The Best Births In Literature

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Unless you happen to be friendly with Queen Elizabeth II, it’s a good bet that you will be getting news of the Royal Baby the same as the rest of us plebes – through news reports. So, as the waiting continues and the good wishes pour in for Kate Middleton and Prince William, sate yourself with some of literature's finest birth scenes.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy: To my mind, the very finest birth scene in literature, though certainly not the easiest. As Kitty suffers through labor, her husband Levin suddenly discovers faith in God and realizes his own shortcomings. “All the ordinary conditions of life, without which it is impossible to take cognizance of anything, ceased to exist for Levin,” Tolstoy writes. Told entirely from Levin’s perspective, the scene is the emotional pinnacle of the novel, easily dimming Anna’s own travails.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood: Atwood specializes in bleak worlds where all aspects of humanity have been perverted, so it’s not surprising that birth, here, has been reduced to mere breeding. As the novelist Alison Mercer wrote in The Guardian, “Atwood's mix of poetry and sharply observed social detail is devastating, and purposeful, too: a stark warning of what waits in the wings when a quasi-religious government has power over women's bodies.”

Recommended Reading

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne:  One of the great comic works in English literature, postmodern well before postmodernism, begins, naturally enough, with Tristram narrating his own birth, which culminates with one of the least reassuring lines imaginable: “Tis most certainly the head.” The Guardian notes in another piece that, “the whole book is a painful labour to push out a life story.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith: A testament to the difficulties of giving birth in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, where this coming-of-age tale is set. Of the several scenes pertaining to childbirth, none is quite so haunting as this: “The baby was born. It was a girl and a very easy birth. The midwife down the block was called in. Everything went fine. Sissy was in labor only twenty-five minutes. It was a wonderful delivery. The only thing wrong with the whole business was that the baby was born dead.” Reading the novel today, as a father, I can’t help but thank modern medicine for helping women – in the First World, at least – avoid the plight of Smith’s female characters.

Nine Months, Paula Bomer: Probably the most succinct evocation of birth I know: “Her insides came out.” This debut novel, published late last year, is less about birth than the rather difficult months that precede it, as well as the expectations placed on mothers in contemporary society. The protagonist already has two kids when she learns – surprise! – that she is about to have a third. As a review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, “The novel dares to assert that mothers can love their children fiercely, but can also love their work or their own selves just as equally, which can result in tension.”


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