Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room haunted me during quarantine. I didn’t dare go back and reread it, but its atmosphere lingered in my mind as I spent months confined to my home with a busy two-year-old. As I traced the same rooms (mercifully, more than one) every day, cutting out cardboard-box robots and paper-plate dinosaur claws, I thought of the combination of boredom, joy, and terror that Donoghue evokes in that novel. There are few novelists better at describing the terrible intimacy of motherhood—that claustrophobic togetherness of a mother and child. Room, loosely based on the true-crime story of the abduction and forced captivity of Elisabeth Fritzl, might seem an extreme choice for a quarantine novel, but its unsettling evocation of caregiving in captivity kept coming back to me at odd moments, as I set about parenting during COVID-19.
I was, therefore, unnerved to discover that Donoghue’s most recent novel, The Pull of the Stars, is explicitly about maternity amid a global pandemic. With uncanny foresight, Donoghue decided to write a novel about a Dublin maternity ward during the influenza outbreak of 1918. She delivered her final draft to publishers in March 2020, as the world ground to a halt, thanks to the spread of another deadly infectious virus.
The moments of The Pull of the Stars that spoke most clearly to my emerging understanding of life in a pandemic were not the self-consciously historical scenes but, rather, those that hewed most closely to the gothic. These were the scenes that took place in a tiny ward labeled “Maternity/Fever” amid bloodshed, loss, delirium, and disfigurement, as dying bodies expelled life and live bodies delivered stillborns.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes gothic tropes as those that explore feeling and its excesses. Many of the most powerful sequences in gothic literature set this excess within an enclosed space—a derelict big house, a decaying abbey, or a single red room. Gothic tropes are particularly useful for conveying an amorphous mix of fear, guilt, grief, and anger, ingredients that have no visible origin, target, or outlet. While The Pull of the Stars may not be a gothic novel, it draws heavily on these tropes. Even a scene on the tram evokes gothic terror, when a single person coughs and the rest of the travelers huddle away, trying not to breathe in the invisible threat diffusing through droplets in the air.
In a crowdsourced coronavirus syllabus compiled by Alondra Nelson, science fiction and dystopic literature loom large in the fiction category. Novels such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), and Ling Ma’s Severance (2018) are frequently singled out as works that show the breakdown of societal norms in the face of a mysterious and uncontrollable illness.
But I would like to make a modest case for gothic tropes as a means to address the frightening intimacy of life in a pandemic and, maybe especially, life in a pandemic with small children. We experience the pandemic in small spaces, hearing about the wider world on screens and through media, but the lives of others feel increasingly distant—reaching us as a faint echo. This can lead to the callousness of Prince Prospero in Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic pandemic tale, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), who hides away with his courtiers within the chambers of his abbey until the Red Death breaks through. There is something eerily womb-like in these chambers, where our lives now take place.
In one scene in The Pull of the Stars, the narrator, Julia Power, encourages a young woman in labor to change her position to help “let [the baby] out.” At that, she catches herself: “That made it sound as if Mary O’Rahilly was the captor, but wasn’t she a prisoner, too?” For the women in the Maternity/Fever ward, this struggle between containment, escape, and survival repeats in miniature inside of them. If there is a way forward for the pandemic novel, it may be in these claustrophobic settings that Donoghue maps out, where too much dying and too much loving press together in a tight space.
Julia Power is a midwife at an understaffed and overwhelmed Dublin hospital. Flu patients have flooded the place, which is being run by a skeleton crew of doctors and nurses who, due to infirmity, inexperience, or politics, have not been diverted to the frontlines of World War I.
The patients, like their minders, come from different social classes and different levels of experience. One is a “primigravida”—first-time mother—while others are “multigravida,” including a woman who is pregnant for the 12th time. Some of them are underaged, and some of them are undernourished. Their due dates range from months away to any day now, if they are known at all. All of them are experiencing a range of flu symptoms, from a slight cough to delirium.
The 1918 flu was especially dangerous for pregnant women, who were susceptible to miscarriages, early deliveries, stillbirths, and death. Donoghue, a master of tight quarters, sets her novel in the makeshift Maternity/Fever room, which the hospital has hastily set up for quarantining pregnant patients that have come down with the flu. The room has three beds, and the novel revolves around the occupants of those beds and the women who tend them. Many of the characters do not make it out of the room alive.
The novel opens with Nurse Power finding herself entrusted with sole duty over this tiny, but immensely complicated, ward. She soon gets relief and assistance from two very different women—a red-haired waif named Bridie Sweeney, who volunteers for the day at the hospital, and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, a historical figure who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising against the British government. A nationalist, suffragette, lesbian, and pioneering woman physician, Lynn provides a historical anchor to the activities happening outside the four walls of the Maternity/Fever ward; however, like many a historical personage in the pages of a novel, Lynn can sometimes seem like a prop rather than a fully embodied character.
