‘At war with her body’: the threat of pregnancy in the novels of Anna Burns

By Laura Hackett

Content Warning: this article includes descriptions of graphic violence, incest and sexual abuse.

Before Amelia, the protagonist of Anna Burns’ debut novel, No Bones, is raped by her brother and his girlfriend, she is described from the perspective of the latter, who deems her “outrageously, sexually thin,” with the “arm-swinging vigour all six-stone hunger-strikers are very keen on” (123). In 1970s North Belfast, Amelia’s eating disorder is seen as vain compared to the sacrifices of political prisoners. This prioritisation of male suffering reflected in much scholarship on the Troubles. Alan Feldman’s Formations of Violence, for example, analyses the Northern Irish body under state and paramilitary power—imprisoned, beaten, starving or killed—but that body is exclusively male. Histories of the conflict have tended to emphasise male suffering, male-led paramilitary organisations, male prisons. But the female body played a crucial role in the conflict. Kathryn Conrad writes, “[a]s the state and nationalist groups fight over geopolitical and ideological territory in the public sphere, they rely on the literal and ideological reproduction of their constituencies through the family cell in the private sphere” (118). Through childbirth, women have the most important role in what Bernadette Devlin deemed the “numbers game” of Northern Irish citizens’ political future, in which both sides have two choices: “Either we shoot them or we outbreed them” (qtd. in Cahill, 57).

In pursuit of this goal, those bodies with the capacity to bear children are placed under enormous pressure to do so prolifically, but only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage with a member of your own community. With abortion illegal, and contraception discouraged, Northern Irish women’s bodies are not under their own control, but rather under the control of the state or state-resisting groups. The threat of pregnancy, particularly a pregnancy outside of these strict boundaries, was very real for women living through the Troubles.

This kind of power over reproduction is a function of what Michel Foucault termed biopolitics, which he described as: “The set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power” (16). In History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that once the plagues and famines of the Middle Ages had subsided, the King’s power shifted from the ability to inflict death to the ability to control life: beheadings were replaced with surveillance, hangings with population monitoring.

Foucault’s conception of biopolitical control certainly speaks to the worlds of reproductive threat in Burns’ fiction, but the incongruences between the two writers are particularly revealing about the body-state relationship in these novels. In the case of Foucault’s biopolitics, a single king, ruler or government decides how to optimise the bodies of the population. In Burns’ worlds, there are many centres of power: in Little Constructions, a criminal organisation fights for pre-eminence over police and state, while No Bones and Milkman depict a 1970s Northern Ireland under the competing controls of the British state, Loyalists, Republicans, religious institutions and even the family unit. Secondly, Foucault’s biopolitics grows out of increasing stability surrounding mortality: control is dependent on the populations continued existence. But this stability is non-existent in Burns’ novels: people are killed at random, or disappear without a trace.

Burns’ worlds, then, are controlled by several centres of power, but also filled with accidents, unforeseen trauma and random killings. Through this terrifying combination, Burns creates worlds which reflect the reality of living in an Irish female body, which is both excessively regulated and open to pain or injury by chance, whether walking down the wrong street or ovulating a few days early. She does this by conjuring up an atmosphere of threat specifically linked to pregnancy, and through protagonists who go to extreme, and sometimes unsuccessful, lengths to avoid pregnancy—through fertility-suppressing anorexia, binge eating or excessive exercise. What is perhaps most unsettling is the protagonists’ lack of self-awareness regarding these tactics: biopolitical control has been exerted so successfully that these wars against their own bodies are silent, subterranean. By considering Burns’ work as a whole, we are able to recognise these actions not only as symptoms of mental illness, but as strategies of survival.

In No Bones, the threat of pregnancy is encapsulated by a single character: Amelia’s classmate, Mary Dolan. Abused and impregnated by her father at a very young age, everything to do with her pregnancies and births is narratively unstable. Following her first pregnancy, we are told that “there’d been problems with it coming out” (65), but not whether “it” has died. When Amelia encounters Mary pushing a pram around, she notices that “the baby smelt like cabbage”: is it dead and rotting, or unwashed and neglected? Seeing inside the pram only adds to the confusion: “It was a strange-looking parcel, grey and plumped up with bits of dark wire and putty at the top” (66-67). But on second thought: “It wasn’t putty. It was a bit of a baby’s head. Then among the mash I saw a curled-up foot, webby, like a duck’s. In the centre was a black cord” (69). It is never clarified whether the item inside the pram is a stillborn baby, a bomb, or some horrifying mixture of the two. The moment resonates throughout the novel. Pregnancy and birth are uncertain states, threatening unseen violence. Later, Amelia has a psychiatric breakdown when she hears children: “The sound of children was like the sound of terrorists.” The threat of pregnancy is inherently connected to the random, unavoidable violence of the Northern Ireland conflict: under bio-political control, it is transformed into a weapon of war.

When Mary Dolan next appears, she is pregnant again. In Mary’s interaction with Vincent, who is schizophrenic, Burns uses his mental state to exaggerate the uncertain, uncomfortable, subjunctive mood of pregnancy. They decide to have a look at the baby: Mary opens her legs and pulls out a foetus. This time, “it was a baby, there was no bones about that” (139-140). Even more remarkably, Vincent and Mary decide to put the baby back in the womb. The baby’s identity is obvious, but the circumstances are unreal, impossible: Mary and Vincent carry out a kind of halfway-abortion, gesturing towards the possibility of bodily autonomy but not fully allowing it. With both babies, Burns is making literal the metaphysical uncertainty inherent in any pregnancy, as one body transforms into two. But she also writes into these pregnancies a reflection of the threat of political violence: a baby is also a bomb, folding Devlin’s options of bombing and breeding into one.

