Academic journal article Hecate

'Me Operation:' Abortion and Class in Australian Women's Novels, 1920s-1950

Academic journal article Hecate

'Me Operation:' Abortion and Class in Australian Women's Novels, 1920s-1950

Article excerpt

. . . she thought of all the women there were in the ward where they had taken Olly; they seemed to stretch in an infinite row of white beds; women who were the broken spears of a revolution against the future, who had said 'Stop' to a Juggernaut . . . an endless ward of dying women about whom nothing was said, no statistics offered, no voices raised. They just died evilly and painfully. Everyone knew, even made jokes about it. But officially, there was no such thing as a woman like Olly who could not afford to go on living because the price was too high. (Kylie Tennant Ride on Stranger 182)

Abortion features in a great many social and socialist realist novels written in Western capitalist countries before 1950. Despite Tennant's positing of abortion deaths as outside history, abortion plots and practices begin to surface in fiction and short stories with greater frequency and detail as the first few decades of this century unfold. The fiction of the late 1920s and early 1930s in Australia seems to exhibit an expansion of concern with abortion and reproductive misadventure that warrants investigation. Via the conflicting patterns of abortion representation, narratives of social explanation and the social and economic features these narratives set out to contest are juxtaposed and in dialogue. Realism, as a dominant literary form of the depression and war years in Australia manifests this dialogue unambiguously. The abortions in realist texts reveal themselves as nodes around which the constitutive discourses of what may be called `radical realism' coalesce. They present firstly as 'facts' which have been conventionally excluded from fiction and signal the documentary or explanatory impetus of what Colin McCabe and Catherine Belsey have termed `classic realism,' distinguishing it from the conventions of bourgeois fiction.1 As plots, abortions are situated within systemic political narratives, carrying values graded against material standards, that are, in socialist realism, made of or `proceeding from' the future.2

They work as exemplars which play out connections between economics and ethics that may or may not work in the interests of women. Further, abortions in these texts mark the junction between nominally separate spheres of experience, carrying erotic and romantic themes to meet economic and self-consciously political themes, often embodied by characters forced together in the circumstances that an unwanted pregnancy can entail. The praxis of realism's inheritance from naturalism renders this divide as a struggle between nature and culture, and this dualism in turn inflects not only the writing of gendered identity, but that of class formation and distinction. This paper begins the mapping of this junction in the texts, noting to what extent sexuality and politics are written as separate narratives, and to what extent abortions may function to negate this separation. Abortion, on Kristeva's threshold between nature and culture, enacts a requisite splicing together of the general and the contingent in a crucial moment for social realism; thus enabling and performing realism as history.

Abortion and parturition both can be understood as emblematic motifs in these texts, functioning within the larger motif of femininity itself. Realist fiction, in its evocation of the social as material, or historical, employs representations of women and femininity as grounding metaphors by which to measure progress (of time, of narrative, of social conditions-history), and representations of abortion are revealing indicators of the implications of these metaphors. Susan Squier has argued that reproductivity, and the technology of the reproductive body was used in the modern period `under the influence of growing industrial capitalism,' `to represent, and to contest, the material and psychological reshaping of the human demanded by industrial production.'3 Legal in the USSR from 1920 until the mid-thirties abortion in socialist realist fiction written in capitalist countries functions as polemic and, as such, has specific and definable roles. …

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