrangement, its constituent companies (the leftist Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.) would need to battle billions of people who oppose materialism, who aim to be heroes, who are spiritual, and who believe and follow tradition.

Finally, Bobbitt specifies some areas where the market-state could promote anti-life ideas, so pro-lifers must be vigilant against Big Tech’s/corporations’ efforts to harm or kill human beings.  He recognizes that the market-state may ration health care by determining “to whom to give life-saving medical care” (710).  In a futuristic scenario of one category of the market-state, Bobbitt conjectures that “anti-abortion laws […] all vanished” (735) and, in another scenario, “assisted suicide […] organ harvesting” occur (736; italics in original in both cases).  A final example of a scenario for a future market-state lists “population control” as a “constitutional condition for a society of market-states” (802).

At 888 lugubrious pages, Bobbitt’s work is challenging to read, yet necessary to understand how the Big Tech billionaires could distort our twenty-first century.

Reader warning!  Since Amazon collaborates with cancel culture zealots and bans conservative and pro-life books, buy this book on any service other than Amazon.  (Why give your hard-earned pro-life dollars to a company that censors books?)  Instead, buy this book directly from the publisher (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/15353/the-shield-of-achilles-by-philip-bobbitt/) or from some other venue.

Categories
Book reviews

Kevin Clark’s and Ravi Scott Jain’s The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Classical Academic Press, 2013)

Everybody knows that public school secondary (and even primary) education is inferior.  Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain aim to convince us that the essential way to overcome the feeble educational structures of today is to do something truly bold, even revolutionary.  They want students to read books.

And not just any books, but the foundational, ancient works which are the canon of Western civilization, such as the works of Aristotle and the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Clark and Jain discuss and argue for the return of the seven subject areas of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, categorized in the acronym PGMAPT, which stands for piety, gymnastic, music, the liberal arts, philosophy, and theology (3).

It is a joy to read authors who cite with approbation (and not ridicule as contemporary politically-motivated “educators” do) several dominant concepts from the ancient and medieval worlds which inform Western culture, including St. Anselm’s “credo ut intelligam”, “I believe that I may understand” (4), and the ancient maxim that “Imitation precedes art” (5).  Plato’s idea that “the songs we sing, the stories we read, and the art we make and admire, form our souls” (27) is damning for those who think that rap and trap music meet the transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty.

Moreover, it is an especially delightful ecumenical joy to read the authors’ opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica: “In this text the reader finds a careful consideration of every known perspective on every conceivable theological and philosophical problem” (43).  High praise indeed!

Contemporary readers may be shocked to learn that the people of the medieval period, dismissed as mere peasants under the domination of what some would criticize as a patriarchal and oppressive Catholic Church, espoused ideas strikingly “modern”, such as the fact that “appeals to reason were the strongest form of medieval proof” (8).  Reason, therefore, did not just pop into the world with the advent of the bloody French Revolution, which was supposed to be the philosophical summation of reason.

Similarly, the ancient and medieval periods believed that gymnastic was important because “the body and the soul are united in such a way that failure to cultivate the capacities inherent in either is failure to cultivate the whole person” (22).  Catholic readers know that this unity is an essential criterion of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  Thus, it is good to see Protestant Christians recognizing the importance of the ancient belief in human beings consisting of both a corporal and a spiritual element, a belief always held by the Catholic Church.

One noteworthy idea needs to be emphasized.  Contemporary college and university professors will agree with Clark and Jain when they claim that today’s academics are like the ancient Sophists, as when professors argue, for example, that truth is relative (89).  Clark and Jain write further about “postmodern anti-realism, which is perhaps a variant of the ancient sophism” (112).  Any college or university academic who is forced into diversity or equity sessions promoting the  irrational and illogical support for the mental disorder of transgenderism will agree with the authors that such anti-realist efforts prove that contemporary academics are indeed more sophist than philosopher, let alone professorial.

There are two flaws in the work worth mentioning.  First, the footnotes expanding ideas in the text are often lugubrious—so thick that the train of thought in the original paragraph can be lost.

Second, the work is obviously a Protestant treatise, and the inability to identify the Roman Catholic component of Western civilization is not only intellectually dismissive, but also annoying.  The authors refer to the “medieval” world and its authors, but seem hesitant to mention an important descriptor of such authors: they were not merely Christian, but Catholic, and even more specifically Roman Catholic Christian (in contrast to Byzantine or Greek Catholic or Orthodox Christianity).  Maybe this hesitancy occurs because the authors wanted to appeal to a Protestant Christian audience which may not appreciate the efforts of 1,500 years of Catholic Christianity, continuing, by the way, well past the Reformation.  I hope that the hesitancy is not due to an inherent anti-Catholic bias, like the kind that secular and atheist thinkers in contemporary education have.

Despite these flaws, the work is a helpful handbook for those entering, for example, an academy which uses the Great Books or which operates in contrast to public or parochial schools which fail to stimulate sufficient wonder in their students, whether their charges are elementary or secondary students.

In fact, college faculty may find the authors’ premises helpful to reorganize their higher education curricula so that college and university education does not simply parrot the leftist nonsense promoted by certain political factions in society vying for their fifteen minutes of fame.  We college professors already know about the Trivium and the Quadrivium.  Clark and Jain make a compelling argument for their return to academia.

Categories
Book reviews

Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground (1925)

Steven Spielberg would never film this novel since it features an unfulfilled feminist, so Mel Gibson will have to do it.

Pro-abortion feminists in this twenty-first century may think of Ellen Glasgow as just another dead white female writer, but pro-life feminists will delight in and learn much from this quasi-autobiographical and thorough narrative of Dorinda, a late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century woman who thinks that her life is a failure.

Maybe it’s a failure because Dorinda has been restricted by Presbyterian Christianity and therefore beyond the two-millennia tradition of orthodox Catholic Christianity and all that the religion has to say about love, marriage, and sex.

Maybe Dorinda is an unfulfilled woman because she (or the author) confuses the terms “love”, “marriage”, and “sex” throughout the novel.  These three terms seem to be used interchangeably when they obviously denote different things, as anybody steeped in Judaism and Christianity knows.  Dorinda’s comments on love and sex lead to the conclusion that she would have benefited from understanding the Theology of the Body as discussed by St. John Paul II, especially since the characters are Protestant.  Although the setting is decades before the saint first enunciated his ideas about the importance of sex and the human body, this claim is not anachronistic, of course, since Catholic Christianity has consistently taught that sex, instituted by the Creator, is so beautiful as the union of two bodies that it must be honored within marriage.  Dorinda utterly fails to understand that.

In fact, the terms and phrases which Dorinda uses to refer to the triad of love, marriage, and sex demonstrate the unfortunate ambiguity of her Protestant Christian heritage, becoming more nominal as she progresses through the decades of the plot.  Dorinda mentions the three terms in often obscured language, as when she talks about “this hidden knowledge of life” (27) or that she “became aware of her body” (63).  This hesitancy cannot be attributed to authorial fear of not being published.  After all, the novel was written in 1925, when Freud’s ideas about sex were emerging as popular topics; the author herself was as bold as most early feminists of that time were known to be.

Dorinda’s attitude toward life in general shows how pessimistic someone can become who distances him- or herself from the life-affirming Judeo-Christian ethos.  Dorinda equates life with “barren ground” (196), and she thinks the “will to love” is a “destructive process” (233).  It doesn’t help, either, that Dorinda was unwanted: “Dorinda and [her brother] Rufus both came while [their mother] was looking ahead, as she told herself, to a peaceful middle age unhampered by child-bearing” (39).

Closely related to sex, maybe Dorinda is such a lonely and unfulfilled character because she has a negative view of men.  Even though she encountered some men who were faithful and loving, Dorinda (like a typical teenaged girl) cannot get over her “first love”, who is more a disgrace to the male gender than a possible husband and father of Dorinda’s child.  This episode of fornication with a man who just wanted to get into her pants is the cause of her enduring negative views on men.  While asserting that she could live without any man is innocuous enough (106), agreeing with her mother in being secretive with men (124) and saying that “No good had ever come […] of putting questions to a man” (318) illustrate her inability to work with the male half of humanity—a fatal flaw in a person who should be a fully-developed feminist.

Overall, Glasgow paints a depressing portrait of an aging feminist, but it is a portrait which can not only educate us in the twenty-first century, but also force us to support traditional sexual norms in a twenty-first century culture which accepts the leftist idiocy of a distorted gender ideology and the mental illness of transgenderism as alternative lifestyles.  While Dorinda hopes for “something in life besides love” (198), contemporary readers must counter that love is the essence of life.  While Dorinda reduces love, marriage, and sex with the demeaning phrase “all that” (252) and babbles about “sex vanity” (292), contemporary readers, again, must reaffirm what the Creator originally intended: love leads to marriage, which enables a man and a woman to engage in the rapturous physical activity of sex.  Pity the man who marries a woman like Dorinda, who has “a distaste for physical love” (471)!

A final comment is necessary about the denouement.  Although she is a warped feminist, Dorinda is a successful businesswoman.  Moreover, she overcame her first experience of fornication and married another successful businessman in her home town.  Why, then, at age thirty-three, doesn’t she feel “complete” (355)?  Similarly, even though she has overcome major obstacles to her financial and social success, why does she still assert a hundred pages towards novel’s end, “Three months of love, and you pay for it with all the rest of your life” (412)?  Finally, near the end of the novel—a mere four pages away from the ending—why does Dorinda regret “the love that she had never known and the happiness that she had missed” (522)?  While she does claim “better by far the drab freedom” of simple women than the life of married women (88), the adjective clearly indicates that Dorinda disparages the single as much as she denigrates the married state.  Does she not know that being a single woman is a fulfilling vocation like being a married woman, or a woman devoting herself to a religious order?  Apparently, not.  Remember: Dorinda hails from a Presbyterian form of Christianity in a rural Virginia area, so religious diversity and the two-thousand year history of Catholic Christianity are closed to her.

Hopefully, some of the above conjectures and ideas may help students working on literature essays for their secondary or college courses.  The rest of us can simply delight in reading an early twentieth-century novel which functions as evidence that, even then, feminist writers were aware that a woman who closed herself to love led to an eventual unfulfilled life.

Categories
Book reviews

Josh Hawley’s The Tyranny of Big Tech (Regnery, 2021)

Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and other Big Tech Democrats should worry: young Republican elected officials, who will soon replace them, are targeting Big Tech on behalf of the American people.

Reader warning!  Since Amazon collaborates with cancel culture zealots and bans conservative and pro-life books, buy this book on any service other than Amazon.  (Why give your hard-earned pro-life dollars to a company that censors books?)  Instead, buy this book directly from the publisher, Regnery: https://www.regnery.com/9781684512393/the-tyranny-of-big-tech/.

Senator Josh Hawley’s book is a masterly analysis of how Big Tech completes the efforts of the robber barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to amass wealth at the expense of hardworking, ordinary American citizens.  Hawley summarizes how the monopolies of the late nineteenth century began through the efforts of millionaires like J. P. Morgan, who worked tirelessly to guarantee that the federal government did not interfere in their plans to hoard as much money as possible for themselves.

Hawley illustrates cogently how the robber barons’ ideology, called “corporate liberalism”, was strongly opposed by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, only to become enshrined as the economic ideology of the United States under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.  This ideology divided the American workforce into the elite industrialists and bankers who hoarded wealth; management, which did the bidding of the wealthy elite; and ordinary people who slaved for management and the plutocratic wealthy.  Since corporate liberalism was the foundation economic theory of the rest of the twentieth century, Hawley thus concludes that Big Tech’s primary goal of amassing wealth succeeds where J. P. Morgan and his fellow plutocrats failed.

And we ordinary Americans suffer accordingly at the hands of Big Tech monopolists.

Fortunately, though, not all is lost because, as Senator Hawley experienced firsthand when he interrogated Mark Zuckerberg in several interviews regarding Facebook’s censorship, “Big Tech is desperately afraid of public criticism, of someone taking a public stand” (126).  Hawley proposes several initiatives to stop Big Tech’s attacks on American life, including: placing the Federal Trade Commission, which can prevent monopolies, under the Department of Justice (152); ending Big Tech’s Section 230 immunity (153); giving social media users the “Do Not Track” option (154); and treating Big Tech platforms like publishers so that social media users can sue them for censorship (156).

Although he doesn’t say it, all of these positive efforts to combat the Big Tech monopoly can only occur, though, when Democrats are kicked out of the House, the Senate, and the White House.  While he points out that both Republicans and Democrats support the concept of corporate liberalism and have benefited from Big Tech’s major donations to their campaigns, both Hawley and we ordinary Americans know that the billionaires of Big Tech consistently support Democratic Party candidates over Republicans.

And the reasons why Big Tech supports the un-American values of the Democratic Party are obvious.  Big Tech endorses the LGBTQ agenda (which distorts heterosexual normativity) and the racism of Black Lives Matter (109).  Finally, Big Tech promotes abortion, even to the point of censoring pro-life groups; Hawley got Zuckerberg to admit that that Facebook “wrongly de-platformed a pro-life group, Live Action” (2).

Buying the book is absolutely necessary, not only to reward Hawley for having written a guide for future legislative action against Big Tech billionaires (remember: Simon & Schuster reneged on its plan to publish his book), but also to serve as a reference.  My own annotations spanned three full single-spaced pages, so purchasing the book from Regnery was essential instead of breaking copyright rules by photocopying relevant pages.  All of Hawley’s book is relevant.

Finally, here are some choice quotes for consideration, all of which can help students write solid essays on Big Tech abuses:

Hawley’s book “calls into question the reigning order of corporate liberalism, and it challenges the power of those who benefit from it” (ix).

“The book is an exercise in alternative possibilities, an attempt to recover a different way of thinking about society and politics; it is an attempt, most fundamentally, to recover the meaning of the common man’s republic” (xii).

Quoting Teddy Roosevelt: “And of all forms of tyranny […] the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of plutocracy” (28).

On the influence of St. Paul: “What was revolutionary about Paul in a political sense was his insistence on the dignity of ordinary people and ordinary life” (32).

“For reasons the chattering class couldn’t quite pinpoint, couldn’t quite comprehend or even describe, the voting public became more and more out of sorts as the twenty-first century dawned, more resistant to the usual political platitudes and talking points” (53).

“Zuckerberg’s spoke of change, a fresh departure from the past, but in fact his pitch was the climax of the revolution his robber baron predecessors had initiated a century before.  It was the climax of corporate liberalism” (58).

“The Age of Big Tech, like the age of the robber barons, would be the age of monopoly” (59).

“Far from empowering everyday Americans, Big Tech was assaulting the habits and mores of democratic life” (76).

“Woodrow Wilson and his fellow corporate liberals had portrayed self-development as a form of liberty, the form of liberty most suited to, most needed in, the modern era.  And yet the advent of social media made painfully, brutally clear that the search for self-development, self-expression, and originality could be as much a burden as a relief” (81; italics in original).

“The private-choice liberty of corporate liberalism was, of course, a version of the liberty Big Tech assiduously promoted to sell its products and justify its power.  And the irony was thick.  Big Tech’s social media platforms, the things Mark Zuckerberg said would connect the world, were perhaps the most anti-social devices in American history: not connecting, but isolating; not uniting, but dividing” (82; italics in original).

