Faulkner's 'The Scarlet Letter':
If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem as an Abortion Novel


     One of the impacts of the Great Depression on American society was the increase of working women. As its side effect the question of abortion became one of the most important American social issues. Abortion was prohibited at this time in America, with even the birth control movement being slowed because of the strict Puritan ethic of Americans. The economic depression had forced many women to take a job in order to eat, yet if a woman married and got pregnant, she had to choose whether to quit her job and give birth to a child or to get an abortion and keep her job. The number of women who took the latter choice increased despite the rulings of anti-abortion laws. Those women who chose abortion had to go through an illegal operation, which sometimes of course caused the patient's death. The number of women who lost their lives because of these failed abortions rose to 15000 a year at this time (14% of pregnant women' deaths) (Ogino 2001, 37-40), becoming a serious social problem in the Depression period. William Faulkner's If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939) dealt with this problem as its main topic.

1. Birth Control, Abortion, Birth

     Several pregnant characters appear in Faulkner's novels: Caddy Compson, Joanna Burden (false case), Lena Grove, Lavarne Shumann, Eula Varner, and others. Most of them bear a child, but two women tried to get abortions: Dewey Dell in As I Lay Dying (1930) and Charlotte Rittenmeyer of "The Wild Palms" in Jerusalem. Charlotte is the only one who actually has an abortion, and she dies after its failure.
     Rarely are scenes like this depicted in novels concerning a woman and birth control. Charlotte's is the only case in Faulkner's works. She confesses:

"When the stove went out my douche bag was hanging behind it. It froze and when we lit the stove again I forgot it and it burst."(172)
From this passage readers receive some knowledge of Charlotte's contraception, but its effectiveness as a contraceptive tool is out of the question and they have intercourse without using contraception. She continues, "I should have known better. I always did take easy. Too easy. I remember somebody telling me once, I was young then, that when people loved, hard, really loved each other, they didn't have children, the seeds got burned up in the love, the passion. Maybe I believed it."(172) This causes her unexpected pregnancy. But she is not to blame, because the general knowledge of human reproduction in America was far less than might be expected because of the strict Puritan ethics regarding sex. According to Ogino Miho, "It was not until after 1930s that women's menstrual cycle was correctly understood even by doctors in America." (Ogino 1994, 27)
     Charlotte thus becomes pregnant, but she is not married to Harry. Her Catholic husband Francis Rittenmeyer will not divorce her, so she is still his wife. She cannot bear Harry Wilbourne's baby and decides to have an abortion. She asks Harry to carry out an operation, but he hesitates to do it. Even though he once operated on Billy Buckner successfully, he does not want to execute his beloved. So he seeks abortion pills in vain. The episode in which Harry is fooled with fake abortion medicine by a druggist is a repetition of the story of Dewey Dell in AILD. These instances prove that there were indeed many pregnant women at that time who vainly wanted abortion by pills. The abortion pills are, however, inavailable, and the operation finally becomes unavoidable. Harry carries out the abortion for Charlotte. He fails, with Charlotte bleeding to death.
     In contrast with this story is that of a child birth that occurs in this novel. In the plot of "Old Man" a nameless pregnant woman bears a baby in a flood situation. She has no doctor, no hospital, and no woman to help her delivery, only one tall unmarried convict. She bears the child safely and feels no anxiety about their lives. One "natural" woman in a "natural setting" has a "natural" birth and lives; but another "unnatural" woman, an artist-worker, an adulteress, who does not want to have a baby--has an abortion and fails. Thus two different attitudes toward child bearing are described in and contrasted in parallel settings in this novel.

2. Doctors, Priests, Convicts

     The entire book is filled with the imagery of conception, the womb and menstruation--all elements related to birth and abortion. Typical is the 5th chapter of the novel ( i.e., "The Wild Palms," 3rd Chapter). People and events are drawn with such expressions as "impregnable look"(73), "the abortive hotel," "foetus-like state ... in the womb"(94), "dates of and intervals between Charlotte's menstral periods"(97), "a dungeon; the routine even of sinning, an absolution even for adultery"(107), "grave-womb, or womb-grave"(117), etc. These expressions are associated with Charlotte and Harry's solitary situations in the noisy, weary and commercial life of the city. And the capitalistic and consumptive atmosphere is also connected with sexual association . The store whose window Charlotte displays is depicted as "like an empty midnight clinic in which a handful of pygmy-like surgeons and nurses battle in low-toned decorum for some obscure and anonymous life"(102). This reminds us of the abortion clinic which Charlotte may visit. She does not require it at this time, but later she desperately needs it.
     In a coal mine in Utah they meet the Buckners. The Buckners are poor workers and they cannot afford to have a baby, so Harry helps Billy Buckner's abortion. After the Buckners are gone, they have intercourse without a contraceptive, as we have seen before, and Charlotte becomes pregnant. The reasons why Charlotte does not want to have a baby are actually more than one, but the economic of poverty is perhaps first of these. In this sense Billy Buckner's and Charlotte's abortions occur with the same background as that of many women in the Depression era.
     We also note that it is a doctor who plays an important role in the abortion operation. Several doctors appear in this novel. They are also given images of priests or ministers. The doctor Harry visits on the Mississippi beach is presented as a very conservative professional. He cannot forgive Harry because Harry was unlicenced and made an illegal operation. He is described as a puritan doctor as follows:

