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'Ryder' as contraception: Barnes v. the reproduction of mothering.

Djuna Barnes's family chronicle Ryder can, for many good reasons, be seen as a male-centered text, a critique of patriarchy mounted from within, through patriarchal stereotypes, styles, and genres. Described by early readers as "masculine," even "virile," the novel mocks its over-sexed, all-fathering hero and parodies numerous male writers (Chaucer, Rabelais, Fielding); in this way, Barnes both presents and questions ideas about manhood, particularly the equation of masculinity with procreative potency or fathering. Yet Ryder also subverts this key position within patriarchal ideology by vividly rendering its negative consequences for women, who are thus limited to the biological function of childbearing - an equation of womanhood with mothering. Indeed, one reviewer even suggested that the picaresque mock-hero, Wendell Ryder, is overshadowed by Barnes's female characters, and that "Ryder is a tragedy of women."(1) Study of the novel's historical context can lend further support to a female-centered reading, focusing on Ryder as a text about mothering that reflects a crucial, transitional period in women's struggle for physical and social self-determination.

Set primarily in the middle to later decades of the nineteenth century and published in 1928, the novel spans a period, both in the United States and Britain, of increased public attention on issues of childbearing and family limitation. During this period when the terms "contraception" and "birth control" were first used, the birthrate declined steadity, and childbirth practices changed. Recent historical studies of contraception and childbirth concur in presenting the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s as a time during which the nature of motherhood was being radically redefined. In a study of changing views of childbirth within medical and social science, Ann Oakley emphasizes the feminist position that reproduction is "socially constructed," and is thus a set of historically specific ideas and practices that vary from culture to culture (62). My interest is in how Djuna Barnes's first novel (and brief best-seller) participates in the social construction of motherhood during a period when ideas about mothers and childbearing were particularly in transition. Historian Catherine Scholten locates the end of this period as 1930, after which time, she says, "being a mother meant rearing children more than bearing them" (111).

Since Ryder presents an eccentric, nonworking, polygamous male sponge whose relentless goal is excessive progeny, and since the Ryder family history is told through various pre-twentieth-century styles, the novel might seem deliberately anachronistic, a throwback to an outdated ideology. But I will argue that Barnes's novel is very much a text of her time, which also speaks to our own age of increasing threats to women's reproductive autonomy. My approach will be to look at the novel in relation to historical changes in motherhood, then to mark parallels between Ryder and texts of the early birth-control movement-specifically, two of Margaret Sanger's 1920s works that opposed what she called "enforced maternity." But before examining this historical context, I would like to set out some of the passages in Ryder that provide the underpinning for my argument, to suggest patterns in the novel's representation of mothering.

The first pattern is one of promotion and acceptance of the traditional role of woman as mother. This conservative trend is shown most clearly in Wendell Ryder's stories of childbirth and emphasis on maternal death, which he exalts as that which makes a woman, he says, "as near to saints as my mind can conceive" (202). Wendell describes one of these "divine martyrs": "She was very simple, very lewd. ... She was strong but not healthy, she was pure but much handled, she had dignity but she was powerless - the perfect mother!" (202). A similarly traditional conception of woman as mother is used contrastingly as a means of female power by Wendell's unconventional mother Sophia, who covers up much and "contrived to have what she wanted" from men and women by ostentatiously defining herself as "Mother" (12; cf. 15, 33, 86, 177-79). But the acceptance of woman's customary role is perhaps most strikingly enacted in scenes that display what Nancy Chodorow has called "the reproduction of mothering": that aspect of women's socialization in which daughters learn the maternal role from their mothers. In the first of these scenes, Sophia's dying mother, having just gone through her fourteenth childbirth, lies in her bed, "a terrible suffering centre without extremities" (7). As she bequeaths her newborn to her eldest daughter, who is nursing her own first infant, the passing down of the mother's role strongly confirms Chodorow's thesis: "Sophia took up the new-born all in its long clothes, and put it to the sister breast, for she remembered her mother when she was beginning that she had finished" (8). Commenting on this passage, Marie Ponsot observes that the "play on pronouns ... sets the spiral of generative women spinning" (108). In a parallel scene, ten-year-old Julie Ryder is described "on her bed of playful maternity," mimicking the cries of both her mother and Kate, her father's mistress, who are "screaming their children in" (95). Such passages succinctly depict mothering as learned by daughters from their mothers.

