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Chapter 3, “Hardy and the Vanity of Procreation,” begins by noting that the notorious infanticide-suicide in Jude the Obscure has always posed a riddle for critics: laboring to make sense of it, they often treat it as an aberration in Thomas Hardy’s work. This chapter takes a different view. Father Time’s grotesque flourish is not simply a piece of Malthusianism, or an affront to the Victorian reader, but rather a kind of culmination of Hardy’s career-long struggle to integrate procreation, the fulfillment of creating new life, into his fiction and poetry. In Hardy’s novels reproduction is nearly always thwarted or suspended: this is consistent with his many expressions of distaste, throughout his verse and private writings, for the ongoingness of new life. Like Schopenhauer (whom he read), Hardy suggests that creating new persons is a kind of aesthetic-moral error. This chapter asks how the novel – a form of art usually considered dynamic, vital, and vibrant – can accommodate such a challenge to its very foundations.
Chapter 1, “Order and Origin,” begins by asking what we mean when we speak of the “modern novel.” Frequently its origins are traced to Gustave Flaubert, but this assumption deserves more scrutiny than it receives. What was preoccupying Flaubert in the months (indeed the very minutes) when he was formulating his beliefs about the novel, the pronouncements that would go on to become articles of faith for Joyce and other modern novelists? He was terrified that he had fathered a child, and he wrote in great detail about his aversion to the idea of creating new life. This chapter argues that this was not an idle distaste. It was, in fact, evidence of a sensibility (astringent, subtractive, devoted to an ideal of order) that undergirds the very idea of the modern novel that Flaubert inaugurated. This chapter provides close study of the procreative morality of Madame Bovary, L’Éducation sentimentale, and Bouvard et Pécuchet to demonstrate how such books, and such attitudes toward the problem of giving life, determined the course of the modern novel.
Chapter 6, “Reproduction and Dystopia,” sets out to show that Aldous Huxley’s well-known satire of a reproductive future in Brave New World – humans engineered in bottles, sorted into different classes – is only a small part of his complex moral attitude toward procreation. Novels like Point Counter Point and Island make clear that it was not only cold reproductive technologies that worried Huxley: he considered any creation of new persons to be an ethical quandary. He was prescient in his concern about the environmental degradation brought on by overpopulation – in 1928 he was already warning of humanity’s “tropism toward fossilized carrion.” Huxley’s work betrays a deep melancholy about the peopling of the earth. In this respect he is a kind of prophet for a dystopian tradition that is still with us. This chapter, in its second half, turns from Huxley to his heirs – contemporary novelists like Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michel Houellebecq – whose glittering dystopian fantasies cannot conceal a more ordinary despair about the perpetuation of human life.
Chapter 8, “Procreating on Patmos,” focusing on the tensions and contradictions of the novel today, marks the culmination of this study of the novel’s ambivalence toward procreation. The title comes from Emil Cioran, who warned against having children during end times: “one does not procreate on Patmos.” Our Patmos today is the entire planet menaced by global warming. In contemporary fiction it is the climate emergency that is most likely to induce a hostility toward the prospect of having children. This chapter looks at a wide range of current writers consumed by the moral dilemma of procreation – Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis, Sheila Heti, Jonathan Franzen, Ben Lerner, Nell Zink, Ian McEwan – while concentrating on this overriding moral-ecological theme, and its importance in the parallel work of environmental philosophers. The contemporary novel suggests that we might focus less on dystopian imaginings of the future cataclysm, and more on the conditions of present-day life, in which we must reach a decision about the role we should play in the peopling of that future world.