“As outrage became the norm on the social platforms, researchers found that heavy social media users were taking their outrage with them into the workplace, the neighborhood, the church—in short, to those actual communities made up of actual people that had once been havens from the outrage-by-algorithm of online culture but were now increasingly subject to its contagion” (86-7).

Quoting Robert Epstein, “Google […] has likely been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections in the world since at least 2015” (102).

Big Tech “produced almost nothing, paid next to nothing in U.S. taxes, made virtually no significant capital investment relative to their profits, and extracted nearly all their value as economic rents from a customer base held hostage to their monopoly control” (112).

Section 230 succinctly explained: “Under the new and improved statute, tech companies could shape or edit content without liability, could take down content without any show of good faith or fair dealing, and could display content they knew to be illegal—and no one could challenge any of it in court” (128).

“Victory against Big Tech’s pathologies requires that we reinvigorate family, neighborhood, school, and church, the places where, in authentic community, we come to know ourselves and one another, exercise our responsibilities, and find our sense of belonging.  These are the places where we become citizens, where we become free, where we learn to exercise the sovereignty of a citizen in a free republic.  Genuine community is now, more than ever, countercultural—and opposed to the ersatz ‘global community’ pushed by the corrupt and power-hungry Big Tech” (143).

Categories
Book reviews

World’s Great Short Stories, edited by M. E. Speare (World Publishing, 1942)

Fight cancel culture zealots!  Read short story masterpieces from dead white male American and European authors.

I labored over the 334 pages of this anthology for weeks, not because the stories were so lugubrious that I had to whip out the dictionary or because I’m a slow reader.  The stories were didactic, yes, in the extremely positive way of teaching some beautiful truths about human life and expressing those truths in beautiful language.  (It is most unfortunate that the connotation of “didactic” is negative in today’s culture, which despises anything old—“old” being any tweet which has an age of one hour or more.)

Consider the range of topics from these dead white male American and European masters of the short story:

Steinbeck’s “The Promise”: a story about a mare who had to be killed in order for her colt to survive birth.  Issue to resolve: choice of life over death.

Saki’s “Tobermory”: a cat discloses secrets of the humans in its world.  Comedic, yet pertinent: why don’t we humans just say what we mean?

Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”: Daniel Webster wins his case, protecting Jabez Stone from going to Hell.  Webster convinces a jury of devils that men take pride in being men, even with our faults.  The devil recounts that he was present since America was discovered.  Antifa domestic terrorists and the Democratic politicians who support them and cancel culture zealots: you lose.  Benét already admitted that the United States may not be a perfect nation, but we’re becoming one.  Besides, your efforts to destroy property and erase history accomplishes nothing.  Idiots….

Hemingway’s “My Old Man”: a pathetic story (that is, a story filled with pathos) of a son who loved his jockey father who won fixed races.  Although the father is killed in a race, the son still admires him.  How stupid some fathers can be!

Wodehouse’s “The Custody of the Pumpkin”: a cute story about a British earl who resists his son marrying an American woman, presumed to be beneath him in social class.  The earl relents when he learns that the father-in-law has more than $9 million.  Moreover, his prized pumpkin wins a vegetable show.  Vapid people then, vapid people now who think that money cures all.

Maugham’s “Red”: a story of a young man, Red, who falls in love with a native South Pacific woman, Sally.  Red was kidnapped and presumed lost at sea.  Meanwhile, Sally marries Neilson.  Red returns years later, an old fat man; Sally also grows fat.  Moreover, Neilson no longer loves her.  A memorable line: “The tragedy of love is indifference” (104).

Lardner’s “Champion”: a story of a dishonest, money-grubbing boxer who cares nothing for his handicapped brother, his mother, his wife, or his child.  The public just thinks he’s a hero.  Disability rights activists can find a friend in Lardner long before disability rights became an issue because abortion-supporting people and Nazi eugenicists thought that the handicapped were unworthy of life.

Twain’s “A Mediaeval Romance”: a story about a woman, Lord Conrad, disguised as a man because her father envied another’s ducal throne.  The Lady Constance falls in love with Conrad, but Conrad rejects him because they obviously can’t marry.  For her revenge, the scorned Constance gets pregnant by someone else.  At her trial, she accuses Conrad as the father.  He either must confess the truth that he is really a woman and be executed for falsely sitting on the ducal throne, since no woman was allowed to do that, or renounce his claim to the duchy which his father envied.  The narrator doesn’t resolve the dilemma, leaving it to the reader.  And some think that transgenderism is a new idea in the world!  Twain thought of it first.  Fools….

Bunin’s “Sunstroke”: a story recounting the feelings of a military man who had an adulterous affair with an unnamed woman who is married and has a child.  He would never see the little whore again, yet he suffers emotionally from his adulterous sin.  Fool!  She used you, yet you yearn for her?  Double fool….

Ewald’s “My Little Boy”: an irreligious father instills general ethical principles in his son and fears that his son will become contaminated with society’s ideas when the child eventually must attend school.  This father reads too much like a copter parent.  Besides, his hostility to religious ideas clearly shows how backward he is.

Pirandello’s “The Fly”: a ghoulish story of a fly infecting a man with glanders, which will eventually kill him.  He was to marry the same day as his cousin, who was also bitten by a fly and presumably will die from the same disease.  An episode suitable for The Twilight Zone.

Parker’s “The Waltz”: delightfully funny story of a woman who gives her honest thoughts while uttering vapid and socially-correct statements while dancing with a bumbling man.  Applicability to our own society: distrust what anyone, especially Joe Biden, says.

Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”: masterly story of a monkey’s paw giving an old couple three wishes.  The first wish is for 200 pounds to eliminate their debt, obtained at the cost of their son dying at work, mangled in his factory’s machinery; the second wish resurrects the son, without specifying that he would be made whole; the third wish restores him to death.  Exciting denouement!

Harte’s “The Postmistress of Laurel Run”: intriguing story of a postmistress who protects a man, a fellow postmaster, from being fired for absconding with government money.  The inspector who is on his case knows that she helped the postmaster not only restore the stolen money, but also escape prosecution.  Feminists would have a challenge justifying this woman’s action based on heart instead of brains.

Zweig’s “The Invisible Collection”: a story full of pathos; a blind man shows his collection of prints to an art dealer, all of which were sold so that his family could survive during Weimer Germany’s hyperinflation.  The art dealer consents to the fraud because the old man cherished his collection.  Contemporary reader, would you consent to a deception to preserve an elderly person’s mental state?

Maupassant’s “Two Friends”: a story of two French friends during the Franco-Prussian War who are shot and killed for not disclosing the password which allowed them to fish in their favorite place.  That’s the test of friendship, as Jesus said.

Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”: classic tale of terror, a man condemned by the Inquisition suffers torture designed to force him into a pit filled with hundreds of rats.  The ending is a deus ex machina as he is saved by French forces who invaded Toledo.  Reminds me of Stalinist, Nazi, and Democratic torture tactics.

Gorky’s “Twenty-Six and One”: a story of 26 men who slave away at a basement bakery, which is more like a dungeon, and who revere a woman who obviously disdains them.  They idolize her but turn on her when they realize she’s just an ordinary slut, falling to the affections of a boastful soldier who must likely got into her pants.  The little whore.  The word “contemptuously” used often, and that’s what we should feel for that woman and her skanky self.

Stevenson’s “Sire de Malétroit’s Door”: a young soldier in medieval France enters a house where he is trapped into either marrying a wicked uncle’s niece or be hanged.  He eventually falls in love with her, and they decide to marry.  Ah, love!  Hopefully, they made many babies together, all of whom are faithful Catholics, unlike the fraud @JoeBiden, Nancy Pelosi, and other useless Democrats of their ilk.  Oh…sorry…mi dispiace.  Everything isn’t political (is it?)

France’s “Our Lady’s Juggler”: a wonderfully simple and pious story of a monk, “a stupid fellow” (396), whose gift to the Virgin Mary is his juggling skill.  She honors him, though, by wiping the sweat from his brow to the amazement of his fellow monks.  Except for persons hostile to religion, Catholicism especially, who could not love this happy ending?

O. Henry’s “The Cop and the Anthem”: Soapy yearns to be jailed for the winter in New York.  After several unsuccessful tries to get arrested, he decides to recover his lost ambition and be a productive man.  At that point in his resolution, he is arrested for vagrancy and gets his wish of three months in jail, long enough to be out of the New York winter.  Irony at its best.

Balzac’s “The Mysterious Mansion”: another story of a whorish wife who asserts that her lover was not hiding in her bedroom’s closet.  The husband walls it up, the lover dies, and the husband exacts sweet revenge on her adulterous whorish body.  Sinister laugh here! 

Dickens’ “’Dr. Manette’s Manuscript’”: Dr. Manette’s letter, recounting his involvement with the Marquis St. Evrémonde, who impregnated a peasant woman, even though he was married and had a child, functions significantly in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  The ending of the novel colors this story with sadness because we all know how many people were killed during the disastrous French Revolution.

Daudet’s “The Last Lesson”: story of a French school forced to teach students German.  M. Hamel’s “Vive la France!”, written on the blackboard, is his last bit of patriotism before the last class to be taught in French is dismissed (334).

Thankfully, cancel culture zealots, masters at destruction, can’t touch these creations.  Besides, if you’re bored with the woke NFL, read these stories.  Their ideas last longer than the “fame” of a touchdown which would yield no benefit to your life.

Categories
Uncategorized

A warning bell about Catholic academics

Dr. Stephen Sammut isn’t writing an essay as much as he is furiously ringing a warning bell about Catholic academics.  The embedded links citing those “Catholic scholars” who urged people to reject pro-life candidate Donald Trump and then pro-life President Donald Trump shocked me.

Such great names!  “Scholars” trying to confuse Catholics into…what?…either staying away from voting or, worse, voting for anti-life Joe Biden, who claims to be Catholic on social justice issues but is just an ordinary abortion zealot?  It’s bad enough that most people despise academics for their race-baiting leftist ideologies (critical race theory) or for their just plain ignorant ideas (white privilege).  That Catholic institutions, apparently, lack the courage to fight—and fight hard—for our Catholic values is discouraging.

Worst of all, when we, sinners though we are, want to support our Catholic institutions and learn that those institutions are no better than any secular community college, college, or university, then to whom can we donate our pro-life money?  If there is no Catholic college or university worthy enough to receive our pro-life dollars, then, absent having the power of a college president or the power of being on a college’s board of directors, there is only one course of action faithful Catholics can take to rectify the problem: we just won’t donate to them.

Let me say that louder, in the way that our young people would on social media:

We.  Just.  Won’t.  Donate.  To.  Them.

Maybe that is the only language that will work to encourage Catholic institutions to stand up in the fight against leftist secular attacks on human life and on our Faith: money.

I have this idea of choking off money from Catholic institutions which lack courage to defend life and morals because I was about to donate again to what many call one of the few genuine and orthodox Catholic institutions to praise it for its good work.  Now, I’m not so certain, and there will be no electronic donation coming out of my checking account to that institution.  Right-to-life groups will get it instead.

Categories
Papers

Fiction of the New Killers: Girls, Teenagers, and Other Misguided Female Feminists in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction on Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia

Abstract:  This project evaluates abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia novels by contemporary feminist authors (Elizabeth Keenan, Carrie Mesrobian, Margaret Owen, Dianne Touchell, and Sharon Biggs Waller) according to the principles of right-to-life literary theory and provides further general commentary of those novels to assist pro-life readers in their own work of critiquing anti-life literature.

Before abortion was legalized throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever in 1973, some anti-life authors who have written work which seems to promote abortion, infanticide, or euthanasia may have been reticent about their support for those three life issues.  The presumption may have been that the reading public would not purchase their works if it were known that the author supports a practice, such as abortion, which harms mothers, kills unborn babies, and alienates fathers; or infanticide, which kills handicapped newborns; or euthanasia, which kills the elderly or the medically vulnerable.

In contrast, other authors have openly voiced their support for the abortion movement and, particularly, their support for the largest provider of abortions, Planned Parenthood.  One thinks, for example, of John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules, whose support for the abortion business galvanized both anti- and pro-life movements to the point that buying the book or patronizing the film indicated the strengths and, more importantly, purchasing power of activists in both movements.[1]

          Contemporary authors continue to support abortion groups (activist non-profits like NARAL) and organizations, which are more accurately designated as businesses by the international pro-life community (for example, Planned Parenthood), but there is a noticeable difference separating current authors from their pre-Roe counterparts.  Contemporary authors in this second decade of the twenty-first century are not only more explicit in their support of abortion organizations and businesses, but also activist in encouraging their readers to work with those abortion groups for the express purpose of defeating pro-life initiatives and life-affirming laws and stifling pro-life free speech rights.  Moreover, contemporary anti-life authors increasingly advocate support for the remaining two life issues, infanticide and euthanasia.

          The positions of the authors studied here on the life issues are not easy to locate; trying to determine their positions on the life issues involves a torturous hunt from one website to another, or from one tweet to a retweet, or from emails to the author, all of which remain unanswered.  Since this is not a biographical study of the authors themselves but a literary analysis of their works, ascertaining whether the authors support the three types of killing known as abortion, infanticide, or euthanasia may be unnecessary.  It must be relegated to future research to determine the extent to which these authors are able to separate their personal biases against human life from writing fiction which merely uses the life issues as subject matter.

          Often, however, the novels themselves will have concluding endnotes, essays, or, as in the case of Keenan’s Rebel Girls, an “Historical Note” [415-22] which declare the authors’ anti-life beliefs.  For example, while Keenan’s claim that she chose Baton Rouge in 1992 as the setting for her novel because “I wanted a setting parallel to today’s politics—something close, but not identical, to today” [415] seems innocuous and merely an effort to attain historical credibility, her declaration two pages later that “Like Athena [her protagonist], I went to a Catholic high school, and was pretty much the only pro-choice student in the school” [417] makes her pro-abortion position clear.  Similarly, Waller confesses in the “Author’s Note” in her Girls on the Verge that, although she “still feel[s] a small bite of shame” after her abortion, “It follows me to Planned Parenthood, where I work as a volunteer escort” ([223]).

          Whether the authors’ positions on the life issues can be ascertained or not, this study examines five recent novels (all written within the past six years) on the life issues by emerging feminist writers: Elizabeth Keenan’s abortion novel Rebel Girls (Inkyard Press, 2019); Carrie Mesrobian’s abortion novel The Whitsun Daughters (Dutton Books, 2020); Margaret Owen’s euthanasia novel The Merciful Crow (Henry Holt, 2019); Dianne Touchell’s infanticide novel A Small Madness (Groundwood Books, 2015); and Sharon Biggs Waller’s abortion novel Girls on the Verge (Henry Holt, 2019).  All of these items are catalogued for the children’s and young adult reading audience.

I.  Popular Criticism of the Novels

          Although scholarly criticism is virtually nonexistent, reviews of the novels are provided in the customary periodicals for librarians working with the children’s or young adult demographic, such as Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal.  These reviews, which are available on databases such as Academic Search Premier, show that the reviewers may be more concerned about the political correctivity of the novels and whether they meet anti-life feminist or LGBTQ standards rather than whether the novels constitute literature which exemplifies the traditional transcendentals of the true, the beautiful, and the good.  Since scholarly review of these five titles is rare, this study hopes to fill the gap necessary for evaluation of novels which, while they may not be well written, are popular.[2]  The following collates the reviews of the five novels according to their years of publication.

