Medical Gothic and Pregnancy in Contemporary Women’s Fiction

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper


This paper brings together medical humanities and Gothic studies to consider a legacy of nineteenth-century medicalisation of pregnancy in contemporary women’s writing: the persistence of a Gothic trope that links the pregnant body to insanity and instability. The Gothic Studies Journal 17/1 (May 2015) special issue on ‘Medical Gothic’ explores the symbiosis of medical humanities and Gothic studies. The collection spans subjects as diverse as illness narratives, X-rays, Gothic diabetes and organ harvest, yet any discussion of reproduction is notably absent. The nineteenth century saw female reproductive bodies become a focus of obsession for the male medical profession. Along with all facets of female reproduction - menstruation, childbirth and menopause – pregnancy was subsumed by the medical system as a ‘medical event’, rigorously regulated, processed and treated like illness or disease; pathologised and ‘gothicised’. Fears and anxieties about the reproductive functions of the female body permeate Victorian Gothic writing by women, including Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. The medicalisation and gothicisation of the pregnant body persist in contemporary politics, and are reflected in fictional Gothic visions of reproduction. Ownership over women’s bodies, particularly during pregnancy and childbirth, has been a main focus of feminist debate from the 1970s. Concurrently, a spate of ‘body horror’ films (e.g. Alien (1979) and The Brood (1979)) presented dark scenes of monstrous birth and monstrous offspring. Gothic tropes and vocabulary continue to be used in relation to pregnancy in contemporary women’s fiction. I examine two texts, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House (2007) and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011) to demonstrate the continuation of pregnancy’s link with female insanity, instability and violence. I question whether, as illness narratives can enact catharsis, can the Gothic can be used as a vehicle of empowerment and resistance in relation to pregnancy narratives? Do these works present any liberatory account of subjective bodily experience or attempts to reclaim ownership of the reproductive body from medical control?
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Jul 2016
EventMedical Humanities conference - Exeter University
Duration: 28 Jul 201629 Jul 2016


ConferenceMedical Humanities conference


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