But Ryder also exhibits a second, more dominant pattern in which the characters (mostly but not exclusively female) oppose, criticize, or attempt to stop the reproduction of mothering. Thus the novel includes several passages in which a young woman is advised not to marry, not to "let men touch you," not to "be natural" - and thereby not to have children. (Amelia is so warned by her mother and sister, and gives her daughter the same advice [32, 46, 95].) Kate also voices strong criticism of women's traditional role, attacking Wendell for making her "become infatuated with the flavour of motherhood," which she hates but says is addictive (170). Her defiant rage conveys a horrifying sense of being trapped by motherhood:

"I'll kill it the minute it's born, but I'll bear it! ... I'll stand over it like a distempered bitch before a wailing litter, and I'll stamp it to the ground, and be done with your filth! ... I'll have my children, one, two, three, a dozen! until the mould breaks, and I'll stamp on them." (170-71)

One of Wendell's bastard sons, child of another exploited woman, tells Matthew O'Connor that no one will experience the unhappiness of being a mother through him - a rebellion against the reproduction of mothering that moves the homosexual doctor to suggest love between men as an alternative (235-36).

Reinforcing this pattern of opposition to motherhood are the novel's many passages associating childbirth with pain and maternal death. Andrew Field describes "childlessness" - his term for the criticism and rejection of childbearing - as "one of the most persistent of the Barnes themes" and as one "which she does not to my knowledge share with any other major contemporary writer" (169). To counter this view of Barnes's uniqueness, I will turn now to specific aspects of the novel's historical context that demonstrate the extent to which Ryder reflects dominant concerns of its time - the period the novel depicts, as well as the time when it was written and published.

Recent histories of childbirth and contraception in Britain and the U.S. suggest that in the nineteenth century the birthrate sharply dropped, due to a variety of factors including the industrialization and urbanization that made large families more a limitation than a help (McLaren 178-81, 198-202). Fertility particularly declined from the 1880s through the 1920s. Indeed, as Angus McLaren observes, American women who married "in the 1920s produced fewer children than [those marrying in any decade] between the 1880s and the 1950s" (235) - a fact which in itself indicates that in its "childlessness" Ryder embodies the spirit of its time. However, given the widespread public opposition to birth control, it isn't surprising that increased use of contraceptive methods occurred over several generations, at different rates according to class and urban or rural location (McLaren 180-81). Historian Jane Lewis thus stresses the continuing subjection of British working-class women: "The average working-class mother of the 1890s, married in her teens or early twenties, had ten pregnancies and spent fifteen years in a state of pregnancy and nursing" ("Motherhood Issues" 7).

In Ryder we can see the historical decline in family size, accompanied by persistent instances of large families. The novel's action begins in the early 1860s with the death of Sophia's mother, and the final scene appears to occur in 1912, after Amelia and Wendell have lived together for twenty-six years. Besides Sophia's mother, other women who have large numbers of children include Amelia's mother (who had twelve), Matthew O'Connor's mother (who had fourteen), and Molly Dance (who has eleven). Amelia, who apparently begins living with Wendell soon after they meet in 1886, has only five children, while Kate (who joins the manage some ten years later) has three, along with one infant who dies. This limitation of the women's fertility may not be through their deliberate efforts, though Wendell does describe one scene in which Kate, newly pregnant, severs sexual relations with him (159). Yet the novel's strongest evidence of a deliberate limiting of pregnancies is seen in Sophia, who bears three sons early in her first marriage and then has no other children, so that when one child dies as an infant she ends up with what the English in the nineteenth century called a "French family" (McLaren 178). That Sophia probably benefitted from some birth-control method (if only the currently most popular method, withdrawal) is suggested not only by the fact that she stopped having children so quickly, but also by hints that she continued to have many lovers.

Another historical trend in childbearing which is reflected in Ryder is a high maternal mortality rate, which persisted in Britain and America even after infant mortality began to decline, leading to widespread perception of motherhood as "a social problem" in the early decades of the twentieth century (Lewis, "Motherhood Issues" 6). "Motherhood was undoubtedly a dangerous business," Jane Lewis states, noting that even into the 1930s the mortality rate among mothers was greater than that for coal miners (11). Maternal mortality increased dramatically in England and Wales in 1918-1919, and again rose from 1923 through the late '30s (Lewis, Politics 36). In the United States, 23,000 women died through childbearing in 1918 alone (Scholten 109). One demographic study points out that in 1920 in the U.S. and 1928 in Britain, national committees to gather data on maternal mortality were set up, due to public awareness of an alarming rate of death among mothers (Llewellyn-Jones 493-95). So, again, in this way Ryder is very much a text of the 1920s.