A.  Dianne Touchell’s A Small Madness

Critics of Touchell’s A Small Madness seem to have more problems with the author’s writing style than the issue of abortion.  For example, Briana Shemroske’s evaluation of the novel soars rhetorically, but misses the essential fact that the novel concerns the abortion of a human being:

Taut family dynamics, crippled relationships, and oppressive insecurities are depicted with painfully palpable candor.  Rife with secrets and impossible burdens, this is a striking story about the mistakes we make, the stigmas we face, and the intangible redemption that comes with honesty.  Tender, terse, and utterly unforgettable.  (106)

In contrast, Elizabeth Saxton avoids the usual paltry criticism of young adult novels by excoriating Touchell’s style and avoidance (or inability) to write about the life-destroying practices of abortion and infanticide, resulting in the final “verdict” which is the customary ending for any novel reviewed in School Library Journal:

Unfortunately, an interesting story is overtaken by shallow characterization, teen voices that do not ring true, and needless and sometimes digressive point-of-view changes.  Readers know only token things about the protagonists beyond the pregnancy, to the point where it is unclear whether Rose has an intellectual disability or is simply an unbelievably naive 17-year-old.  This work reads like a dated Beatrice Sparks–style cautionary tale where teen sex has the worst consequences imaginable and no male character misses a chance to label a girl a slut.  Despite a frustrating lack of detail at the book’s crucial moment, the omniscient narrator’s description is frequently substituted for elements that should be shown through characters’ actions.  VERDICT Not recommended, because of poor narrative style and stock characterizations.

A Kirkus Reviews analysis supports the problem in writing style that Saxton suggests:

Part cautionary tale, part exploration of the madness bred by desperation, this is a difficult but powerful narrative inspired by a true story.  Although it ends in frustrating ambiguity, the story is riveting enough to read in one sitting.

Told with compassion and empathy, a conversation starting look at the dangers of keeping a pregnancy secret.

B.  Elizabeth Keenan’s Rebel Girls

Keenan’s Rebel Girls has received little scholarly attention since its publication in 2019.  Kirkus Reviews offers a flaccid evaluation of the novel:

Beyond the abortion debate, this provides a necessary focus on the importance of young women supporting one another across differences.  Echoing the punk-rock feminist movement of the early ’90s, debut author Keenan creates a timely narrative that will challenge teens to reflect on their personal values and engage in respectful discourse.

Alex Graves’ brief critique of the novel in School Library Journal is much more trenchant:

Stock characters fill most roles, all of whom start and end this politically charged story with the same viewpoints.  Athena handles her relationships with sufficient complexity, but politically she just says the term “riot grrrl” a lot, rather than exemplifying, or even struggling with, its principles.  Though she asks “What would Kathleen Hanna do?” her answers are often superficial.  (123)

C.  Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow

Owen’s The Merciful Crow has received more critical attention, although that attention often scrupulously avoids the right-to-life issue of euthanasia by using the euphemism “showing mercy”, as is the case with Erin Downey, who writes that the main character’s “small band of Crows are tasked with visiting stricken households, disposing of the dead victims, and showing mercy to those near their end” (52).  An even more egregious deflection from the euthanasia intent of the novel is Downey’s emphasis of LGBTQ elements in the work:

One especially nice touch is the baseline assumption that queer characters are so normal in this world as to be a nonissue—one background character, for example, uses they/them pronouns with no fanfare or explanation.  Many readers wouldn’t notice this detail, but queer readers and their allies likely will appreciate it.  (52-3)

While a Publisher’s Weekly review also comments on the LGBTQ element, saying the novel is “filled with diverse characters with fluid sexualities and identities” (94), it comes closer to the subject matter of euthanasia, although using a euphemism and misleading language usually associated with euthanasia: the Crows “alone can safely dispose of plague victims and grant mercy killings to them when appropriate” (94), a review which leaves the reader further wondering what conditions would satisfy the nebulous “when appropriate” language. 

          Similarly, a Kirkus Reviews summary of the novel highlights what it considers positive aspects of the work and the politically-correct axioms of the LGBTQ agenda, but omits the negative subject of euthanasia:

Debut author Owen offers well-balanced worldbuilding and a propulsive plot and excels at tender, intimate moments and complicated, realistic romantic and familial relationships.  Lacking an overt historical or geographic parallel, the tale instead features a cast spectacularly diverse in class, gender, sexual orientation, and race [….]  Rich, harrowing, and unafraid to tackle discrimination [….]

M. J. Franklin uses the common euphemism for euthanasia in a New York Times Book Review critique, but having the phrase in the title of the review clearly identifies for the reader that the subject matter is not “fluid sexualities” or “worldbuilding”: “A teenage mercy killer is out to restore the rightful prince of her plague-ravaged land in this thriller” (22).

D.  Sharon Biggs Waller’s Girls on the Verge

          Criticism of Waller’s Girls on the Verge shares some of the attributes of the feeble reviews already mentioned, but, since the novel responds to anti-life Texas Democrat Wendy Davis, who opposes Texas’ pro-life laws, the political tone of the pro-abortion movement becomes evident in many of the reviews.  The earliest, from Kirkus Reviews, sounds as though it was written as a public relations piece for a pro-abortion organization:

While readers will come to care about the characters and their relationships to some degree, the important informational content takes precedence overall.  Meant to “sound an alarm,” Waller’s […] book is highly informative, filled with frank, detailed descriptions of our nation’s restrictions on reproductive health as well as the emotional and physical experiences of abortion.  A Forever-esque story for reproductive justice, this is a timely and vital book.

Betsy Fraser continues the critique-as-pro-abortion-communique in her review of the book:

This compelling novel opens with a stark and timely reminder of a woman’s right to choose in June 2014, when there were only 19 abortion clinics left in Texas, a state which included five million women of reproductive age.  Waller realistically depicts the 17-year-old’s struggles to get an abortion, from ending up at a clinic where she’s prayed over, with a doctor who won’t do anything without parental consent, to facing a judge who won’t bypass parental consent as he’s sure he’s doing what’s best for her.  This title offers realistic viewpoints on teenage pregnancy, along with what it is like to have the right to choose, wanting that right, and living knowing that you will be judged for having exercised it.

Maggie Reagan continues the attack on Texas’ pro-life laws thus:

Complicating the situation are Texas’ prohibitive abortion laws: it’s a year after Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster and Governor Rick Perry’s restrictive bill.  [….]  The story occasionally has the unnerving feel of a dystopia, despite taking place in the recent past: Camille travels hundreds of miles, crosses into dangerous border towns, and faces the judgment of legal and medical professionals as well as people she knows.  The narrative sometimes treads into the expository, but Camille’s story is absolutely essential [….]  (70)

The only other review of Waller’s novel is an extremely brief entry in School Library Journal which reads as a plot summary more than a critique.  The item does, however, identify the unborn child to be killed as a “baby”: “Camille […] is horrified to find herself pregnant from her first and only sexual encounter, and unwilling to give her future up for a baby with a boy she’s never spoken to again” (66).

E.  Carrie Mesrobian’s The Whitsun Daughters

Abby Hargreaves’ critique of Mesrobian’s The Whitsun Daughters is nebulous, if not rhapsodic: “With touches of magic and a firm hold on the details that make reality real, this balances a historical story alongside something decidedly of today’s era, while making both feel timeless” (68).  Mesrobian’s suffers the same flaccidity in Kirkus Reviews as Keenan’s work, with a crucial difference: it omits the essential fact that Mesrobian’s novel concerns abortion:

Emphasis is placed on the parallels between Jane’s life and the lives of the Whitsun girls: the complexities and joys of love and sex, unplanned pregnancies, mental illness, and the trials that women and girls often endure at the expense of their minds and bodies.

II.  Pro-Life Literary Criticism of the Five Novels

          The five novels studied here could be critiqued from a variety of literary theories used in colleges and universities, but doing so would reduce the commentary to simplistic affirmations or negations of those theories.  For example, all of the novels could claim their support for anti-life feminist acceptance and promotion of abortion as empowerment of women, liberation of girls and young women from oppressive patriarchy, or some other formulation of the novels meeting standard and trite feminist literary theory criteria.  Justifying these feminist terms is best illustrated by the persistent emphasis on “commitment to the riot grrrl revolution’s feminist message” in Keenan’s Rebel Girls (13).

Similarly, all of the novels could be examined from a Marxist perspective, and a politically leftist academic or reader would have no problem in determining that the novels are solidly in the camp of the ideological resister of oppressive capitalist forces in society.  Waller’s Girls on the Verge best justifies the application of Marxist literary theory; the novel’s reviewers note that it is a novel supporting Wendy Davis’ claim that Texas pro-life laws are somehow oppressive and not protective, especially of young women who lack the means for the “empowerment” which is supposedly gained when an unborn child is killed in abortion.

These are only two examples to illustrate how applying the standard literary theories to these novels becomes a simple reduction of whether or not the novels comport with feminist, Marxist, or other literary theories.  Much more interesting and productive would be determining whether the five novels can be evaluated from a right-to-life perspective.

I have proposed elsewhere[3] five questions which are designed to stimulate discussion of controversial literature on the life issues much more comprehensively.  Briefly, the questions concern whether the literary work argues for the pricelessness of human life, whether the work respects the individual as someone who has an inherent right to life, whether the work respects heterosexual normativity, how the work depicts human life at various stages, and whether characters realize the divine presence in the world as they face their mortality.  Each of these questions will now be asked of the five novels under discussion.

A.  The Pricelessness of Human Life

          One would find it difficult to determine if any passage in any of the five novels support the idea that human life is priceless.  Certainly, the life of the unborn or newborn child is not valued, so the reader must conclude that the born characters must find their own lives worth living.  This is not the case, however, since no character seems to rejoice in being alive.  Rather, life is more drudgery than opportunity to make a positive contribution in the world.

          Complicating the matter are two aspects which affect the ability to determine if the five novels evaluate human life as priceless: first, the ambiguity and distortion of the feminist agenda, as in Keenan’s Rebel Girls, and, second, the aggressive personalities of characters (such as Fie, the main character in Owen’s The Merciful Crow) which obscure whether they are capable of experiencing genuine love.

          Answering this question with Keenan’s Rebel Girls in mind is more complex than a simple affirmation or negation.  Athena, the narrator, says that she has a “commitment to the riot grrrl revolution’s feminist message” (13).  Even though her response is an example of the begging the question logical fallacy, the illogicality of her statement can be resolved here.

          First, of course, a character who explicitly argues that anything other than declaring that human life is a priceless good has already disavowed the pricelessness of human life.  Granted, affirming the “riot grrrl revolution’s feminist message” does not exclude affirming human life as a priceless good in the philosophical sense.  Given the context, though, the educated reader knows that the “feminist message” that Athena stipulates is contrary to a life-affirming respect for human life.  Readers know that, absent being clearly identified as pro-life feminism, contemporary feminism supports abortion and rejects the role of the father in any abortion decision.

          Even Athena’s litany of riot grrrl beliefs is either naïve or dishonest, since she does not mention abortion or the customary euphemism used by anti-life feminists, “reproductive rights”, when the only item in the litany which comes close to the topic of abortion is listed.  “I knew what the riot grrrl ideals were,” she declares; “Claiming your sexuality, no matter what that meant to you, was a good thing.  And the revolution was open to anyone” (19).

          Moreover, readers should understand that those characters who support “the riot grrrl revolution’s feminist message” place themselves in positions of power over the unborn child.  In essence, the characters who support abortion decide that they are superior human beings.  Their rejection of unborn human life based on their position of privilege and power over the unborn makes them contemporary eugenicists, like the eugenicists of the early twentieth century who subordinated African Americans and immigrants from southern Europe as inferior beings—the same positions that Margaret Sanger, founder of the abortion business Planned Parenthood, held.  Thus, affirming the pricelessness of human life is impossible for anybody who commits to the grrl revolution version of feminist philosophy.[4]

          Understanding the view that the main character Fie, the lead character in Owen’s The Merciful Crow, has towards human life is challenging since is a belligerent, angry, and often dour sixteen-year-old teenager.  (How appropriately, then, is this character named!)  Fie is often sarcastic, arrogant, and belligerent, especially toward “pretty boys”: “Half of her wanted to slap him” (105).  While these personality traits may be the author’s effort to depict Fie as a strong young woman, able to maneuver in a male world (a standard feminist trope), they may instead obscure her belief that some human lives (particularly, male ones) are not as valuable as hers.  Certainly, the antagonism between her “nation” (the Crows who kill people afflicted with the plague) and the monarchy and its supporting aristocracy suggests not merely distrust between social castes, but also a deeper belief of the inequality of human beings.

          More profoundly, Owen’s setting is a pagan fantasy world of indeterminate chronology where traditional ideas long established in the West are no longer valid.  Where contemporary society does not consider disease the result of sin, characters in Owens’ novel identify plague victims as “sinners”; in fact, the causal relationship is replaced with the equation that disease (such as the plague) equals sin: “the Crows had true sinners to burn” (74).

B.  Respect for the Individual’s Right to Life

          Like other anti-life fiction, all of the novels considered here respect only those individuals who are born and either ignore or devalue the lives of unborn human beings.  Moreover, the violence evident in some of the works suggests that the respect for born characters is tenuous.  This is most evident in Owen’s The Merciful Crow, where the killings of plague victims indicate that palliative care is unheard of for those suffering with the disease and where constant antagonism between the nation of Crows (the euthanasia killers) led by Fie and aristocratic forces often leads to warfare.

In fact, a distorted sense of “nationalism” in the novel controls most moral actions, exemplified by the refrain that runs throughout the text of serving “the nation” first (318).  Thus, human lives are subordinate to the state, a political position in Owen’s fantasy world approximating the anti-life ideologies of communism or Nazism, which claimed millions of lives in our real world.

C.  Heterosexual Normativity and Integrity of the Family

          As is typical of most young adult novels aimed to hook teens into reading (an admittedly difficult task, as every secondary teacher and college faculty can attest) by titillating them with sexuality in fiction, sex is just an activity, not the sexual union of a husband and wife for the purposes of obtaining pleasure and being open to reproduction.  For example, Touchell’s A Small Madness exemplifies the characteristics of all of these young adult attitudes about sex.  After the first sexual activity scene (9), Rose’s friend Liv offers the controlling perspective in the novel that Rose “should have had sex by now [….] everyone else had had sex” (12).  Although Michael, Rose’s lover, has a brother, Tim, who concedes that men must obtain permission from girls before having sex with them, the young people’s thinking about sex is further muddled when Tim thinks that Michael should first have sex with a “slut” (15).  To reinforce the characters’ myopic views about sex, Liv is “happy” about Rose’s fornication and thinks that condoms are the answer to avoiding pregnancy and enjoying sexual activity (34-5).  Given such negative and hedonistic views about sex, it is no wonder, then, that Michael thinks that pregnancy is a “mistake” (79).

