Breeding at the End of the World: On Aaron Matz’s “The Novel and the Problem of New Life”

April 7, 2022   •   By Lindsay Wilhelm

The Novel and the Problem of New Life

Aaron Matz

I TURNED 33 in October — the same age, coincidentally, as the protagonist of Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box” (2012). I’ve taught the story to undergraduates for years, but only this past November did that little detail stand out. If it was comforting to hear Egan describe 33 as “still young enough to register as ‘young,’” then the next line hit me like a splash of cold water: “Registering as ‘young,’” her narrator wryly observes, “is especially welcome to those who may not register as ‘young’ much longer.”

Beyond an intensified sense of my own mortality, I share with Egan’s protagonist that peculiar awareness of time’s passage that seems to afflict professional women in their 30s who are at least abstractly interested in procreating. I like children, and I always assumed that I would have a couple of my own. But now, with my window of opportunity closing, I find myself seriously grappling with the reality of child-rearing. I’m not talking about the resources required for raising a child, or the inconveniences of parental responsibility (although I’m hyperaware of both), but rather the state of the world in which this hypothetical child would be raised. Ours is an era of baseline crisis, made almost banal by sheer repetition: with the COVID-19 pandemic entering its third year, a series of near-constant natural disasters yielding fresh evidence of climate change every day, and our democratic institutions withering under a steady onslaught of right-wing legislation, one wonders whether it’s quite right to inflict all this on an unsuspecting little being. As the denizens of r/antinatalism like to point out, no one asks to be born.

It is just this “crucible of moral action” that Aaron Matz, in his luminous study The Novel and the Problem of New Life, traces through the fiction of Samuel Butler, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, and others. Put simply, Matz argues that the modern novel betrays a pervasive ambivalence toward procreation, an ambivalence legible in both the novel’s thematic deliberations on childbearing and its sparse stylistic “astringency.” This ambivalence is further exacerbated by a structural problem inherent in the form itself: by trade, novelists create fictional worlds which they then populate with lifelike characters, and in this sense, novels are explosively fertile. Whether or not they’re parents themselves, novelists breathe life into their creations and as such partake in a figurative kind of parenthood.

Take Matz’s first subject, the 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert, articulating what Matz calls a novelistic “article of faith,” famously declared that the author “must be like God in the universe,” and yet Flaubert himself was “haunted by a fear of bringing new life into the world.” This conflicted engagement with the idea of reproduction — the demiurgic impulse to create, troubled by profound misgivings about the wisdom of procreation — is for Matz one of the definitive aspects of the modern novel, and the overarching theme of the rest of his monograph.

As Matz goes on to explain, the precise nature of those misgivings varies from author to author and from work to work. Many of these novelists, Matz argues, set aside well-trodden Malthusian anxieties about overpopulation to explore instead the more intimate moral quandary of procreation: the question, central to contemporary procreative ethics, of how to calculate the value of a life not yet lived. In his satirical fantasy Erewhon (1872), for example, Samuel Butler imagines a society that legally charges infants with the transgression of being born, thus absolving their parents of all culpability in the matter. The pure perversity of Erewhonian baptism makes the “dilemma” of reproduction, in Matz’s words, “more palpable as a dilemma, rather than an activity that we might take for granted.” Novelists such as Butler hold parents liable for whatever suffering their offspring experience; in doing so, they ask us to consider “whether we might owe it to hypothetical future people not to give them life.” (Nowhere is this question more barbed than in Hardy’s notoriously upsetting Jude the Obscure [1895], in which Jude’s eldest son kills his half-siblings and then himself because, as he writes in his suicide note, there are simply “too menny” of them. Beforehand, the boy angrily confronts his pregnant stepmother in what Matz pithily describes as a “scene of procreative shaming.”) In the novels of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing, the ethical questions are more social than existential — both writers take issue with the way that parents claim ownership of their children and withdraw from their wider social obligations — but the essential problem remains the same. Others, including Lessing but especially Aldous Huxley, underscore the irreducible political dimensions of this problem: even as Brave New World (1932) decries the dystopian horror of state-mandated birth control, Huxley elsewhere insists on contraception as a corrective to global resource depletion, and on occasion goes so far as to endorse certain eugenic practices.