For feminists, however, perhaps the most intriguing pattern to emerge from current historical studies of childbirth and contraception is that the late-nineteenth-century decline in U.S. and British fertility was accompanied by a backlash which Barnes's novel also reflects. Historians like Jane Lewis and Angus McLaren agree that during this period in which the practice of birth control was clearly on the rise, there was also greater emphasis on women's duty to bear children, louder medical opposition to contraception, and increased legal obstruction to the dissemination of family-planning information, as laws similar to the U.S. Comstock laws were also passed in France and Germany (McLaren 206). Thus, couples were limiting their families despite, as McLaren observes, "avowed public hostility of the medical profession, the churches, and the state" (207). Doctors, who were among the professional groups with the smallest families, may have opposed birth control to protect their respectability, since contraception was associated with loose living; condoms in particular were connected with prostitution and protection against venereal disease (McLaren 196, 232-33, 184). But condemnation of family planning may also have resulted, as Jane Lewis suggests, from Darwinistic social theory, with its emphasis on rigid sex roles as characteristic of human evolution and as necessary to the production of superior offspring. Eugenicists popularized concern about preserving "the race," spreading fears based on evidence that fertility was declining more rapidly among the Anglo-Saxon middle classes than among other (that is, "lower") groups ("Motherhood Issues" 3-6). And a more general backlash stance pictured contraception as a threat to the centrality of the female's reproductive role, potentially leading to women's becoming overly concerned with sex rather than with mothering ("Motherhood Issues" 5).

The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century public opposition to contraception, accompanied by stress on the maternal role, can clearly be seen in Wendell Ryder, who is an embodiment of the backlash. Wendell's grandiose philosophy of polygamy, and of free and frequent sexual congress, is - unlike that of other nineteenth-century free-love advocates - also marked by emphasis on the unconstrained fathering of numerous children.(2) He thus derides the "pale existence" of women who only know "celibacy and monogamy," and he underscores the vastness of his "race," using the term employed by eugenicists who reinforced women's duty to bear children (202, 2 10-11). That Wendell's persistent pro-natalist propaganda is at least partly a defensive reaction against current trends or women's resistance is suggested by the fact that he delivers his paean to his own race to Lady Bridesleep, who takes her pleasure with him, but when he asks, "What shall we call him?" confidently answers, "Nothing and Never .... You need No Child also, my good man, all fathers have one" (211). Wendell apparently needs this bit of instruction, since he has claimed, in an earlier scene, that his peculiar gift is a potency which guarantees that he will sire a child with each act of sexual intercourse, a gift he presents through an elaborate musical metaphor:

"for my real glory is in the merry music I've struck up with my spherical, timbersome pipe of a single stop, the core of the codpiece. How many notes fly through a woman at its orchestration! Grave notes, and half notes, and demisemiquavers, all clinging to the beam of her interior, and ripening after the nine months, to fly forth duly harmonized ... or ... stillborn like a rush of grace notes, too hurried for the voice to catch, and then silence and a Christian burial." (165)

This is a man with no conception of contraception. This is a man who too cavalierly accepts infant mortality, and who mystifies maternal death, suggesting that it is an inevitable, uncontrollable tragedy, a glorious self-sacrifice. This is exactly the kind of man who was one of the villains in Margaret Sanger's dramatic polemics for birth control.

Let us turn, then, to examples of Sanger's work, in order to see how Ryder might be further related to its historical context and to the writing of Barnes's contemporaries. In the 1920s, Sanger brought forth two texts that can be seen as paired studies in changing conceptions of motherhood. Woman and the New Race, published in 1920, presents "the revolt of woman against sex servitude" as "[t]he most far-reaching social development of modern times" (1). Marshaling arguments for "voluntary motherhood" (8), Sanger stresses the benefits of limiting reproduction - benefits for women, for families, and for "the race" as a whole. (Though this issue is controversial, Angus McLaren suggests that Sanger played on, rather than merely mirrored, eugenics-inspired fears when she advocated birth control for working-class women [218].) Like Ryder, Woman and the New Race criticizes traditional ideas concerning motherhood; "encouraging ... large families" is, for Sanger, a "serious evil" (57). Furthermore, since men oppose contraception - as individuals and through male-dominated institutions - it is up to women, she holds, to assume responsibility for limiting reproduction (96). Women must question existing ideas and structures, and they must create "new ideals of sex" that "spring from the innermost needs of women" (99, 184).