His voice was cold, precise, and convinced--the puritan who some would have said was about to do what he had to do because he was a puritan, who perhaps believed himself he was about to do it to protect the ethics and sanctity of his chosen profession .... (234)
     Harry, a failed medical intern himself, is also drawn with a religious image. His father was also a doctor. His student years are called "monastic"(28). The hospital Charlotte is carried to also has a monastic image:
... the carbolised vacuums of linoleum and rubber soles like wombs into which human beings fled before something of suffering but mostly of terror, to surrender in a little monastic cells all the burden of lust and desires and pride, even that of functional independence, to become as embryos for a time yet retaining still a little of the old incorrigible earthly corruption ....(251) [Italics Mine]
In this passage we can find the same sort of physiological metaphors, embryos, wombs, and conceptions, as well as the monastic images. Besides this, the jail Harry is finally thrown in is referred to "like the hospital"(258). The tall convict in the "Old Man" plot returns to prison at the end and the prison is called "monastic"(130).
     In the "Old Man" plot a doctor also appears. He is a ship's doctor who rescues the tall convict and the woman. In comparison with the puritanic doctor of "The Wild Palms," this doctor is comical, and one who causes a laughable farce. Thus the doctors in each plot play diametrically opposite roles.
     Not only are the doctors in contrast, but also most of the characters of each plot. Charlotte dies after a failed abortion but "the woman" of the "Old Man" bears her baby and lives naturally. Harry loses his most beloved person by his mistake, but "the tall convict" can be free from his burden, a woman by his own efforts. Even though they are in the same penitentiary, the meaning of the place is much different for each of them. It is not a special place for Harry. He now cares for nothing except his grief, but it is heaven for the tall convict. A final place for both of them, it is therefore "Jerusalem," though with an inverted meaning. Thus the title of this novel is exceptionally ironic.

3. Comparisons with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
and One More Conclusion

     In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), the setting of which is the 18th century, the critical problem of the scarlet letter "A" is Adultery. The heroine who commits adultery is punished accoding to social rules. In William Faulkner's Jerusalem, set in the 20th century, it is Abortion that matters another "A." The heroine of this novel commits the crime of abortion and falls to her own death as punishment.
     Not only do we see this same stumbling heroine, but also a doctor husband and a minister lover, in Hawthorne's novel. The heroine is "symbolically exchanged" between the two men, according to the "homosocial theory" of Eve K. Sedgwick. The same pattern can of course then be found in Faulkner's novel. An artististic-minded heroine is "symbolically exchanged" between her husband and her lover. She is also "symbolically exchanged" between a Mississippi doctor, an example of patriarchal power, and her powerless, failed intern. This image of a failed lover-doctor is consistently narrated in the image of a priest or a minister, his hospital and his jail, his monastery or his church. Thus the two works have similarities both in their themes and their settings.
     There are, however, some different aspects we should contemplate. In the 1930s, the background era of Jerusalem, adultery is no longer the same social crime as it was in the time of Hester Prynne. The pivotal question in Faulkner's novel is thus abortion. Arguments on this problem divide the nation even now, many years after the Row vs. Wade settlement in 1973. When this novel was published, abortion was seriously proscribed. The heroine and hero are understandably punished for their misdeed. But we also have to pay a little more attention to the Southern factor in this book. Another reason Charlotte and Harry are harshly punished is that they are not married: their love is adultery, and the setting of the story is the South. Janet Eldred notes that the South was more conservative about sexual ethics. If the setting were therefore somewhere other than the South, this adultery-abortion case might not have been punished so severely. (Eldred, 146-47)
     There may be an additional, more private reason why Faulkner chose the topic of abortion. Even though he was married in 1929, he was not on good terms with his wife. He went to Hollywood for money in 1932, where he met and fell in love with a beautiful woman. Because of the illicit native of this love affair, "contraception" was absolutely necessary. Judith Wittenberg suggests that this experience is likely one of the key motives in his writing of Jerusalem. (167-79)
     William Faulkner, at a glance, may seem to have been aloof from his contemporaries and their lives, but he was also, in a sense, very keen when it came to social issues. This does not necessarily mean that he wrote political novels, but he was always interested in the people and events of his time and society. Another example can be seen in his treatment of race issues in his works. Moreover, in real life, he also suffered from repeated economic distress. He might have had some understandings of peoples' destitution, including working women's situations from these experiences. It may not be surprising then that he took an interest in the abortion problem.
     There is, however, no clear picture of whether Faulkner was pro-choice or pro-life and if the novel is pro-choice or pro-life, concerning abortion issues. He is probably inconsistent on this issue, as well as on the race issue, as we note from his other works. Anyway it is one of his greatest achivements that Faulkner took up this polemical topic of abortion in the Depression years and created a heroine who challenged this social taboo. In this sense Jerusalem can thus be called The Scarlet Letter of the 20th century by William Faulkner.


Eldred, Janet Carey. "Faulkner's Still Life: Art and Abortion in The Wild Palms." The Faulkner Journal 4. 1-2 (1988/89): 139-58.
Faulkner, William. If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
-----. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage International, 1985.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Norton, 1988.
Ogino, Miho. Seishoku no Seijigaku (Politics of Sexual Reproduction-- Feminism and Birth Control). Tokyo: Yamakawa Publishing Company, 1994.
-----. Chuzeturonsou to Amerikashakai (History of Abortion Debates in America) Tokyo: Iwanami Publishing Company, 2001.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Prees, 1985.
Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. Faulkner: The Transfiguration of Biography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Copyright (c)2003 Yamashita Noboru