Gothic Pregnancy

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post from Louise Benson James explores the representation of pregnancy in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House.

Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House (2007) is narrated by Maja, a young Afro-Cuban woman living in London, and pregnant for the first time.  Pregnancy in The Opposite House is presented as a Gothic experience. Maja’s anxiety about the process of giving birth is tracked from monstrous images imagined in childhood – ‘I had vague ideas about one day having to do something large and bloody, put my eye out, or split my forehead open’ – to the adult fear that she will not survive it: ‘I am beginning to understand that at the end of this time there is going to be a need for strength, that as the skin over my stomach pulls tauter my centre descends, and one day I am going to have to push. I don’t know how anyone survives it, the thought or the happening. I will not’. [1] Maja expresses the alienating and disordering effect of her changing pregnant body: ‘my breasts are rotten lumps hooked into my ribcage, and I can’t touch my body at all, I can’t’ (p.17). Clare Kahane states:

That women writers should find in pregnancy an appropriate Gothic metaphor is not surprising. In this most definitively female of conditions potentially lie the most extreme apprehensions: about the body as subject, about bodily integrity which shapes one’s sense of self. In pregnancy, the woman’s very shape changes, as she begins to feel another presence inside her, growing on her flesh, feeding on her blood.[2]

This image of the baby as parasite is presented by Maja’s best friend Amy Eleni, who uses two grotesque metaphors, both of which describe the baby growing larger and larger until it bursts the mother open. Firstly: ‘what if foetuses were like rats? Say a foetus stays in the womb longer than nine months, what if it went on a growth bender? What if a baby got as big as its mother?’ (p.141). Secondly: ‘Imagine if that baby wasn’t a baby at all, and that this is one of those strange pregnancies you read about in the Fortean Times? What if all you’ve got in your stomach is this limp piece of dough and it just keeps expanding until – boom?’ (p.177). Amy Eleni’s two visions of pregnancy evoke the supernatural Gothic of Hammer Horror films. The references to bread dough and to rats – renowned for stealing food – have an uncanny effect, as the baby is imagined as both a foodstuff and a parasitical rodent, and Maja thus as both consumer and consumed.

Yet there are additional visualisations of the mother-foetus relationship presented in The Opposite House: the mother and foetus competing for nutrients; and harmonious symbiosis – whereby mother and child benefit from one another. Maja refuses to eat; this regression to stubborn adolescent behaviour denotes rebellion against both the demands of her pregnant body, and the male medical authority of her boyfriend Aaron, a trainee doctor:

“You have got to eat,” he says. His voice is very hard. It hurts. He stands over me and drags my wrist so that I have to put soup into my mouth […] Whenever I think I am going to spit soup in Aaron’s face, he knows, and he warns me with his eyes.

I say I’ve had enough, and Aaron looks into the bowl. It is still more than three-quarters full. Aaron says, “don’t be selfish.” He jams the sloppy spoon into my mouth […] Aaron watches me swallow; he is sad that he has to do this, but he is strong. In his eyes I am a throat working down red juice, I am a shaking hand and a spoon and beyond that his baby. (p.231)

Aaron’s reproach ‘don’t be selfish’ represents the expectations imposed on pregnant women; Maja should be selfless when it comes to ‘his’ baby. This loss of identity fragments her into body parts; she becomes a vessel for the baby to grow in, a mechanical throat and a hand and a spoon functioning purely to feed the child in utero, invoking the ‘competition’ model of pregnancy. Maja’s instinct to spit out the food signifies her disobedience of the controlling male medical authority figure, but is also the abjection of nourishment. This hints at a resurgence of Maja’s adolescent anorexia, a protest against her body’s transition to a state of adult maturity, womanhood, and the expected responsibility and self-abnegation culturally associated with the condition of pregnancy.

Maja also depicts more positive views of pregnancy; the model of symbiosis between mother and foetus. She eats a papaya: ‘the smell topples me in. Rind, fruit and seed mesh on my tongue, become as dense and sweet as cake. I’m not the one who wants the papaya, but I need all of it’ (p.125). Her enjoyment, and use of ‘I’ to refer to both herself and the baby, unite her with her developing child; their dual need supersedes the sense of otherness, invasion and alienation. We might expect Maja to become more accepting of her condition as the narrative progresses, moving on from tropes of parasitism and competition to symbiosis. In fact, she oscillates between the three models, a more realistic representation of the experience of pregnancy; variously natural, pathological, Gothic, blissful. Pregnancy is presented as a holistic, powerful whole-body and mind experience. By exploring the effects of medicalisation and real anxieties about pregnancy, Oyeyemi reclaims pregnancy from standardising medical narratives, and returns the authority of experience to the female body.

unnamedLouise Benson James is a PhD student looking at Hysteria and the Gothic in Women’s Fiction, 1850 – present at the University of Bristol.

 

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[1] Helen Oyeyemi, The Opposite House (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p.6; p.221. All further references given in the text.

[2] Clare Kahane, ‘The Maternal Legacy: The Grotesque Tradition in Flannery O’Connor’s Female Gothic’, in The Female Gothic, ed by Juliann E Fleenor (London: Eden Press, 1983), p.245.

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