In its 1922 English edition, this text was retitled The New Motherhood, a title which suggests the relationship between this work and Sanger's somewhat later text, Motherhood in Bondage. Published in the same year as Ryder, Motherhood in Bondage expands upon a chapter of the earlier work, which presented letters from women to Sanger describing their situations and pleading for birth-control information. Over 400 pages long, the 1928 text consists mainly of letters, organized rather loosely according to aspects of "enforced maternity" which they exemplify (xi). Though Sanger wrote a brief introduction and conclusion, along with introductory commentary for each chapter, the text is dominated by what she called "the confessions of enslaved mothers" cries from the inferno of maternity" (xi, 60). These "cries" - the letters themselves - resemble statements by Barnes's women - Sophia's mother, Amelia's mother, Amelia, and Kate - who stress the pain of childbirth, fear of maternal mortality, and sense of entrapment within a relentless cycle of pregnancies and births.

Motherhood in Bondage is thus the closest of Sanger's texts to Ryder, in that each concentrates on the "old" rather than the "new" motherhood. Both also attempt to deal with sexuality in a frank manner, and both foreground the censorship to which they were subjected. Barnes flaunts the censoring of her novel, deploring the damage to the text in her preface, while suggesting the location and extent of each forced omission by leaving blank spaces marked with asterisks. In a more indirect way, Sanger repeatedly presents letters demanding facts concerning contraception which it was illegal for her to print. Explicit information about birth control is thus an absence palpably present in Sanger's text, just as a prohibited sexuality is conjured by Barnes's asterisks.

Like Barnes, Sanger shows mothers trying to save their daughters from the "trap of maternity" (xvii, 47, 52); she also presents daughters taking over the care of siblings when their mother dies after numerous childbirths (179-201), and she even offers the words of a desperate woman who (like Barnes's Kate) threatens that she may harm her children (63). Sanger's avowed purpose is to reveal "the tragedies concealed in our social system" (xii), something Barnes did by conveying her own family tragedy in a heavily coded, indirect way. The two writers also coincide in suggesting the larger forces, as well as flawed individuals, at work in such tragedies. Though Sanger blames women's enslavement on church, state, obstructionist doctors, tyrannical husbands, and passive, unthinking wives, she asserts that often "the villain in the drama is neither the one nor the other [of the couple], but the relentless, inhuman driving power of natural but uncontrolled impulses" (265-66). One of Sanger's correspondents forcefully expresses this viewpoint: "God help me, nature is stronger than anything in this world so how is a man healthy and strong to be kept from nature's doings?" (138). This depiction of sexuality as an enslaving natural force coincides with parts of Ryder, such as when Amelia claims she got herself "in the way of doom and damnation by being natural" (95). Sophia offers a more positive picture when she describes Wendell and his women as "like ... the beast in the field, because you are nature" (238). Lacking Sophia's ambiguity of tone, Sanger uses this same imagery, comparing woman in her present state to "a brood animal" (Woman and the New Race 2). An implied argument of Barnes's novel is more directly stated in Sanger's passionate polemics: that women must no longer merely reproduce in the way of nature, passively submitting to their sexual and maternal impulses (Motherhood in Bondage 432-34).

Furthermore, Sanger explicitly notes the constructed, socially conditioned nature of what is considered the norm in sexuality and reproduction:

The vicissitudes of the large family, the high infant mortality rate, the high maternal mortality rate, the appearance of the doctor for the annual accouchement, and the almost equally frequent appearance of the undertaker, were all considered "normal". ... Today we recognize that this type of procreation is no more "normal" than an epidemic of typhoid. (433)

In a parallel way, Barnes presents a traditional, patriarchal attitude toward siring children as eccentric, self-centered, and anachronistic, while the traditional role of mother also comes under fire in her novel. Julie Ryder is, as Marie Ponsot has shown, Barnes's sketch for the contemporary female in revolt, one who questions the traditional postures of "Father" and "Mother" assumed so self-consciously by Wendell and Sophia. Like Motherhood in Bondage, Ryder foregrounds enslaved maternity but also persistently voices women's questioning of traditional motherhood.

