Fertility as Literary Theme Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Throughout the literatures of numerous countries fertility is tied to identity, defining women and men by their reproductive capabilities. Some works celebrate fertility without question, as Willa Cather does in My Ántonia (1918). The narrator, Jim Burden, describes Ántonia as an Earth Mother, with a flock of children about her, tending her apple orchard and the animals of the farm, all life and goodness flowing from her. Eudora Welty too in her fiction creates images of Earth Mother characters, like the pregnant woman in “The Death of a Travelling Salesman,” who is only called “the woman.” Welty’s allusions to the Dionysian fertility cult of ancient Greece unequivocally imply that a cyclical, natural view of the world is superior. Implicit as well is the theme that those who claim their place in nature will be self-fulfilled and those who deny it will always be alienated from themselves and the earth. Male writers do not always frame the topic in quite the same way. Eugene O’Neill, for example, depicts male characters who long for evidence of their virility, indeed pin all their hopes for the future on it, as in Desire Under the Elms (1924).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Several modernist writers of the early twentieth century concentrate on the metaphor of a lack of virility and fertility in the modern world. This lack of fertility is symbolic of the decline of culture and the decline of the quality of life in the urban, industrial world. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) epitomizes this vision of a sterile desert in which nothing new can be produced to revitalize the world. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) features as its two main characters a man who can father no son and a son who lacks a father. Without children, there is no hope for the future; without a father there is no history. D. H. Lawrence, in his novels, consistently dichotomizes life between nature and sexuality (good) and urban and industrial blight (bad). The degree to which individuals’ identities suffer from this sense of sterility is apparent in the contrast between the legendary hero Ulysses and his symbolic counterpart Leopold Bloom, a henpecked, browbeaten man with little hope and no prospects.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Adams, Alice. “Out of the Womb: The Future of the Uterine Metaphor.” Feminist Studies 19, no. 2 (Summer, 1993): 269-290.

Chester, Laura, ed. Cradle and All: Women Writers on Pregnancy and Birth. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1989.

Daly, Brenda O., and Maureen T. Reddy, eds. Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Lowe-Evans, Mary. Crimes Against Fecundity: Joyce and Population Control. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989.

Scarry, Elaine, ed. Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.