Where The Pull of the Stars most self-consciously addresses History (capital H) and moves outside the intimate spaces of birth and death is where the stakes feel less compelling. Another storyline involves Ireland’s notorious mother-and-baby homes, where mass graves, like those discovered in 2017 at the Bon Secours home outside Tuam, County Galway, have shed light on the harrowing experiences of unmarried mothers and their children, forced into confinement in these homes under the auspices of the Catholic Church.
Ireland’s history of interning women and children without their consent, itself a gothic theme more harrowing than any fiction, continues to haunt the political landscape. A recent decision by the government to seal some of the records of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission investigating abuse at these institutions led to public outcry, and the government has since agreed to allow adoptees and survivors to access their personal data.
These institutional abuses could have been fertile ground for Donoghue to explore, but they are reduced to a backstory that never quite comes to life. The most vivid stories in this novel leave their traces on the body, rather than the history books—a bruised wrist, a scarred arm, a swollen leg.
Donoghue is at her best when creating an atmosphere of containment where enclosure is both comforting and terrifying at once—much like motherhood itself.
Set during World War I, The Pull of the Stars is unmistakably a war novel, but the battles take place on the engorged and furrowed flesh of the women themselves. Donoghue sets up a comparison between the “blood tax” that soldiers pay to their country, a tax for which they are celebrated, and the equally brutal “blood tax” that mothers pay, for which they—like the unmarried Honor White and other occupants of the Maternity/Fever ward—are often continually punished. Elizabeth Outka’s Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (2019) describes how World War I overshadowed the 1918 influenza outbreak in cultural memory, despite the millions of deaths claimed by the latter.
In the Irish context, 23,000 people died of the flu in Ireland in just six months, whereas 5,000 died in the exceedingly well-documented civic and political tumult that ranged from 1916 to 1923.1 Outka writes, “Military conflict has long been the quintessential staging ground for masculinity, while disease suggests weakness and vulnerability—and is often linked to the feminine.”2 A death on the battlefront was exalted as heroic sacrifice, whereas a flu death betrayed helplessness and, what’s worse, made others helpless as well.
Donoghue’s description of the “blood tax” brought to mind another Irish novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Here, the vampiric threat is described much like a contagion that spreads from the east to the shores of England, and that feminizes the bodies of the afflicted.
Where Donoghue steps beyond many of her gothic predecessors is in centering pregnant bodies as exceptionally vulnerable to the horrors of a pandemic. But vulnerability is only part of the story. In the Maternity/Fever ward, mothers and fetuses are locked in a fierce battle for survival, as the flu ravages the body’s limited resources. Pregnancy, like the flu, is itself a debilitating, and potentially fatal, condition.
Here is where gothic tropes become more useful than the conventions of the war novel for telling this story. Threats to the body come not only from the outside but from inside as well. They originate not from a faceless enemy but from a deeper, more troublingly intimate source. Eros and Thanatos become difficult to disentangle in a pandemic.
At one point, Dr. Lynn makes the connection explicit, when she describes the influenza as a “creature with no malign intention, only a craving to reproduce itself, much like our own.” In Lynn’s scientific view, the flu will go on until it has reached a balance attained through destruction: “The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end. … Or a stalemate, at the least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life.”
Reading these words in this plague year of 2020, my thoughts continually shifted away from 1918 and toward the current coronavirus epidemic. Much of the time I was reading The Pull of the Stars, my mind was working like a shuttle, back and forth between 1918 and 2020. I thought of friends who gave birth this year, entering the hospital heavily masked, often on their own, and hoping that the staff would not be stretched as thin as their cervixes.
The coronavirus has not wrought the same devastation on pregnancies as the 1918 influenza did, but it has radically altered the stakes of maternity for many people. Working and schooling from home has taken a disproportionate toll on mothers, especially single mothers, and we will continue to see the dire effects on women’s livelihoods for some time to come. Experts on domestic violence have warned of the dangerous situation for those trapped in homes with abusers. The costs of the pandemic, as well as efforts to control further outbreaks, have fallen increasingly on women, especially those who are already teetering on the financial brink, or who, as women of color, find their communities disproportionately impacted.
In early October of this year, a black-and-white photo of the media celebrity Chrissy Teigen circulated online. She is slumped over the edge of a hospital bed, hands loosely clasped in front of her face, weeping. She had just given birth to a son, Jack, who was pronounced dead.
The death had nothing to do with COVID, but I suspect that the outpouring of public grief surrounding the photo did. For the many women who have experienced miscarriages and stillbirths, it was a terrible reminder of the precarity of pregnancy and the silence surrounding it. This was a reminder that hit especially hard during a pandemic, when we are all held a bit too closely by memories. From the discussions that followed on social media, I had the sense that maternal terror was finally making itself heard in the public sphere.
Looking at the photograph now reminds me why Donoghue is an important writer for this moment. She has the unique ability to make visceral our fears around childbirth and childrearing and to create gothic scenes of maternal claustrophobia in which those fears are realized.
Her approach could be defined, for lack of a better word, as contraction: the narrowing and intensifying of the world. Here, in the kind of cramped spaces where readers now find themselves, is where Donoghue is at her best, creating an atmosphere of containment where enclosure is both comforting and terrifying at once—much like motherhood itself.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.