I have argued that Ryder is part of a larger social construction, or reconstruction, of mothering. This analysis can be extended to include the novel's representation of childbirth practices - its depiction of home births managed, for the most part, by a male physician who is sought and praised by women (123). This picture of the "medicalization" of childbearing - the gradual replacement of female midwives by male doctors - accords with the view advanced by recent historians that women were not simply victims of the medical profession but rather that they sought doctors and "negotiated" changes in childbirth practices.(3)

The place of Ryder within the social reconstruction of mothering can also be seen by comparing Barnes's representations of childbearing with those of other novelists. These would include the consummately Victorian mothers of Wuthering Heights, with its recurring connection of motherhood and illness, childbirth and maternal death. Similarly, a mother's death provides closure for another novel published more than eighty years later (just a year after Ryder): Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, with its clinical, horrific details of hospitalized childbirth, which only became a significant trend for middle-class women starting in the 1920s.(4) A marked change can be glimpsed through Margaret Drabble's 1969 novel The Waterfall, with its opening scene of childbirth at home attended by a midwife, the doctor only arriving in time for a few stitches - the whole scene homey and calm, with only a single, belated reference to pain. Though these novels mark only a few points in the unfolding literature of childbirth, it is still clear that the meaning of being a mother has shifted since the mid-nineteenth century, and works of fiction contribute to this ideological process.(5)

In its representation of motherhood in terms of repeated births at home, characterized by intense pain and fear of death, Ryder is precisely a text of its time, anatomizing motherhood in bondage and in transition - a form of mothering lamented and questioned by many of the novel's women. Ryder is implicitly contraceptive in its effect; it constitutes Djuna Barnes's strongest statement against women's enslavement to reproduction.


(1) This statement and the description of the novel's "masculine" style are taken from the review published in New Republic; Bates's review describes the "virile" character of the novel. (2) Gordon discusses the advocacy of controlled conception by various free-love proponents in the nineteenth century (84-91, 96-109). (3) Both Leavitt and Lewis ("Motherhood Issues") describe the medicalization of birth as a process of "negotiation" between women and doctors, an idea repeatedly supported by Wertz and Wertz (see, e.g., 148-59, 281-83). (4) The hospitalization of childbirth in the U.S. is presented in this way by Wertz and Wertz (132-59) and Scholten (105-07); Lewis (Politics 117-39) offers a detailed analysis of hospitalized birth in England. Nancy Schrom Dye's review of historical scholarship on American childbirth practices repeatedly presents the 1920s as a turning point; she suggests that in that decade doctors first gained ascendancy over midwives, making childbirth "a surgical procedure" and introducing the interventionist practices of "radical obstetrics" (106). (5) For studies that survey literary representations of childbirth, see Kreppel and Korte. Yaeger's important, ambitious description of a "poetics of birth" attempts to initiate more theoretical work on the construction of childbirth in literature, culture, and society.


Barnes, Djuna. Ryder. 1928. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990. Bates, Ernest Sutherland. "A Robust Tale." Saturday Review, 17 November 1928, 376. Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Dye, Nancy Schrom. "History of Childbirth in America." Signs 6 (1980): 97-108. Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman, 1976. Korte, Barbara. "In Sorrow Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children - On Childbirth in Literature." Orbis Litterarum 45 (1990): 30-48. Kreppel, Maria Curro. "Books I've Read: Crosscurrents in Obstetrics and Literary Childbirth." Atlantis 10 (1984): 1-11. Leavitt, Judith Walzer. Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Lewis, Jane. "|Motherhood Issues' in the Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." Delivering Motherhood: Maternal Ideologies and Practices in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Ed. Katherine Arnup, Andree Levesque, and Ruth Roach Pierson. London: Routledge, 1990. 1-19 -----. The Politics of Motherhood: Child and Maternal Welfare in England, 1900-1939. London: Croom Helm, 1980. Llewellyn-Jones, Derek. Human Reproduction and Society. London: Faber, 1974. McLaren, Angus. A History of Contraception: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Oakley, Ann. "A Case of Maternity: Paradigms of Women as Maternity Cases." Ties That Bind: Essays on Mothering and Patriarchy. Ed. Jean F. O'Barr, Deborah Pope, and Mary Wyer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 61-85. Ponsot, Marie. "A Reader's Ryder." Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. 94-112. Rev. of Ryder, by Djuna Barnes. New Republic, 24 October 1928, 282. Sanger, Margaret. Motherhood in Bondage. New York: Brentano's, 1928; rpt. Elmsford, NY: Maxwell Reprint, 1956. -----. The New Motherhood London: Jonathan Cape, 1922; rpt. Elmsford, NY: Maxwell Reprint, 1970. -----. Woman and the New Race. New York: Brentano's, 1920; rpt. Elmsford, NY: Maxwell Reprint, 1969. Scholten, Catherine M. Childbearing in American Society: 1650-1850. New York: New York University Press, 1985. Wertz, Richard W., and Dorothy C. Wertz. Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. Yaeger, Patricia. "The Poetics of Birth." Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristolle to AIDS. Ed. Domna Stanton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. 262-96.
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Title Annotation:Djuna Barnes
Author:Stevenson, Sheryl
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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