          The related matter of this question (the integrity of the family) is further challenged in these novels.  The heterosexual normativity of Athena’s, the main character’s, family in Keenan’s Rebel Girls is typical.  While Athena subscribes to “the riot grrrl revolution’s feminist message” (see above), Athena’s sister Helen is pro-life, and her mother is anti-life.  The ideologies of her divorced parents are exemplified by the following: her father is a social justice Catholic (“We didn’t go to church on Sunday or anything”; 33), and Athena’s mother’s reaction to her having a boyfriend is to send her “a box of condoms or another copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves” (40).

          Despite the myopic feminism which surrounds most female characters in these five novels, heterosexual normativity cannot be avoided.  For example, Athena acts like a stereotypical girl around a young man who fascinates her: “I seemed to forget everything about being a feminist when I was around him” (77).  When Kyle, the teenaged boy whom Athena falls for, kisses her, they go “to the rec room’s aging leather couch” (115) where they were “making out” (117).  Athena’s angst for seeming to abandon her misandrist feminism occurs throughout the novel.  “I felt like a bad feminist for caring that people saw I was on a date with a hot guy”, she says [198].  Later she asks, “Was it supposed to make me feel better to be validated by a guy’s agreement?” (215), a situation which she concludes is a “patriarchal conspiracy” (216).

D.  The Inherent Right to Exist of the Unborn, Newborn, and Mature Adults

          Most of the novels studied here engage in standard dehumanization, notably the use of the third-person pronoun singular “it” to refer to the unborn child.  A few examples will illustrate how pervasive this dehumanization is.

          While one use of “it” in Touchell’s A Small Madness is ambiguous (whether the term refers to the teens’ reactions about the pregnancy in general or to the unborn child him- or herself; see page 64), the uses of “it” to refer to the unborn child are extensive, closely followed by “thing” as another term to demean the unborn child.

          Liv, the best friend of Rose, the aborted mother, suggests that she “get rid of it” (56).  Rose thinks the baby is not already, but “would […] become a real thing” (56).  Michael, Rose’s lover and father of the child, also queries, “Could they get rid of it?” (58).  Rose thinks of the baby as “the thing” and “it” (67).  Michael calls the unborn child an “it” who is now “like a manatee in his spinal fluid” (85).  When she thinks she is not pregnant but just has a delayed period, Rose declares that “I just created this thing in my mind” (115).  After she miscarries, Rose simply states that “It went away” (124).  When Michael and she reflect on what to do with the child’s body, Rose commands Michael, “Bring it to me”; “’It must be buried,’ Rose said again” (126; italics in original).  Looking at the corpse of the child, Rose calls her “the tiny gray thing” (128).  Even when he is drunk, Michael obsesses over the child’s burial, saying, “We buried it” (159).

          Two of Touchell’s items of dehumanizing language towards the unborn child are certainly unique: snot and virus.  Michael compares having an abortion to “picking your nose” (58).  Certainly, likening his own unborn child (daughter) to snot says a great deal about this wayward young man.

          Equating the unborn child to a virus continues a long-established trend in the fictional anti-life lexicon.  Michael concludes that his father’s disappointment in him is “just as much a virus as this thing inside of Rose” (62).  He repeats the metaphor later, referring to “this virus inside her” (82).  Rose herself uses this metaphor often, as when she says, “I have a virus in me” (97) during pregnancy and “The virus had gone away” (172) after she miscarries.

          Athena in Keenan’s Rebel Girls makes her ethical stance clear regarding the right to life of the unborn child when she states, “There wasn’t anything wrong with having an abortion” (95).  Later, she will lapse into a euphemism when she tells a classmate who was an abortion clinic escort that it must be “rewarding to help everyone” (238), “help” neutralizing and replacing the killing which occurs in every abortion.

          Given her strong pro-abortion position, it is out of character, then, for the reader to see that Athena is shocked at seeing pictures of fetuses looking like babies: “Fetuses that didn’t look like the nebulous tadpole creatures I was used to seeing in biology books, but baby-like.  Even the tiniest of fetuses looked like a chubby newborn” (139).

          Waller’s Girls on the Verge continues the dehumanization of the unborn child to be aborted, where Camille directly states that she wants to “get rid of it” (22).  She further shows her ignorance of biology when she asserts, with two more rapid uses of the depersonalized pronoun, “Stop saying baby!  It’s not a baby; and it never will be” (28; italics in original).  Camille’s stammer regarding how an abortifacient would affect her is a stylistic feature the author uses to denote the hesitation that anyone should experience over this moral issue: “I need to be near a toilet because…because.” (78; ellipsis in original).

          As is typical of most abortion novels, especially those written for the young adult audience, the killing of the child in Waller’s novel occurs in a brief paragraph which, although it attempts to suggest that abortion is easy, defies the truth of any abortion and attempts to nullify the post-abortion syndrome trauma that mothers who have aborted experience:

          Dr. Maria inserts something in me.  I feel a pressure in my stomach followed by a pain that feels like the worst period cramps I’ve ever had.  But the pain only lasts a few seconds.  My paper drape rustles, and I feel the doctor’s hands as she helps me put my legs down.

          “You’re all done now, Camille.”  (213)

Note how the painful killing of the unborn child is obscured behind “the pain” that the mother herself feels, the verb “feel” repeated several times.

          Disrespect for mature human life is obvious in Owen’s The Merciful Crow.  The euthanasia killings of plague victims begins as the first sentence on the first page (“Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats” 3), continues to an instance where a plague victim’s throat was cut (“There was a savage jerk.  The sinner died smiling” 65), and advances to another instance where cutting someone’s throat is euphemistically called having “dealt mercy” (205).

E.  Realizing the Divine Presence When Faced with Mortality

          Religious influences are rare to find in the five novels, unless they are used to mock Christians who advocate a pro-life position or to denigrate a character’s upbringing.  This lack of religious sensibility has always been a common universal aspect of abortion fiction written for adults and has increasingly become a constituent feature of abortion fiction written for children and young adults.

          Having established this lack of religious training, the first clause of the question to be asked of the five novels leads to a similarly striking feature: virtually all of the young adult characters in the five novels do not consider their own mortality, not even the mothers who contemplate abortion as a possible risky surgical or chemical abortion procedure.  In fact, four of the five novels concern teen mothers seeking surgical abortion, which is decreasing as the favored means to abort, being replaced with chemical abortions.

          The exception is Mesrobian’s The Whitsun Daughters, where the chemical abortion spans fifty pages and is depicted contrary to the experience of other mothers who aborted using RU-486 or other abortifacients.  Where the aborting mother in Mesrobian’s novel simply states, “The cramps are bad” (155), Abby Johnson described the pain involved in her chemical abortion as “sheer agony” (47).  That authors would gloss over women’s pain in chemical abortions is not only unconscionable, but also fatal to fiction which strives for realism in contemporary abortion decisions.

          The religious influences that do exist to help characters perceive a divine presence in the world are superficial.  For example, Michael, a character in Touchell’s A Small Madness, gets his morals from film (17), even though he was supposedly raised in a religious family (49).  His father, presumably, is depicted as a fundamentalist Christian (63).  On the specific religious matter of life after death, whether those characters believe in an afterlife is not affirmed, but ambiguously suggested.  For example, Liv, a character in Touchell’s A Small Madness declares that “life was just too damn short” (30).  However, this statement is ambiguous; calling life brief could indicate either that one appreciates every moment of life before death or that the only life one has is his or her current existence.  Similarly, a religious sense is replaced in Keenan’s Rebel Girls with another means of technology.  When Athena “needed some inspiration”, she goes to her records (118).

          Although the main characters in Touchell’s novel do not perceive any divine presence as a result of the mortality of their dead child, it is interesting that Rose is becoming “disconnected” and “more detached and confused” (172) after the death and burial of the child.  Moreover, when the police come to speak with Rose, this thrust into reality is called “this disconnection” (181); Rose is now a “vacuous caricature” (186).  Whatever personality disintegration has occurred, Rose is sane enough to sense “relief” from Michael after he apparently confessed his part in the child’s burial to police (189).

          If the worldview of Keenan’s novel is difficult to identify, then that of Owen’s The Merciful Crow is slightly more identifiable.  Religious elements are mentioned throughout the sprawling novel, but none seems to be the controlling religious or ethical force in the characters’ lives.  References to “god-grave shrines” (21) and that a “Covenant” was made between the gods and humans (49-50), even abbreviated terms like “viatik” (a truncation perhaps of the Latin term “viaticum” 194), suggest that Owen’s fictional world has some religious foundation.  However, since the chronology is uncertain (is the novel set in pre-history or a futuristic society?), the reader is bereft of certainty about the source of the characters’ life-and-death decisions.  Not even the ambiguous “Code” casually referenced throughout the novel is explained.

III.  Further Commentary of the Five Novels

          The following general comments are further reactions to the five novels.  They are designed to enhance the above commentary and to assist pro-life readers in their own efforts to critique and publish book reviews of literature which uses the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia as its subject matter.

A.  Dianne Touchell’s A Small Madness

          Touchell’s A Small Madness is a well-written novel with both standard and clever dehumanizing language used by abortion supporters.  Touchell continues the dehumanizing technique made famous by Ernest Hemingway (calling the unborn child an “it”), and she adds several new twists to the anti-life/pro-abortion dehumanizing lexicon.

          What critics have not yet commented on, however, is that Rose clearly manifests post-abortion syndrome (PAS).  The novel is not a typical teen abortion work, where the mother goes to an abortion clinic to have the child killed.  Rose is miscarrying the child, so the abortion occurring in this novel is not an elective, but a spontaneous abortion, morally neutral.  What may interest the reader more, though, is determining whether Rose’s intention and efforts to kill the unborn child herself (by smoking, depriving herself of food, etc.) meet the criteria of moral culpability in the child’s killing.  What is even more important in supporting the claim of PAS is that Rose follows a trajectory of personality defragmentation after the miscarriage and after the police come to speak with her on finding the baby’s body which the teens buried in an empty lot.

B.  Elizabeth Keenan’s Rebel Girls

          Keenan’s Rebel Girls is a chore and a bore, an unconvincing plot which is more a 412-page psychiatric case study of a teen girl suffering from an outdated anti-life version of feminist ideology who discovers her innate heterosexual normativity.  Essentially, Athena, the first-person narrator who is anti-life, wants to help her pro-life sister Helen overcome rumors circulating in their high school that Helen had an abortion, which would ban her from being part of the Homecoming.

          The essence of this plot was identified on page 95.  By page 369, the reader understands that all it took to overcome a teacher’s ban preventing Helen from being in the Homecoming was a call from her father to the principal.  Towards the end of the novel (page 402), Sr. Catherine, dean of discipline at the high school, vows not to expel another student who had aborted, so there was no issue worth writing about anyway.  Why, then, should any pro-lifer read 307 pages of a severely introspective unconvincing plot?

          Furthermore, Athena’s preaching about abortion is equally unnecessary.  Athena mentions “abortion rights” (22), and so, being a typical anti-life feminist, Athena felt the need to talk about a pro-life crisis pregnancy center as a “fake abortion clinic” (61).  Worst of all is Athena’s claim that “There wasn’t anything wrong with having an abortion” (95)—a statement willfully ignoring post-abortion syndrome which, even in the novel’s setting of 1992, was obvious for mothers who chose abortion instead of one of several life-affirming options.

          Athena may have committed an egregious Freudian slip when she admitted that the novel’s entire abortion language is unnecessary to the feeble plot.  When she and her friend enter the crisis pregnancy center, Athena lets slip that “none of this was really related to Helen, other than the associated topic of abortion” (135).  This novel, then, is not about “abortion stigma” ([419]) or feminist empowerment of women (which is a pro-life concept).  Why, then, talk about abortion at all?  The reader would counter that it would have been better just to narrate the story of a teenage girl who addressed rumors which were responsible for preventing her from going to Homecoming.

          Of course, the real purpose of Keenan’s novel is political.  Athena goes into an anti-Republican rant when she claims that “Republicans were priming the nation for a fascist dictatorship” (53).  The author herself declares her pro-abortion position.  Thus, it is simply typical that a pro-abortion writer must ignore contemporary pro-life achievements and turn to 1992 (nearly thirty years ago) to force abortion into a novel merely concerned with a vapid Homecoming.

C.  Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow

          The 369 pages of Owen’s The Merciful Crow are difficult to plow through.  Although the plot is tedious and implausible, and the text could be rewritten in detailed paragraphs instead of one-liners, readers can use some ideas from this novel to promote pro-life views about the sanctity of human life and the importance of heterosexual normativity.

          The sematic distortion in the novel is obvious.  Just as euthanasia supporters try to rename the killing of the elderly and the medically vulnerable as “death with dignity” or some other euphemism, the main characters in Owen’s novel give “mercy” to persons either suffering from illness or dying.  The Crows do not provide mercy, of course; they kill the people.  Pro-lifers can use this novel as an example of the linguistic distortion used to kill humans in an ancient pagan, albeit fantasy, world.

          A major problem of the novel is conceptual.  If Fie, the main character, has the power to create magic to make herself and others invisible to her enemies or to heal wounds obtained in battles, then why could she not use her magic skills to provide palliative care for or outright cure those who are terminally ill?

          Moreover, Fie’s knowledge of herbal sources used as either contraceptives or menstrual aids (171) indicates that even the pagan world in which Fie lives has great knowledge of natural remedies.  Why, then, could her society not have discovered a natural palliative to relieve the pain of those in a terminal condition?

          Furthermore, perhaps the reason why Fie is so belligerent and angry throughout the novel is that she is stuck in the caste of being a killer.  Her character comports with the contemporary view that abortionists and euthanasia supporters are incredibly unhappy people.

          On the lighter side, the sex scene between Fie and Tavin is comedy at its best, thunder and all (241-243).  Yes, it is supposed to be titillating and probably is for young adult readers; mature persons, of course, would read these pages and laugh.

          Besides being humorous, this sex scene reinforces heterosexual normativity.  Fie and Tavin are not moral exemplars; they are typical teens who think that sex is just an activity to generate pleasure instead of the expression of love between married persons.  It is extremely interesting, therefore, to see how the ever-snotty Fie has softened under the influence of having sex with a male (254).  Similarly, heterosexual normativity transforms Tavin’s idea about his purpose in life from a negative to a more positive one (243).

          Whether promoting these pro-life ideas and heterosexual normativity was the author’s purposes or not (the book jacket identifies Owen as someone who raises “money for social justice nonprofits”), pro-life readers can find much in the novel to show how humans who are in pain or afflicted with disease should not be killed.  Rather, their pain should be alleviated and their illnesses cured.

D.  Sharon Biggs Waller’s Girls on the Verge

          If she reduced her 221-page Girls on the Verge teen abortion novel 90%, Waller would have matched Ernest Hemingway’s famous abortion short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Unfortunately, the reduction would not have improved the work; it would still be tedious and trite.

          Educated readers have read stories like this before, and the plot is getting tedious.  Camille is a pregnant teen mother who wants to kill the unborn baby using abortifacients and corrals her friends into helping her buy the drugs.  When the abortifacients fail to kill the child, she succeeds in having an office of the abortion business Planned Parenthood kill the unborn child.  Not even the anti-male bias of the characters, or their angry feminism, or their “situation” (Camille lives in Texas, which has protective legislation to stop abortion as far as constitutionally permitted) changes the fact that this is just another teen abortion story.