Chapter 5, “The Children of Others in Woolf,” begins by acknowledging an obvious truth: no English writer is more famous for not having children than Virginia Woolf. There can be little doubt that this is because she was a woman. But critics noting Woolf’s experience of childlessness have never made much of an effort to explain why this matters for her books. It matters a lot, for Woolf returned throughout her novels to the representation of contradictory sentiments toward the question of having children. Masterpieces like To the Lighthouse and The Waves thrum with competing expressions of yearning and distaste. The late novel The Years is explicit about the ugliness of parents’ overvaluation of their own children. Woolf’s short fiction is no less complex on this theme: “A Society” imagines a birth strike by women, while “Lappin and Lapinova” dramatizes the privations of childlessness. Woolf’s novels proposed a recurring resolution of the tension between fecundity and austerity: children were to be included in the purview of fiction, but ideally at a necessary distance, as the offspring of other people.
Chapter 2, “Revenge of the Unborn,” notes the way that creating characters in fiction can resemble giving birth: Dickens, Nabokov, and Flann O’Brien have all played with this idea. In Tristram Shandy the hero even talks about his prenatal existence. But no writer has imagined the dubious zone of preexistence more brilliantly than Samuel Butler. In Erewhon he invented a society where parents appear so guilty about having children that they place all blame on the “unborn.” Infants must sign a document taking responsibility for their existence. This chapter traces the many moral implications of this comic idea. It is part of a long satiric tradition that sees reproduction as one of the essential human follies, but it also looks ahead to contemporary philosophers (Parfit, Benatar, and others) who want to ask how we can impose life on beings (our children) who have not consented to it. Butler’s subsequent book The Way of All Flesh picks up where Erewhon leaves off, depicting in yet starker detail the morally questionable scenario of giving life to creatures who may one day judge their parents for it.
Chapter 7, “Lessing on Generations and Freedom,” notes that while other English novelists – Lawrence, Woolf – wrote about characters mired in uncertainty about having children, none produced anything like the sequences of protracted vexation in Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” novels. This chapter takes in Lessing’s long career, from her first novel (The Grass Is Singing) to her last (Alfred and Emily), but it focuses on those 1950s and 1960s masterpieces, which track the heroine Martha Quest from adolescence to old age. Martha is riven by incompatible attitudes: a curiosity about motherhood is stymied by her antipathy toward becoming a mother. She cannot shake the conviction that in giving life to a new being she is shackling that being to a state of unfreedom. Martha, like her creator Lessing, is forced to ask whether only abandonment of one’s children can provide some small liberty to that next generation. In Lessing’s novels it is not only the mother who, encumbered by a baby, loses her freedom: it is also the child, beholden to the parent, who enters existence as an already subjected being.
Chapter 4, “Lawrence’s Storm of Fecundity,” examines the stubborn ambivalence toward procreation throughout the novels of D. H. Lawrence. On the one hand Lawrence called the novel “the one bright book of life,” and was more eloquent than any other novelist in defending the form on the basis of its vitality. On the other hand the novels – from Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow to The Lost Girl and Lady Chatterley’s Lover – rarely admit procreation into their pages without a protracted struggle. Reproduction poses a number of problems for Lawrence: it is an outcome of sex that prioritizes procreative ends over erotic means; it is complicit in the spread of population and by extension the decimation of the English countryside; it threatens the autonomy of the individual, especially Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow and Women in Love. This chapter offers a large-scale interpretation of Lawrence’s contradictions. It argues that in these opposite forces of life and not-life, perpetuation of vitality and suspension of it, we can discover the essential tension of his work. The novel is the theater of action in which this tension is allowed to reverberate.
The novel since the nineteenth century has displayed a thorny ambivalence toward the question of having children. In its representation of human vitality it can seem to promote the giving of life, but again and again it betrays a nagging doubt about the moral implications of procreation. The Novel and the Problem of New Life identifies this tension as a defining quality of the modern British and European novel. Beginning with the procreative-skeptical writings of Flaubert, Butler, and Hardy, then turning to the high modernist work of Lawrence, Woolf, and Huxley, and culminating in the postwar fiction of Lessing and others, this book chronicles the history of the novel as it came to accommodate greater misgivings about the morality of reproduction. This is the first study to examine in literature a problem that has long troubled philosophers, environmental thinkers, and so many people in everyday life.