Several of the writers highlighted by Matz broach aesthetic, as well as ethical, objections to procreation. Throughout D. H. Lawrence’s novels, the threat of conception often casts a pall over otherwise transcendent moments of ecstatic sexual connection. Woolf’s Orlando (1928), too, evokes Victorian fertility with visceral revulsion, while Lessing’s Children of Violence series (1952–’69) underscores the tedium and exhaustion of pregnancy. In these later novels, birth control technologies hold out the possibility of staving off the sheer ugliness, not to mention the social and psychological damage, of endless pregnancies, overcrowded homes, and teeming cities; indeed, Matz considers the widening availability of birth control “the most significant shift along the arc” he traces. But he also points out Woolf’s ambivalent attitude toward contraception, and the many times she expressed disappointment at not having children herself. Even Lessing, driven by intense personal resentment toward her mother, evinces a compassionate sympathy for everything her mother lost in bringing her into the world. The same goes for all the central figures of the study: on the subject of childbearing, their fictions vacillate between regret and relief, wonder and disgust, and excoriation and forgiveness in unending “dialectical suspension.”

In dramatizing the dodgy moral calculus of procreation, these novels speak to our own moment with special urgency. This timeliness, coupled with Matz’s fresh take on familiar classics, makes The Novel and the Problem of New Life potentially appealing to a general, nonacademic audience. Also worth noting is Matz’s facility for navigating the always thorny relationship between a writer’s life and work: for readers whose interest in the literature is more personal than scholarly, he offers a nuanced analysis of the authors’ own experiences of parenthood or childlessness, showing us how Lawrence’s novels (to take one example) “channel the tensions […] of his life” without reducing the work to mere fictionalized autobiography. Matz writes, moreover, with a fluid and organic lucidity not typical for a scholarly monograph.

As a piece of original research, the book also makes compelling contributions to a range of fields, including Victorian and genre studies. I was particularly struck by how these novels contravene the conventions of the marriage plot — that ubiquitous narrative in which a central couple overcomes familial disapproval, rival suitors, and other obstacles on their way to wedded bliss (and babies, we assume). Matz reveals here a rich countertradition of procreative skepticism, running in parallel to the marriage plot and even supplanting it as the characteristic fiction of its era. In a body of literature we might expect to be replete with staid mores about the redemptive power of romantic and filial love, we find instead authors and characters whose concerns anticipate our own. And while he could occasionally do more to establish the stakes of queer sexuality within this tradition — he mentions, but never really unpacks, the lesbian relationship featured in Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915) — Matz does offer a new perspective on the ideology of “reproductive futurism,” theorized so memorably by Lee Edelman. In his polemic No Future (2004), Edelman calls out the coercive heteronormativity of contemporary politics, which always takes “the Child as the emblem of futurity’s unquestioned value,” and proposes against it a queer refusal of futurity rooted in the death drive. Matz, in tacit conversation with Edelman’s ethos of radical negation, concludes his study by exploring an emergent strain of “anticipatory” realism — one that might capture the unique perplexities of procreation in our time without descending into either defeatist nihilism or facile optimism. How do we reckon with the costs of childbearing in an age of accelerating ecological catastrophe, while also acknowledging that the desire to give life is powerful and pervasive and not altogether objectionable? How, in good conscience, can we birth new generations when we don’t know what kind of future they will inhabit — when, in fact, we have every reason to despair over that future?

Of course, these questions have no definite answer, and so the modern novel — if it is to capture the agon of the modern would-be parent — must teach us how to live with a certain amount of irresolution regardless of where we come down. I feel that irresolution keenly now, as a woman in my not-so-early 30s struggling with the same conundrum that vexes these novels and their inhabitants. Do I take the plunge and usher into this world someone who never asked for admission, or do I embrace my childlessness and perhaps consign myself to a lifetime of wondering what might have been? Whatever I choose, I expect I’ll never feel quite comfortable with my decision. But, as Aaron Matz shows us, at least I’m in good company.


Lindsay Wilhelm is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma State University.