          Fortunately for the pro-life movement, however, Waller’s novel shows how distortion of language is absolutely necessary to promote an anti-life narrative from an anti-life author.  (Waller states that she is a volunteer for the abortion business Planned Parenthood [223].)  The distortion of language is something pro-lifers can use as teachable moments to persuade mothers to reject abortion.

          A significant stylistic feature is that the novel uses pauses and ellipses to show that even an anti-life author like Waller has her characters hesitate using the word “abortion” or any word referring to the unborn child, usually called a “fetus.”  Waller uses the technique of literary “stuttering” or “stammering” in several places.  Camille’s abortifacients would have her deliver the child: “I need to be near a toilet because…because” (78; ellipsis in original, and the sentence ends with terminal punctuation after the repeated subordinating conjunction).  Camille’s friend Bea asks, “How big will it be? […] “The…you know” (78; ellipsis in original).  Bea’s hesitancy in talking about the unborn child to be killed by abortifacients continues: “to cover the, uh, you know—” (197).

          An egregious linguistic slip occurs when Camille comments on a time “when you can feel the baby kick” (178).  Was this deliberate, a Freudian slip, or an error on the part of the virulently pro-abortion author?

          If the author’s stated intention is to help mothers and young women boast about the abortion killings, then these characters have far to go to force themselves into thinking that the medical assault called abortion is a good thing.  Moreover, the characters of this anti-life work must, of course, utter the standard canards of ignorance of bodily difference and that abortion is something which affects only the mother’s body.  For example, Camille’s friend Annabelle (a stridently anti-male feminist who volunteers for the abortion business Planned Parenthood) utters her ignorance when she says, “It’s none of my business what you do with your body” (105).

          Even Camille, rabid teen anti-life feminist that she is, cannot escape post-abortion syndrome (PAS), as is evident when she rhetorically asks, “How do you deal with awful things that happen?  How do you forget them?” (199).  It is obvious, then, that she will never “forget” the abortion killing which she arranges.

          Pro-lifers who are more activist, such as protesters outside the offices of the abortion business Planned Parenthood, will be greatly encouraged by two statements in the “Author’s Note” about the effectiveness of pro-life picketing.  “Despite our best efforts to shield patients,” Waller writes, “they can’t help but notice the protesters” (224).  Waller testifies to the effectiveness of pro-life protesters again when she writes that “the political anti-choice [pro-life] movement is strong.  There are protesters at nearly every abortion clinic” (225).

          While the novel can be read in several hours, it is still a feeble plot and may lead to the conclusion that it is not worth the time.  Pro-life activists, however, can use it as further evidence that anti-life authors continue to use the same standard and tiresome literary strategies to dehumanize the unborn child.  They can also be encouraged that their witnessing outside abortion clinics accomplishes the great effect of saving lives, both the mother’s and the unborn child’s.

E.  Carrie Mesrobian’s The Whitsun Daughters

          The masturbation scenes in Mesrobian’s The Whitsun Daughters are titillating but not as remarkable as the euphemisms hiding the chemical abortion plot.  Of course, the scenes which abuse male sexual power are meant for the sexually immature (teens or young adult readers).  Serious readers (everybody else) can use Mesrobian’s fiction as yet more evidence of the linguistic gymnastics, if not duplicity, which pro-abortion characters use to promote a practice which harms mothers, kills unborn children (whether surgically or, as in this case, chemically with abortifacients), and alienates fathers.

          The euphemisms to refer to the killing practice called “abortion” are numerous.  Daisy, a main character, expresses surprise that “the things required to unmake a pregnancy would be sold someplace as ordinary as Walmart” (84).  “Unmake a pregnancy” is a novel euphemism containing not only one logical fallacy, being the question.  (Exactly how was that pregnancy made in the first place and what or who was made in that pregnancy?)  The phrase also contains a negation which should provoke the reader to ask, if a pregnancy can be unmade, then the pregnancy existed before being unmade, and, if it existed, then an unborn child existed in that pregnancy.

          Daisy’s claim that her aunt “knows someone who—” (87) with the dash indicating that the sentence is unfinished is a literary technique other writers have used to hide the fact that characters are talking about, yet again, abortion.

          The chemical killing of Lilah’s unborn child is discussed with the usual impersonal third-person pronouns and deceptive language.  “It’s starting”, Poppy says, using “it” to refer to the abortion (155).  Poppy “explained […] that it would be slowly happening now, the lining shedding in layers of blood and tissue” (157).  “It”, of course, refers to the abortion, and “the lining shedding” obscures the fact that it is not only “the lining” which is “shedding” but the unborn child him- or herself who is being killed by “shedding” along with the “lining” and “tissue.”

          Daisy’s boyfriend Hugh asks if her sister is “not-pregnant” (160).  The narrator records Daisy’s reactions that “whatever lived inside in Lilah began its descent” (162).  Translation: the dead body of the unborn child, now separated from his or her warm and life-giving uterus and therefore dead, is being passed out of that uterus, thanks to an abortifacient drug which his or her aunt gave to his or her mother.

          One character’s Freudian slip—“to get rid of the baby” (174)—is quickly covered by deceptive abortion language a page later when Lilah talks about what some mothers did to “expel the contents of the uterus” (175).

          Just like other abortion novels, whether written for teens or adults, post-abortion syndrome is obvious even here, in a novel whose characters clearly do not advance pro-life ideas and are hostile to religious persons who are pro-life.  Typical of mothers who have aborted, Lilah seems happy after her abortion (197), but Jane’s last reminiscence, which closes the novel, suggests that Lilah suffers from post-abortion syndrome: “She thinks of the babe she did not have; she ponders names late at night in bed, her eyes on the once-fractured seam in the celling.  When I watch her, I find myself remembering what I cannot reclaim.  It is the closest I can come to human pain now” (208).  This is not literary evidence of abortion which is supposed to make a woman happy.  It is, obviously, literary evidence of post-abortion syndrome.

          Overall, Mesrobian’s work could suggest a fascinating paper for a pro-life student to write about the dishonest language which abortion-minded characters and authors use to dehumanize the unborn child, to suppress evidence of post-abortion syndrome, and to ignore the role of the father.

IV.  Final Comments

Self-righteous, oblivious to diversity of ideas (such as there being a pro-life perspective on ethical issues), and trying yet failing to use the tired tropes of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia narratives to a twenty-first century readership, contemporary feminist authors have generated some novels which induce somnolence more than lively interest in their narratives.  Moreover, contrary to some of their expressed goals, their novels generate respect for life instead of activism for the three categories of killing which affect millions of human beings.

When society recognizes that support for abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia belongs in the trash bin of history as much as slavery of Africans or the aggressive LGBTQ agenda which distorts heterosexual normativity, the anti-life feminist novels studied here will be added to the long list of literary works whose dehumanizing ideology results in the deaths of millions of human beings.  While these novels seem to bolster the fabricated “right” to abort an unborn baby, to kill a newborn child, or to deny palliative care to a terminally-ill or medically vulnerable person, one hopes that contemporary readers can identify the dehumanization in the novels and reject it.

Works Cited

Downey, Erin. [Review of The Merciful Crow]. School Library Journal, vol. 65, no 6, July 2019, pp. 52-3.

Franklin, M. J. “A Teenage Mercy Killer Is out to Restore the Rightful Prince of Her Plague-Ravaged Land in This Thriller.” New York Times Book Review, 25 August 2019, p. 22.

Fraser, Betsy. [Review of Girls on the Verge]. School Library Journal, vol. 65, no. 1, February 2019, p. 78.

Girls on the Verge (book review). Kirkus Reviews, vol. 87, no. 4, 15 February 2019.

Girls on the Verge (book review). School Library Journal, vol. 65, no. 12, winter 2020, p. 66.

Graves, Alex. [Review of Rebel Girls]. School Library Journal, vol. 65, no. 8, Sept. 2019, p. 123.

Hargreaves, Abby. [Review of The Whitsun Daughters]. Booklist, vol. 116, no. 21, 1 July 2020, p. 68.

Irving, John. Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. Arcade, 1996.

Johnson, Abby. Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line. Ignatius Press, 2010.

Keenan, Elizabeth. Rebel Girls (Inkyard Press, 2019).

Koloze, Jeff.  “Cinematic Treatment of Abortion: Alfie (1965) and The Cider House Rules (1999).” Proceedings of the Sixteenth University Faculty for Life Conference at Villanova University, 2006. Ed. Joseph W. Koterski. Washington, DC: University Faculty for Life, 2007. 463-78.

—. “Right-to-Life Issues in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature.” University Faculty for Life: UFL Life and Learning Conference XXVIII. http://www.uffl.org/pdfs/vol28/UFL_2018_Koloze.pdf.

The Merciful Crow [book review]. Kirkus Reviews, vol. 87, no. 11, 1 June 2019.

The Merciful Crow [book review]. Publishers Weekly, vol. 266, no. 21, 27 May 2019, p. 94.

Mesrobian, Carrie. The Whitsun Daughters. Dutton Books, 2020.

Owen, Margaret. The Merciful Crow (Henry Holt, 2019).

Reagan, Maggie. [Review of Girls on the Verge]. Booklist, vol. 115, no. 15, 1 April 2019, p. 70.

Rebel Girls (book review). Kirkus Reviews, vol. 87, no. 15, 1 August 2019.

“The Riot Grrrl Revolution.” Equality Archive, 2021, https://equalityarchive.com/issues/riot-grrrl-revolution/.

Saxton, Elizabeth. [Review of A Small Madness]. School Library Journal, vol. 62, no. 5, May 2016, p. 122.

Shemroske, Briana. Booklist, vol. 112, no. 19/20, 1 June 2016, p. 106.

A Small Madness (book review). Kirkus Reviews, vol. 84, no. 7, 1 April 2016, p. 107.

Touchell, Dianne. A Small Madness (Groundwood Books, 2015).

Waller, Sharon Biggs. Girls on the Verge (Henry Holt, 2019).

The Whitsun Daughters [book review]. Kirkus Reviews, vol. 88, no. 12, 15 June 2020.


[1] In “My Dinner at the White House”, Irving admits that he “gave a rousing speech in favor of abortion rights, and lambasting [President] George Bush—from an exclusively Planned Parenthood perspective, mind you” (166).

I have argued in “Cinematic Treatment of Abortion: Alfie (1965) and The Cider House Rules (1999)” that, although The Cider House Rules is an abortion novel whose ideological message is that that life-denying practice must remain legal, both the novel and film can be used as evidence affirming the pro-life principle that abortion destroys lives more than liberates women.

[2] As of July 2021, all five novels are held by 2,008 library systems, with Owen’s The Merciful Crow having the highest count of 754 libraries.  Amazon’s Best Sellers Rank ranges from the low of Touchell’s A Small Madness (3,528,291) to the high of Owen’s The Merciful Crow (54,049).

[3] See my “Right-to-Life Issues in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature.”

[4] The possible exception is that one can subscribe to the music generated by grrrl bands without necessarily accepting the anti-life positions of the lyrics of grrrl band songs—this, despite the fact that such bands are no longer part of the music scene, just as rap is giving way to trap as a dominant music genre.  Appreciating grrrl band music is consistent with the idea that a literary artifact, even an anti-life one, can be studied and appreciated for its intrinsic merits.

Moreover, like other anti-life feminist movements, the rabid pro-abortion positions of the “riot grrrl” blip in feminist history can be found only on sites which use the euphemism “reproductive rights” for the killing procedure called abortion.  See, for example, Equality Archive’s mention of “bands and fans [who] rallied together at reproductive rights benefits and demonstrations and held lively discussions, refusing to be left out of the larger political conversation.”

Categories
Papers

Literary Analysis of Abortion in the Short Story “Explosions” by Mo Yan of the People’s Republic of China

Abstract:  This paper reviews demographic considerations of abortion and the one-child policy in the People’s Republic of China which form the basis for contemporary literary works which concern abortion.  After a brief discussion of other fictional works, the paper focuses on abortion passages in the short story “Explosions” (1985) by Mo Yan.[1]  The literature is reviewed using formalist explication and aspects of reception theory.

Keywords: Chinese literature, abortion, criticism

          A review of any literary work on abortion in the People’s Republic of China presents researchers with an immediate problem.  Should discussing the topic rely on sociological documentation of abortion as practiced on the mainland, or does another perspective apply?  Can one take strictly a political view towards the matter, or does one need to consider factors usually associated with other literary theories, such as the role of women from a feminist literary viewpoint or the confrontation of ideologies from a Marxist perspective—the latter being the literary theory one would almost automatically think would apply when speaking about life in Communist China?  For purposes of this study, the practices of formalist explication combined with reception theory seem to be the optimum means by which selected literary artifacts will be evaluated, primarily because the theories can afford American researchers and students of literature insights into the interaction of the ideological confrontation between official, received statements on one of the most controversial matters in the Chinese world (national policies on birth control and reproductive rights when confronted with failed birth control leading to abortion) and the notions held by millions of Chinese whose attitudes and opinions towards compulsory birth control and forced abortion are becoming increasingly evident in the West.

Abortion and Demographic Concerns in the PRC

          The number of annual abortions performed in the People’s Republic is staggering, estimated by Aird (1990)[2] at eight million per year between 1971-1985 for a total of 111,960,987 abortions (p. 40).  Other sources indicate the figure is close to thirteen million annual abortions currently versus twenty million live births; thus, about 40% of all pregnancies per year are aborted (Canaves, 2009).[3]  What is perhaps most curious about the number of abortions performed is that the wide practice of abortion in China is the result neither of a history of abortion agitation, nor conflicting official pre-1949 medical commentary on the acceptance of abortion as an ordinary medical practice.  In fact, if the exploration of Nie (2005)[4] into Buddhist and Confucian respect for pre-natal life is accepted, then Chinese history argues against such an openness towards abortion.[5]  Countering claims that abortion in China was implicitly allowed because there was no clear prohibition against it, Nie further argues that

While it is true that the early medical literature rarely if ever explicitly proscribes performing abortion, this should probably not be interpreted as representing a permissive attitude on the part of ancient doctors.  Rather, the silence is likely to indicate that medical abortion was regarded as so obviously unethical that there was no need to include it in lists of professional precepts, just as medical ethics documents whether ancient or modern rarely explicitly state that physicians should not murder or kill.  (p. 78)

As early as the late 1970s scholars had discussed demographic changes in the PRC and considered the consequences of several official policies designed to curtail population growth, including compulsory birth control and abortion of a second child.  While pointing out that official population figures were difficult to determine (since the PRC had not devoted sufficient resources to determine the extent of population growth after the founding of the nation and because of censorship[6]), Aird (1982)[7] had commented on the disastrous effects that complete implementation of the one-child policy would have on China:

There are some disadvantages to a too-rapid reduction in fertility.  Sudden changes in the size of age cohorts cause similar changes in the demand for age-related goods and services, in the facilities and personnel that provide them, and in the allocation of resources that they require—changes that can result in dislocations and inefficiencies that adversely affect national development.  Both Lin and Liu have indicated that the Chinese family planning authorities do not expect or want to achieve the sudden, universal adoption of the one-child family because they are aware of the problems of a distorted age-sex structure; but family planning propaganda and some of the provincial family planning regulations convey a different impression.  (p. 289)[8]

          Contemporary scholars often elaborate the effects of these policies within the larger context of their areas of studies, whether political or social criticism.[9]  Pronouncements from the PRC itself ratify the notion that China is experiencing a dire population situation.  The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America states that

Some lawmakers and family planning officials support [a law explicitly banning sex-selective abortions] because of the serious imbalance in the ratio of genders in the population.  China has 119 boys born for every 100 girls, much higher than the global ratio of 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls.[10]

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences confirmed this gender imbalance in a January 2010 report, which “indicates the figure has climbed to 120 boys born for every 100 girls as of 2006 and says that, by the end of 2008, there were 38 million more men in China than women born after 1980” (Ertelt).[11]

Literary Response to Abortion in the PRC

          What is perhaps the most noticeable feature of abortion in the PRC is the silence attending it at the popular level.  In virtually every other nation abortion as a political issue rouses intense passions; demonstrations on both sides of the issue and legislative efforts to address abortion matters are standard events elsewhere.  Many scholars, including Mosher (1993)[12] and Nie (2005), have argued that fear of the consequences of speaking against official abortion policy may account for the inaccurate perception that abortion enjoys apparent support in the PRC.

          There are, however, emerging voices of dissent towards the national policies on reproductive matters, and their presence is significant given the new liberty of thought finding its expression in literary matters, which is a relatively recent phenomenon in the PRC.  Mo Yan[13] (2001) asserts this renaissance of liberated thought about controversial issues in his discussion of how China moved from having writers produce politically-correct work to a literature in tune with their own sensibilities:

As the 1970s wound down, our Chairman Mao died, and the situation in China began to change, including its literary output.  But the changes were both feeble and slow.  Forbidden topics ran the gamut from love stories to tales of Party blunders; but the yearning for freedom was not to be denied.  Writers wracked their brains to find ways, however roundabout, to break the taboos.  This period saw the rise of so-called scar literature, personal accounts of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.  My own career didn’t really start until the early 1980s, when Chinese literature had already undergone significant changes.  Few forbidden topics remained, and many Western writers were introduced into the country, creating a frenzy of Chinese imitations. (p. xv)

          Moving from a general statement about political correctivity to wondering why the Chinese are silent about abortion specifically, Nie (2005) asserts:

Creative writers enjoy greater freedom of speech in China today than scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and literary works often constitute the best window into the concerns and opinions of ordinary people on many social issues.  While a medical humanities scholar may fail to find an outlet for an article that argues that abortion is ethically wrong, a fiction writer may sometimes be able to express a similar opinion without falling afoul of the authorities.  (pp. 29-30)

In fact, the apparent Chinese silence on abortion seems to negotiate two principles which Nie isolates: first that “guarding one’s tongue is a basic survival strategy in an authoritarian regime” (p. 35) and, second, that “the bitter pain of abortion for many Chinese [is] a pain that goes beyond what words can describe” (p. 36).  The latter is an eminently challenging task for writers. [14]

                Admittedly, the dissent against abortion could be challenging for literary critics to evaluate, embedded as it is in works which still struggle to stay within the cultural and mostly political norms attendant on literary production within the PRC.  Some critics may even be hesitant or reluctant to discuss abortion in contemporary Chinese literature at all.[15]  Perhaps critical reticence can be attributed to a myopic view of various theories.  For example, feminist criticism of the literature on abortion in the PRC could be developed, were it not for a stifling political correctivity that prevents feminist critics from evaluating literature which shows abortion in a negative light.  Other literary theories may be similarly saddled with political perspectives which influence their perception and interpretation of the literature.  One aspect of literary concern that needs to be developed, however, is the juxtaposition and interaction of official pronouncements on abortion in the PRC and writers’ responses to those pronouncements.  Of all the literary theories that could help to make certain Chinese works more meaningful to Western readers, especially on the controversial topic of abortion, formalist and reception theory, with their focus on the literary artifacts themselves, will seem the most effective tools to use to assist the reader in an appreciation of the literature.

          Two works which exemplify the contentions between official pronouncements and creative effort must move this discussion to a well-established genre in Chinese literature (the poem “Abortion” by Zhen Zhang[16]) and a relatively new genre (the short story “Explosions” by Mo Yan).  Poetry in the PRC may be on the forefront of a revolutionary trend that Western scholars are commenting on with greater frequency.  Crespi (2009)[17] comments thus on developments of modern poetry in the PRC post-Cultural Revolution:

[O]fficially sanctioned Mao-era poetry recitation, while unique in terms of the pressures placed on performers to measure up to extreme ideological standards of the times, represents just one episode in a continuing history of poetry recitation as a cultural practice.  Even as the theorists and practitioners of recitation invoked a quite modern idea of pure revolutionary passion, the concept of expression informing that invocation derived from China’s earliest poetic theory.  Moreover, examining official poetry recitation also gives the lie to the myth of a uniquely monolithic revolutionary culture, especially when one considers reciters’ own reception of these poems.  Instead of the transparency and assured purity of intent that one generally experiences when reading the era’s officially sanctioned poems in written form, reciters’ accounts of giving concrete voice to the poetry intimate a sense of self-doubt spurred by formidable ideological dilemmas—dilemmas that eventually even appear in print on the pages of poetry recitation primers. (pp. 166-167)

It is especially interesting that any deviation from the accepted script of government-acknowledged poetic production occurred in the vocal production of such poetry—vocal delivery perhaps being a freer mode than print, which could more readily affect an artist’s career.

          Written poetry on abortion is becoming just as revolutionary as its recitation counterpart.  The poem “Abortion” by Zhen Zhang is a representative example of Chinese authors who begin to broach the topic as a way of responding to official PRC positions.  The poem has marked similarities with other post-abortion syndrome poems with which Western readers are familiar, such as Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother”[18] or Lucille Clifton’s “The lost baby poem.”[19]  One item in the critical commentary about the poet is repeated consistently: mysteriousness.  According to Tao (2006)[20] the “self” that Zhang writes “is spontaneous, capricious, sometimes mysterious [; she] remains very much herself as a woman in her creation of mysterious urban worlds [and is credited with] a type of metropolitan women’s writing in which the self remains mysteriously private” (p. 23).

          This mysteriousness could obscure the resistance implied in the poem by one key term: “I looked long into my uterus at your unwarranted being” (p. 132).  Granting the accuracy of the translation, that the child should have been called “unwarranted” and not “unwanted” or “undesired” suggests a deeper conflict at work in an otherwise straightforward poem manifesting the trauma of post-abortion syndrome.  Moreover, what is absent from the poem is especially telling.  Nowhere can an allusion be found to the abortion as having been essential to the survival of the nation, an idea found in other texts which suggest abortion as a “remedial measure” (the standard euphemism used to refer to abortion) meant to guard against excessive population growth.  Instead, the narrator speaks of how the unborn child’s “brothers and sisters will all be informed / that you are the oldest son” (p. 132), a futuristic claim that the one-child policy does not apply in her case since the persona will have other children.

The Short Story “Explosions” (1985) by Mo Yan

          “Explosions” by Mo Yan is perhaps the clearest literary work on abortion to be considered which responds to official PRC positions.  The narrative concerns a man in the Chinese armed forces whose wife is illicitly pregnant with a second child.  Against the wishes of his father, the husband forces his wife to abort the child.  This simple reduction of a fifty-page short story ignores several elements that illustrate the conflict between official pronouncements on the forced abortion policy and implementation of that policy and its effects on ordinary Chinese citizens.

          The story is notable for containing three “official” references to abortion as a population control measure.  Interspersed evenly in the story (the first and second references are announced early in the story and then halfway through the narrative), the first reference occurs when, questioned by his father regarding why his wife must abort, the narrator refers to official orthodoxy:

Think I wouldn’t like to have a son?  But I already have a daughter; I’ve already been issued a one-child certificate.  As a government cadre, I have to take the lead in responding to the nation’s call.  How can I avoid it?  (p. 3).

The rhetorical questions are unanswered, forcing the reader to examine the passage in detail.  The above passage opens with a question, not an assertion of the man’s desire, and testifies to the subordination of the individual’s interest to that of the state.  That not one, not two, but three statements of fact immediately follow the man’s subordinated desire is noteworthy in two respects; the accumulation of facts becomes overpowering to the man himself and to his wife, pregnant with an illicit child.  The rhetorical effect is obvious.  A person could attack one fact well; arguing against two facts is more challenging, requiring more effort; presenting three or more reasons to support an issue could make an attack against an argument cumbersome.  Attacking one’s argument bolstered by three solid reasons is even more difficult in a narrative which purports to be a transcription of a dialogue between characters on the controversial matter of abortion.  Thus, the man makes any challenge to his position that much more difficult for his wife.  The hierarchy of the facts further disables challenges to the official abortion policy.  Acknowledging one’s social obligation to the state (“responding to the nation’s call”) should precede the issuance of “a one-child certificate,” which in turn leads to the birth of a licit child.  Here, the chronology is reversed, and the more personal and intimate fact of the existence of a human being is replaced by the impersonal fact of the national duty, the last fact mentioned, resonating in the minds of both the husband and his wife.  The last rhetorical question of the passage thus closes all opposition to the one-child policy: it is ineluctable.

          The second reference to the official PRC policy is even smaller in terms of words.  Trying to reason with his wife, the narrator says, “Just think, there are a billion people in China.  If everyone has two children, what’s going to happen to China?” (p. 24).  This rhetorical question, too, is unanswered, and the power of the passage can be understood by a closer examination of the elements.  Here, however, one fact is related, followed by an acknowledgement that most families would want to have more than one child.  This passage ends with the rhetorical question that forces one to speculate, not on the future of the more personal family unit, but of the abstract nation.[21]

          The third reference to PRC abortion ideology, however, breaks the author’s or the character’s inability to answer questions about the one-child policy and invites substantial commentary.  While the following passage does not answer the questions involving the prevention of free will and the social effects of the PRC’s abortion policy, much information is provided to empower the reader to excavate answers him- or herself.  In the abortion clinic’s waiting room, the narrator reaches in a drawer for a book that a nurse had consulted and recounts:

In my tense gropings, my hand bumps into Obstetrics; Obstetrics bumps into my hand.  I can’t wait to open it.  It smells of iodine and hand cream.  Nurse An has made red and blue marks to highlight the black lines of text and has scribbled notes in the white margins.  The obstetrics expert writes: Knowledgeable people world-wide have expressed grave concern over the rapid growth of population.  The accelerated pace of population growth has already seriously destabilized the planet.  Humanity is heading for a devastating outcome: a population explosion ….  Nurse An notes: How I envy you, Liu Xiaoqing!  The obstetrics expert writes: Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.  We must rid the masses of women of their horror of it.  At the same time we must recognize that abortion is not minor surgery.  Neither the one performing it nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.  Nurse An notes: Zorro is a great guy.  Anna is a fine girl.  I’ve got to …  (pp. 51-52; ellipses in original)

This passage contains several elements worthy of attention vis-à-vis literary responses to the PRC policies regarding forced abortion.  The first item which is immediately noticeable is the use of the antimetabole or chiasmus, a literary figure of speech that had not been used heretofore in the story and which is thus obvious on first reading.  The suddenness alerts the reader that the passage is significant, an action comporting with the purpose of an antimetabole or chiasmus (to emphasize the paradox of a situation).[22]

          The Western reader may not realize the importance of the use of the title of the obstetrics book; in the United States publication by the United States Government Printing Office is restricted to official federal documents, whereas all publication in the PRC is controlled by the state.[23]  Instead of identifying the source for the “information” which follows as the government of the PRC, the author chose to represent the government by the title of a volume officially sanctioned by the government.  Thus, the use of synecdoche becomes especially important as a safe, politically-correct instrument of reaction to the PRC policies.

          Moreover, the “obstetrics expert” is significantly anonymous, in contrast to the interpolation, twice, of a clearly identified human being, Nurse An, whose commentary after each of the expert opinions has nothing to do whatsoever with the official statements.  Nurse An’s comments certainly interject comic relief into an otherwise serious situation.  The anonymous obstetrics author proclaims in a  stand-alone sentence that “Neither the one performing it [abortion] nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.”  One wonders whether the admonition to maintain sobriety in the performance of abortion extends to the literary performance as well, which, in this case, has obviously been abrogated by not one, but two instances of humor.[24]

          Finally, the absence of quotation marks throughout the story (which does not impede determining who is speaking) does have an ancillary effect in this passage.  The ostensibly objective claim by the obstetrics expert about a “population explosion” (bolstered by an ambiguous source called “knowledgeable people world-wide”) is as unsubstantiated as the claim that “Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.”  The lack of an identifiable source of these bold claims reduces them to mere slogans, a linguistic artifact with which many Communist Chinese are familiar.  Nurse An’s claims, in contrast, are much more personal and subjective.  The reader would tend to believe the nurse’s claims for several reasons: they are “revolutionary,” having been written in the margins of a politically-correct medical textbook; they are personalized, containing the high human emotions of envy and love; lastly, they are inviting in the sense that a reader could identify either with Liu Xiaoqing, a popular film star, or with Zorro, a swashbuckling hero.  One could not easily identify with the impersonal claims of an official textbook when one is offered identifiable humans instead.

          Oblique criticism of the abortion policy of the PRC certainly helps to create passages of literature which are enjoyable not only to read, but also to examine, and the hesitancy to openly criticize the abortion policy in fiction is understandable if one thinks of the political consequences that writers would suffer if their works became too counter-ideological.  Even Mo, who asserted so forcefully in a 2001 anthology of his short stories that contemporary Chinese writers aim “to break the taboos” (Shifu, p. xv)[25] of the Mao era, finds it difficult to challenge state orthodoxy directly.  In “Abandoned Child,” a short story written in the mid-1980s which concerns infanticide more than abortion, the narrator, who saves a newborn girl abandoned in a field, relates a near apology for government ineptitude:

The period after Liberation, owing to improvements in living standards and hygiene, saw a significant drop in the occurrences of abandoned children.  But the numbers began to rise again in the 1980s when the situation grew very complicated.  First, there were no boys at all.  On the surface, it appeared that some parents were forced into acts of inhumanity by rigid family planning restrictions.  But upon closer examination, I realized that the traditional preference for boys over girls was the real culprit.  I knew I couldn’t be overly critical of parents in this new era, and I also knew that if I were a peasant, I might well be one of those fathers who abandoned his child.  (Shifu, p. 172)

          Three matters in this passage are worthy of attention.  First, “infanticide,” the deliberate abandonment of a newborn child with the intent to have the child die, is euphemistically called an “act of inhumanity.”  Second, the revolutionary fervor of the Mao era seems to have held everything in place, for it was “after Liberation” that “living standards and hygiene” improved; however, it is significant that “the situation grew very complicated” a decade safely removed from the Mao era (“in the 1980s”).  Finally, responsibility for the intended infanticide rests neither with the government nor provincial family planning cadres notorious for overzealousness in forcing abortion on peasants; the “real culprits” are not even the parents, but the “traditional preference for boys over girls.”[26]  Perhaps the reticence to target official PRC material and sources indicates that the liberty of thought which Chinese authors strive for is still emergent.

Future Research and Questions

          Unlike American, Canadian, and European literature, no full-length novel concerning abortion as a primary topic in Chinese literature is yet available in translation.  According to Feeley, Mo’s most recent novel, Frogs (2009),[27] “is about a woman whose job is to enforce the one-child policy”; however, Mo’s translator, Howard Goldblatt, affirms that the novel, recently released in Chinese, will be translated into English by the end of 2010 (personal communications).[28]

          Similarly, no film devoted to the issue of abortion is available for study.  The film Xiu Xiu [The Sent Down Girl] (1998)[29] could be included in this paper as an example of directorial response to the abortion policy of the PRC but has been excluded for several reasons.  First, the abortion episode purely illustrates a reaction to an undesired pregnancy resulting from multiple sex partners, not a pregnancy resulting either from failed contraception or a target of the PRC’s one-child policy.  Second, the abortion episode, although depicted as an obviously negative choice on the part of the mother, speaks more about the changed character of the young woman send from the city to the steppes during the Cultural Revolution than it says anything as a statement against PRC policies.  Finally, the abortion episode is altogether much too brief and does not amplify the failed relationship between the aborted mother and the man who platonically loves her.  Moreover, no full-length drama on abortion has been discovered that can merit study.

          The dearth of abortion narratives across genres may change, however, when Chinese women find their “voice” to express their feelings and thoughts about their abortions.  Western readers are familiar with the empowerment that women experienced during the twentieth century feminist movement when women could speak freely about their marriages, their employment, and—most importantly—their sexual dissatisfaction and past abortions.  Voicing such concerns led to important developments for American women.  Thus, Mosher’s A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy (1993) could qualify as a narrative on the forced abortion policy within the feminist tradition.  The Chinese women who either aborted or performed abortions who responded to Nie’s sociological surveys may become freer to express their feelings and thoughts on abortion in longer literary works—such thoughts and feelings still trapped behind the phrase “so bitter that no words can describe it.”

          While many questions remain and must be relegated to future research, three can be offered here in closing.  First, why is Chinese abortion literature not commonly studied in the West?  Are all such writings from Chinese women on the issue of abortion similar to samizdat, underground literature?  Some examples of an emerging literature documenting women’s abortion experiences, especially those involving post-abortion syndrome, have been identified above, and many more exist that have not been included in this study.  Exploring such literature may help Westerners to appreciate these women’s experiences and to share in their suffering.

          Second, how will the West respond to narratives depicting the Chinese forced-abortion situation?  Politically, the West’s reaction to the extreme population control measures in the PRC often depends on the ideology represented in the White House or 10 Downing Street.  One hopes that, besides responding to the extremely poignant situations of women living in the harshest of totalitarian regimes, Western critics and readers will act to alleviate their suffering despite ideological differences.

          Third, perhaps the most difficult question to address, can the Chinese abortion experience as evidenced in contemporary fiction assist Westerners in a reevaluation of the effects of legalized abortion in their own countries?  Most Western nations have had legalized abortion for several decades now, and its disastrous social effects—whether legalized only in special circumstances or, as in the case of the United States, legalized throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever—are increasingly documented by researchers, especially those concerned with post-abortion syndrome.  One hopes that the Chinese experience can encourage the West to confront abortion problems honestly—as honestly as Mo Yan attempts in his work on the subject.


[1] Mo, Y. (1991). Explosions and Other Stories. Ed. and trans. Janice Wickeri. Hong Kong: Chinese U of Hong Kong.

[2] Aird, J. S. (1990). Slaughter of the innocents: Coercive birth control in China. Washington, DC: AEI Press.

[3] Canaves, S. (2009, July 30). China’s 13 Million Annual Abortions Flagged as a Cause of Concern. [Web blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2009/07/30/chinas-13-million-annual-abortions-flagged-as-a-cause-for-concern.

[4] Nie, J.-B. (2005). Behind the Silence: Chinese Voices on Abortion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

[5] See especially chapters three, four, and seven wherein Nie evaluates the positions of the major religions toward abortion and respect for pre-natal life in the Imperial and Republican eras.

[6] To illustrate the effects of censorship on this issue, Aird (1982) states:

The main reason so few national population data appear in Chinese sources, however, is central censorship.  No national population figures can be made public without prior authorization by the State Council.  Even officials of the SSB [State Statistical Bureau] cannot use such figures in their articles and speeches until they have been cleared.  This policy has been in effect since the earliest years of the PRC.  It was applied more stringently between the collapse of the Leap Forward in 1959 and the fall of the “gang of four” in 1976, but it has never been relaxed entirely.  To this day, the full results of the 1953 census have not been made public.  The very brief census communiqué issued upon the completion of the work in November 1954 gave only the national total, breakdown by sex, ethnic group, rural and urban residence, and province, and a few details about age composition and the extent of errors in enumeration.  (p. 271)

Government censorship of scholarly activity is well-known, but the following example by Aird vis-à-vis the issues of concern in this paper further illustrates its disastrous effects:

After the start of the Leap Forward in spring 1958, Mao reaffirmed his earlier views that a large population was an asset for China’s national development, adding that poverty was beneficial for China because it made people more revolutionary and inclined toward change.

For the next four years birth control work languished.  Other spokesmen echoed Mao’s sentiments, and all but one of the Chinese scholars who had stressed the importance of controlling human fertility were silenced.  The economist Ma Yinchu, who had argued the urgent need for control of population growth on grounds very similar to those now used to justify the same policy, courageously refused to abandon his convictions, despite some 200 attacks on him in 1958 alone, and continued to defend his position until 1960, when he was obliged to surrender his post as president of Beijing University and was refused further access to the public print.  (Aird, 1982, p. 283)

[7] Aird, J. S. (1982, June). Population studies and population policy in China. Population and Development Review, 8(2), 267-297.

[8] See also his endnote 78: “A recent study has shown that the sudden adoption of the one-child family throughout China could seriously distort China’s age-sex structure by the year 2000 and even more so by 2050 and cause wide swings in dependency ratios” (p. 296).

[9] See, for example, the following anthologies and monograph: Gloria Davies, ed., Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), Hok Bun Ku’s Moral Politics in a South Chinese Village: Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Resistance (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), and Lawrence R. Sullivan, ed., China Since Tiananmen: Political, Economic, and Social Conflicts (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995).

[10] The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America. (2006, June 6). Abortion law amendment to be abolished.” Retrieved from http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/xw/t260068.htm.

[11] Ertelt, S. (2010, February 5). Report: China’s One-Child, Pro-Abortion Policy Creating Nation of Bachelors. Retrieved from http://www.lifenews.com/int1432.html.

[12] Mosher, S. W. (1993). A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

[13] “Mo Yan” (translated as “Don’t Speak”) is Guan Moye’s nom de plume.  Cataloging systems in American libraries consider “Mo” as the author’s surname, and this formatting of the Chinese name will be followed here.

[14] The short story “I Am Not a Cat” by Tang Min (Running Wild: New Chinese Writers. Eds. David Der-Wei Wang and Jeanne Tai. Trans. Amy Dooling. New York: Columbia UP),  originally published in 1990, may be one of many narratives which attempts to verbalize what is excruciatingly difficult for many Chinese women.  Reading not so much as a fictional account as much as a diary entry, the narrator uses first-person pronouns as she relates the miscarriage that her cat suffers and her own abortion at a provincial clinic.  The story openly speaks of the “One Child Per Family policy” (p. 159).  The narrative concerning the abortion itself is similar to other accounts with which Western readers may be more familiar.  This short story, then, may be one of many forthcoming explorations of abortion experiences that Chinese women may come to write.

[15] For example, Wang (2000) [The literary world of Mo Yan. World Literature Today 74(3): 487-494] summarizes the short story “‘Baozha’ (Eng. ‘Explosions’),” which concerns the one-child policy and abortion, as the story of “a young man trapped in the uncertainty and restlessness of marriage and family, who achieves temporary release by means of explosive bodily movements” (p. 493).

[16] Zhang, Z. (1993). Abortion. Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry. Ed. Tony Barnstone. Hanover, NH: U P of New England.

[17] Crespi, J. A. (2009). Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination in Modern China. Honolulu, HI: U of Hawaii P.

[18] Brooks, G. (2000). The Mother. Literature for Composition: Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. (5th ed.). Eds. Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, William Burto, William E. Cain, and Marcia Stubbs. New York: Longman.

[19] Clifton, L. (1987). The lost baby poem. Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969‑1980. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions.

[20] Tao, N. (2006). Introduction: The Changing Self.” Eight Contemporary Chinese Poets. Sydney: Wild Peony.

[21] The merger of the idea of the individual, the family, and the nation might be perfectly consistent, however, with Chinese philosophy.  Nie asserts that Chinese culture necessarily conflates the notions of “country,” “people,” and “society” in ways that Western readers would find difficult to understand (p. 55).

[22] Corbett calls the figure of speech “antimetabole” in the third edition of his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (New York: Oxford UP, 1990, p. 442) while Murfin and Ray identify the figure as “chiasmus” in the second edition of their The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003, pp. 53-54).

[23] One work of Mo Yan’s not used in this study suffered state censorship, but the work was published as originally intended, thanks in part that a Western (Taiwanese) publisher existed to print it.  The note by Howard Goldblatt, the translator of Red Sorghum (New York: Viking. Trans. of Hung kao liang chia tsu. Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Publishing House, 1987 [1993]), states:

At the request of the author, this translation is based upon the Taipei Hongfan Book Co. 1988 Chinese edition, which restores cuts made in the Mainland Chinese edition, published in 1987 by the People’s Liberation Army Publishing House in Beijing.  Some deletions have been made, with the author’s approval, and minor inconsistencies, particularly in dates and ages, have been corrected.  (copyright page)

[24] The specific mention of the colors red and blue could also reference another counterrevolutionary act of Nurse An if one considers these colors traditional ones used in editing and correcting texts.  Commenting on Mo’s novel Red Sorghum, Braester (Mo Yan and Red Sorghum. The Columbia companion to modern East Asian literature. New York: Columbia UP, 2003) writes that

The novel’s rich imagery also seems to undermine official nationalist narratives.  The color red that pervades the story—from the red sorghum and the red dog leader to the blinding red light and the generous splashes of blood—is far different from the glorious red flag of the PRC, the color of which is thought to have come from the blood of revolutionary martyrs.  If Mo Yan’s sensuous colors lend themselves to symbolic interpretation, it is one that goes against the grain of official PRC ideology. (p. 542).

[25] Mo, Y. (2001). Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh. Trans. Howard Goldblatt. New York: Arcade.

[26] Mo ends this section of the story, an enumeration of “four general categories” of “abandoned children” (p. 170) with a statement that seems to apologize for any challenge to the political orthodoxy of the preceding paragraphs: “No matter how much this concept tarnishes the image of the People’s Republic, it is an objective reality, one that will be difficult to eradicate in the short term.  Existing in a filthy village with foul air all around, even a diamond-studded sword will rust” (p. 172).

[27] Mo, Y. (2009). Wa [Frogs]. Shanghai: Shanghai wen yi chu ban she.

[28] The author wishes to thank Mr. Joseph Hau, Chief Business Strategist for PacifiComm Associates, LLC,  and Ada Wong and Linda Dowling (Chinese researchers/interpreters) for their extensive research into and translation of internet literary resources critiquing the novel.  Mr. Hau answered numerous questions concerning contemporary Chinese culture and translated key Chinese terms to assist in an explication of the novel’s plot and major themes.  Persons interested in learning more about business strategies in the People’s Republic of China or other nations within his company’s scope may reach him at the Columbus, Ohio corporate office: 614-442-7614.

[29] Xiu Xiu [The Sent Down Girl]. (2004). Dir. Joan Chen. Perf. Lu Lu, and Lopsang. [Videodisc]. Paramount.

Categories
Papers

Analysis of Abortion in Select Literature from The People’s Republic of China

Abstract:  This study reviews two literary works on abortion from the People’s Republic of China, the poem “Abortion” by Zhang Zhen and the short story “Explosions” by Mo Yan.

          A review of any literary work on abortion in the People’s Republic of China presents researchers with an immediate problem.  Should discussing the topic of abortion rely on sociological documentation of abortion as practiced on the mainland, or does another perspective apply?  Can one take strictly a political view towards the matter, or does one need to consider factors usually associated with other literary theories (such as the role of women from a feminist literary viewpoint or the interaction of ideologies from a Marxist perspective—the latter being the literary theory one would almost automatically think would apply when speaking about life in Communist China)?  For purposes of this study, the practices of reception theory combined with formalist explication seem to be the optimum means by which selected literary artifacts will be evaluated, primarily because the theory can afford American researchers and students of literature insights into the interaction or juxtaposition of the ideological confrontation between official, received statements on one of the most controversial matters in the Chinese world (national policies on birth control and reproductive rights when confronted with failed birth control leading to abortion) and the notions held by millions of Chinese whose attitudes and opinions towards compulsory birth control and forced abortion are now becoming evident in the West.

Abortion and Demographic Concerns in the PRC

          The number of annual abortions performed in the People’s Republic is staggering, estimated by Aird (1990) at eight million per year between 1971-1985 for a total of 111,960,987 abortions (Slaughter, p. 40).  Other sources indicate the figure is close to thirteen million annual abortions currently versus twenty million live births; thus, about one-third of all pregnancies per year are aborted (Canaves, 2009).  What is perhaps most curious about the number of abortions performed is that China has neither a history of abortion agitation, nor conflicting official pre-1949 medical commentary on the acceptance of abortion as an ordinary medical practice.  In fact, if the exploration of Nie (2005) into Buddhist and Confucian respect for pre-natal life is accepted, then Chinese history argues against such an openness towards abortion.  (See especially chapters three, four, and seven wherein Nie evaluates the positions of the major religions toward abortion and respect for pre-natal life in imperial and Republican eras.)  Countering claims that abortion in China was implicitly allowed because there was no clear prohibition against it, Nie further argues that

While it is true that the early medical literature rarely if ever explicitly proscribes performing abortion, this should probably not be interpreted as representing a permissive attitude on the part of ancient doctors.  Rather, the silence is likely to indicate that medical abortion was regarded as so obviously unethical that there was no need to include it in lists of professional precepts, just as medical ethics documents whether ancient or modern rarely explicitly state that physicians should not murder or kill.  (p. 78)

          As early as the late 1970s scholars had discussed demographic changes in the PRC and considered the consequences of several official policies designed to curtail population growth, including compulsory birth control and abortion of a second child.  While pointing out that official population figures were difficult to determine (since the PRC had not devoted sufficient resources to determine the extent of population growth after the founding of the nation and because of censorship), Aird (1982) had commented on the disastrous effects that complete implementation of the one-child policy would have on China:

There are some disadvantages to a too-rapid reduction in fertility.  Sudden changes in the size of age cohorts cause similar changes in the demand for age-related goods and services, in the facilities and personnel that provide them, and in the allocation of resources that they require—changes that can result in dislocations and inefficiencies that adversely affect national development.  Both Lin and Liu have indicated that the Chinese family planning authorities do not expect or want to achieve the sudden, universal adoption of the one-child family because they are aware of the problems of a distorted age-sex structure; but family planning propaganda and some of the provincial family planning regulations convey a different impression.  (“Population,” p. 289)

          Pronouncements from the PRC itself ratify the notion that China is experiencing a dire population situation.  The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America states that “Some lawmakers and family planning officials support [a law explicitly banning sex-selective abortions] because of the serious imbalance in the ratio of genders in the population.  China has 119 boys born for every 100 girls, much higher than the global ratio of 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls.”  The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences confirmed this gender imbalance in a January 2010 report, which “indicates the figure has climbed to 120 boys born for every 100 girls as of 2006 and says that, by the end of 2008, there were 38 million more men in China than women born after 1980” (Ertelt).

Silence Surrounding Abortion in the PRC

          What is perhaps the most striking feature of abortion in the PRC is the silence attending it at the popular level.  In virtually every other nation abortion as a political issue rouses intense passions; demonstrations on both sides of the issue and legislative efforts to address abortion matters are standard events in other nations.  Many scholars, including Mosher (1993) and Nie (2005), have tried to address the reasons why popular attitudes towards the abortion policy of the PRC seem to signify only support from citizens.

          There are, however, emerging voices of dissent towards the national policies on reproductive matters, and their presence is significant given the new liberty of thought finding its expression in literary matters, which is a relatively recent phenomenon in the PRC.  Mo Yan (2001) asserts this renaissance of liberated thought about controversial issues in his discussion of how China moved from having writers produce politically-correct work to a literature in tune with their own sensibilities:

As the 1970s wound down, our Chairman Mao died, and the situation in China began to change, including its literary output.  But the changes were both feeble and slow.  Forbidden topics ran the gamut from love stories to tales of Party blunders; but the yearning for freedom was not to be denied.  Writers wracked their brains to find ways, however roundabout, to break the taboos.  This period saw the rise of so-called scar literature, personal accounts of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.  My own career didn’t really start until the early 1980s, when Chinese literature had already undergone significant changes.  Few forbidden topics remained, and many Western writers were introduced into the country, creating a frenzy of Chinese imitations. (Shifu, p. xv)

Wondering why the Chinese are silent about abortion specifically, Nie (2005) asserts:

Creative writers enjoy greater freedom of speech in China today than scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and literary works often constitute the best window into the concerns and opinions of ordinary people on many social issues.  While a medical humanities scholar may fail to find an outlet for an article that argues that abortion is ethically wrong, a fiction writer may sometimes be able to express a similar opinion without falling afoul of the authorities.  (pp. 29-30)

In fact, the apparent Chinese silence on abortion seems to negotiate two principles which Nie isolates: first that “guarding one’s tongue is a basic survival strategy in an authoritarian regime” (p. 35) and, second, that “the bitter pain of abortion for many Chinese [is] a pain that goes beyond what words can describe” (p. 36).  The latter is an eminently challenging task for writers.

          Critics, however, may have an easier time.  The dissent against abortion could be challenging for literary critics to evaluate, embedded as it is in works which still struggle to stay within the cultural and mostly political norms attendant on literary production within the PRC.  As deconstructionists have demonstrated, the meaning of what appears to be absent itself is commentary and can be excavated; it thus remains the task of the critic to determine what is being said about abortion in the literary works available.  Of all the literary theories that could help to make certain Chinese works more meaningful to Western readers, especially on the controversial topic of abortion, reception theory will seem the most obvious as the works themselves are reviewed below.  Formalist and feminist concerns in the literature can be developed, historical themes abound (certainly, reaction against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution is still considered a viable topic for Chinese writers), and one can revel as a deconstructionist would in the word-play of certain Chinese poets.  However, one aspect of literary concern that needs to be developed is the interaction and juxtaposition of official pronouncements on abortion in the PRC and writers’ responses to those pronouncements.  Two works exemplify these contentions.

The Poem “Abortion” (1986) by Zhen Zhang

          Poetry in the PRC may be on the forefront of a revolutionary trend that Western scholars are commenting on with greater frequency.  Crespi (2009) comments on developments of modern poetry in the PRC post-Cultural Revolution:

[O]fficially sanctioned Mao-era poetry recitation, while unique in terms of the pressures placed on performers to measure up to extreme ideological standards of the times, represents just one episode in a continuing history of poetry recitation as a cultural practice.  Even as the theorists and practitioners of recitation invoked a quite modern idea of pure revolutionary passion, the concept of expression informing that invocation derived from China’s earliest poetic theory.  Moreover, examining official poetry recitation also gives the lie to the myth of a uniquely monolithic revolutionary culture, especially when one considers reciters’ own reception of these poems.  Instead of the transparency and assured purity of intent that one generally experiences when reading the era’s officially sanctioned poems in written form, reciters’ accounts of giving concrete voice to the poetry intimate a sense of self-doubt spurred by formidable ideological dilemmas—dilemmas that eventually even appear in print on the pages of poetry recitation primers. (pp. 166-167)

It is especially interesting that any deviation from the accepted script of government-acknowledged poetic production occurred in the vocal production of such poetry—vocal delivery perhaps being a freer mode than print, which could more readily affect an artist’s career.

          The poem “Abortion” by Zhen Zhang is a representative example of Chinese authors who begin to broach the topic as a way of responding to official PRC positions.  The poem has marked similarities with other post-abortion syndrome poems with which Western readers are familiar, such as Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother” or Lucille Clifton’s “The Lost baby poem.”  One item in the critical commentary about the poet is repeated consistently: mysteriousness.  According to Tao (2006) the “self” that Zhang writes “is spontaneous, capricious, sometimes mysterious [; she] remains very much herself as a woman in her creation of mysterious urban worlds [and is credited with] a type of metropolitan women’s writing in which the self remains mysteriously private” (p. 23).

          This mysteriousness could obscure the resistance implied in the poem by one key term: “I looked long into my uterus at your unwarranted being” (p. 132).  That the child should have been called “unwarranted” and not “unwanted” or “undesired” suggests a deeper conflict at work in an otherwise straightforward poem manifesting the trauma of post-abortion syndrome.  Moreover, what is absent from the poem is especially telling.  Nowhere can an allusion be found to the abortion as having been essential to the survival of the nation, an idea found  in other texts which suggest abortion as a “remedial measure” (the standard euphemism used to refer to abortion) meant to guard against excessive population growth.  Instead, the narrator speaks of how the unborn child’s “brothers and sisters will all be informed / that you are the oldest son” (p. 132), a futuristic claim that the one-child policy does not apply in her case.

The Short Story “Explosions” (1985) by Mo Yan

          “Explosions” by Mo Yan is perhaps the clearest literary work on abortion to be considered which responds to official PRC positions.  The narrative concerns a man in the Chinese armed forces whose wife is illicitly pregnant with a second child.  Against the wishes of his father, the husband forces his wife to abort the child.  This simple reduction of a fifty-page short story ignores several elements that illustrate the conflict between official pronouncements on the forced abortion policy and implementation of that policy and its effects on ordinary Chinese.

          The story is notable for containing three “official” references to abortion as a population control measure.  The first and second references are announced early in the story and then halfway through the narrative.  The first reference occurs when, questioned by his father regarding why his wife must abort, the narrator refers to official orthodoxy:

Think I wouldn’t like to have a son?  But I already have a daughter; I’ve already been issued a one-child certificate.  As a government cadre, I have to take the lead in responding to the nation’s call.  How can I avoid it?  (p. 3).

The rhetorical question is unanswered.  The second reference is even smaller in terms of words.  Trying to reason with his wife, the narrator says, “Just think, there are a billion people in China.  If everyone has two children, what’s going to happen to China?” (p. 24).  This rhetorical question, too, is unanswered.

          The third reference, however, invites more commentary.  In the abortion clinic’s waiting room, the narrator reaches in a drawer for a book that a nurse had consulted and recounts:

In my tense gropings, my hand bumps into Obstetrics; Obstetrics bumps into my hand.  I can’t wait to open it.  It smells of iodine and hand cream.  Nurse An has made red and blue marks to highlight the black lines of text and has scribbled notes in the white margins.  The obstetrics expert writes: Knowledgeable people world-wide have expressed grave concern over the rapid growth of population.  The accelerated pace of population growth has already seriously destabilized the planet.  Humanity is heading for a devastating outcome: a population explosion ….  Nurse An notes: How I envy you, Liu Xiaoqing!  The obstetrics expert writes: Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.  We must rid the masses of women of their horror of it.  At the same time we must recognize that abortion is not minor surgery.  Neither the one performing it nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.  Nurse An notes: Zorro is a great guy.  Anna is a fine girl.  I’ve got to …  (pp. 51-52; ellipses in original)

          This passage contains several elements worthy of attention vis-à-vis literary responses to the PRC policies regarding forced abortion.  The first item which is immediately noticeable is the use of the palindrome in the first sentence, a literary figure of speech that had not been used heretofore in the story and which is thus obvious on first reading.  The suddenness alerts the reader that the passage is significant.

          The Western reader may not realize the importance of the use of the title of the obstetrics book; in the United States publication by the United States Government Printing Office is restricted to official federal documents, whereas all publication in the PRC is controlled by the state.  Instead of identifying the source for the “information” which follows as the government of the PRC, the author chose to represent the government by the title of a volume officially sanctioned by the government.  Thus, the use of synecdoche becomes especially important as a safe, politically-correct instrument of reaction to the PRC policies.

          Moreover, the “obstetrics expert” is significantly anonymous, in contrast to the interpolation, twice, of a clearly identified human being, Nurse An, whose commentary after each of the expert opinions has nothing to do whatsoever with the official statements.  Nurse An’s comments certainly interject comic relief into an otherwise serious situation.  The anonymous obstetrics author proclaims in a  stand-alone sentence that “Neither the one performing it [abortion] nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.”  One wonders whether the admonition to maintain sobriety in the performance of abortion extends to the literary performance as well, which, in this case, has obviously been abrogated by not one, but two instances of humor.

          Finally, the absence of quotation marks throughout the story (which does not impede determining who is speaking) does have an ancillary effect in this passage.  The ostensibly objective claim by the obstetrics expert about a “population explosion” (bolstered by an ambiguous source called “knowledgeable people world-wide”) is as unsubstantiated as the claim that “Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.”  The lack of an identifiable source of these bold claims reduces them to mere slogans, a linguistic artifact with which many Communist Chinese are familiar.  Nurse An’s claims, in contrast, are much more personal and subjective.  The reader would tend to believe the nurse’s claims for several reasons: they are “revolutionary,” having been written in the margins of a politically-correct medical textbook; they are personalized, containing the high human emotions of envy and love; lastly, they are inviting in the sense that a reader could identify either with Liu Xiaoqing, a popular film star, or with Zorro, a swashbuckling hero.  One could not easily identify with the impersonal claims of an official textbook when one is offered identifiable humans instead.

          Perhaps the reticence to target official PRC material and sources indicates that the liberty of thought which Chinese authors strive for is still emergent.  Even Mo, who asserted so forcefully in a 2001 anthology of his short stories that contemporary Chinese writers aim “to break the taboos” (Shifu, p. xv) of the Mao era, finds it difficult to challenge state orthodoxy directly.  In “Abandoned Child,” a short story written in the mid-1980s which concerns infanticide more than abortion, the narrator, who saves a newborn girl abandoned in a field, relates a near apology for government ineptitude:

The period after Liberation, owing to improvements in living standards and hygiene, saw a significant drop in the occurrences of abandoned children.  But the numbers began to rise again in the 1980s when the situation grew very complicated.  First, there were no boys at all.  On the surface, it appeared that some parents were forced into acts of inhumanity by rigid family planning restrictions.  But upon closer examination, I realized that the traditional preference for boys over girls was the real culprit.  I knew I couldn’t be overly critical of parents in this new era, and I also knew that if I were a peasant, I might well be one of those fathers who abandoned his child.  (Shifu, p. 172)

          Three matters in this passage are worthy of attention.  First, “infanticide,” the deliberate abandonment of a newborn child with the intent to have the child die, is euphemistically called an “act of inhumanity.”  Second, the revolutionary fervor of the Mao era seems to have held everything in place, for it was “after Liberation” that “living standards and hygiene” improved; however, it is significant that “the situation grew very complicated” a decade safely removed from the Mao era (“in the 1980s”).  Finally, responsibility for the intended infanticide rests neither with the government nor provincial family planning cadres notorious for overzealousness in forcing abortion on peasants; the “real culprits” are not even the parents, but the “traditional preference for boys over girls.”

Future Research and Questions

          What is striking is that, unlike American literature, no full-length novel or film devoted to the issue of abortion is available for study—“available” in that either it has not been written, has been written but is censored and will need to wait for a more open political environment, or will not be written because mainland Chinese do not yet see abortion as a literary topic worth their consideration.  Similarly, no full-length drama has been discovered that can merit study as an example of abortion discussed in that genre.  The dearth of abortion narratives may change, however, when Chinese women find their “voice” to express their feelings and thoughts about their abortions.  Western readers are familiar with the empowerment that women experienced during the twentieth century feminist movement when women could speak freely about their marriages, their employment, and—most importantly—their sexual dissatisfaction and past abortions.  Voicing such concerns led to important developments for American women.  Thus, Mosher’s A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy (1993) could qualify as a narrative on the forced abortion policy within the feminist tradition.  The Chinese women who either aborted or performed abortions who responded to Nie’s sociological surveys may become freer to express their feelings and thoughts on abortion in longer literary works—such thoughts and feelings still trapped behind the phrase “so bitter that no words can describe it” (p. 135).

          While many questions remain and must be relegated to future research, two can be offered here in closing.  First, where is the samizdat, the underground literature, from Chinese women on the issue of abortion?  Exploring such literature may help Westerners to appreciate these women’s experiences and to share in their suffering.  Second, how will the West respond to narratives depicting the Chinese forced-abortion situation?  One hopes that, besides responding to the extremely poignant situations of women living in the harshest of totalitarian regimes, Western critics and readers will act to alleviate their suffering.

References

Aird, J. S. (1982, June). Population studies and population policy in China. Population and Development Review, 8(2), 267-297.

Aird, J. S. (1990). Slaughter of the innocents: Coercive birth control in China. Washington, DC: AEI Press.

Brooks, G. (2000). The Mother. Literature for Composition: Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. (5th ed.). Eds. Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, William Burto, William E. Cain, and Marcia Stubbs. New York: Longman.

Canaves, S. (2009, July 30). China’s 13 Million Annual Abortions Flagged as a Cause of Concern. [Web blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2009/07/30/chinas-13-million-annual-abortions-flagged-as-a-cause-for-concern

Clifton, L. (1987). The Lost baby poem. Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969‑1980. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions.

Crespi, J. A. (2009). Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination in Modern China. Honolulu, HI: U of Hawaii P.

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America. (2006, June 6). Abortion law amendment to be abolished.” Retrieved from http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/xw/t260068.htm

Ertelt, S. (2010, February 5). Report: China’s One-Child, Pro-Abortion Policy Creating Nation of Bachelors. Retrieved from http://www.lifenews.com/int1432.html

Mo, Y. (1991). Explosions and Other Stories. Ed. and trans. Janice Wickeri. Hong Kong: Chinese U of Hong Kong.

Mo, Y. (2001). Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh. Trans. Howard Goldblatt. New York: Arcade.

Mosher, S. W. (1993). A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Nie, J.-B. (2005). Behind the Silence: Chinese Voices on Abortion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Tao, N. (2006). Introduction: The Changing Self.” Eight Contemporary Chinese Poets. Sydney: Wild Peony.

Zhang, Z. (1993). Abortion. Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry. Ed. Tony Barnstone. Hanover, NH: U P of New England.