The bomb/baby image reappears in Burns’ other novels. Little Constructions centres around an incestuous criminal gang, whose power is inherently connected to birth: the mothers are lost in a flurry of reproduction, and the trope of uncertain paternity, almost a cliché of Irish literature, is replaced by uncertain maternity. Aunts are revealed to be mothers, and children are revealed to be the products of incest. The grinding, fecund machinery of the gang is uncovered by a successful police undercover operation: they discover “the inner sanctum […] deep under the very wombs of the bellies of the buildings” (146). These womb tunnels are the operational centre of criminality, but they also create a fundamental instability, a sense that the ground underfoot might at any point give way, revealing beneath it a womb ready to swallow you up. The name of the town, Tiptoe Floorboard, further reinforces this: the foundations of these little constructions are shaky, built over voided wombs ready to give birth once more, to explode with new life.

In Milkman, these pregnant images—bombs and underground tunnels—come together in an explosive climax. A bomb explodes in the ten minute area, which is “a ghostly place that you simply had to get through” (82). The area is paralleled with pregnancy: both are not only places but times, things you must go through in which you cannot stay. Notably, the bomb is not part of the ongoing conflict: “It had been an old bomb, a history bomb, an antiquity Greek and Roman bomb, a big, giant Nazi bomb” (83). The bomb itself, then, is layered with temporality: not just the usual shortening fuse, but history and peoples long gone. The history bomb gives birth, in its explosion, to times and people not otherwise admitted into this insular society. In this way, the explosion, at last, of the bomb/baby suggests that Milkman is, unlike No Bones or Little Constructions, a world which might move beyond pregnancy figured as threat.           

Living under biopolitical control, the protagonists of Anna Burns’ novels attempt to avoid pregnancy by acting against their own bodies: through anorexia, over-eating or excessive exercise. Each tactic has differing levels of success, and, although Burns makes the connection clear to the reader, the protagonists seem unaware of the knock-on effect on fertility.

Amelia, from No Bones, is aware that her anorexia is connected to a fear of sexual violence, but doesn’t extend this logic to pregnancy:

As far as Amelia was concerned, it was absolutely about rape, of course it was, but there was no way she was ever going to admit this. And how could she? She was counting calories, swallowing laxatives, shoving up suppositories, turning round mirrors, being friends with food, not being friends with food, nightmaring about clothes, being at war with her body (128).

There is a sense here that Amelia feels her body has betrayed her, that it is to blame for the sexual violence she faces. Thus, she attempts to make it disappear through undereating. In this sense, the earlier comparison of Amelia’s body to a hunger striker’s gains new meaning here. Both bodies are doing the same thing—refusing food—but are operating in opposite directions. Paradoxically, the hunger strikers make their bodies large, forcing them into the national conversation to bring about political change. By contrast, Amelia wants to become small, for her body to be forgotten. Far from trying to destabilise biopolitical control within Northern Ireland, she merely wants to escape.

In Little Constructions, Jotty Doe, a victim of incestuous abuse, avoids sex, fearing that “the man she was with would turn into her da” (176), and resurrect “the Fathers in her womb” (178), a phrase which conjures up images of lingering sperm, or a monstrous, multiple pregnancy. It is also implied that Jotty has been pregnant before: after a “forced” encounter with her father, “it was said” she “started eating mounds of butter” (195). This may be a response to trauma, or an attempt to make herself undesirable, or even to reduce fertility. But it may also be the family’s excuse for the increasing evidence of her pregnancy—indeed, she is soon taken to hospital, where she has a “period extracted” (195). The portrayal of pregnancy as an extended period which must be removed, blurring the lines between object and time, transforming pregnancy into a period through which one must pass (much like the ten-minute area), highlights Jotty’s utter lack of control in this situation: she does not understand, or refuses to understand, the reality of what has happened to her body. Trauma, pregnancy, and attempts to avoid or disguise it (here, through binge-eating) are all folded into one, but these attempts are not empowering. Instead, they comprise a means of surviving in a community which uses women’s bodies for its own gain—whether that gain is winning a political “numbers game” or creating an unstoppable criminal gang.

In Milkman, however, Burns gives us a glimpse of female empowerment. In her lecture, “Moving through Milkman,” Caroline Magennis argues that the character of middle sister is consistently in touch with her body and with movement through running and her infamous habit of reading-while-walking. These movements propel the plot forward: Milkman, the middle-aged renouncer of the state who attempts to coerce middle sister into starting a relationship with him, accosts her while she runs or walks home in the evenings. But while moving might make middle sister susceptible to danger, Burns insinuates that it may also play a part in avoiding pregnancy. Upon returning from one of her long runs, wee sisters ask: “mought it happen that if you were female and excessively sporty […] this thing called menstruation stopped inside you” (83). But middle sister’s running and reading-while-walking is very different from Amelia’s anorexia or Jotty’s butter-eating: rather than a desperate attempt to avoid or disguise pregnancy within the constraints of a controlling community, it challenges the community itself. Her choices make her a social outcast, but also lead to lasting change, following her experience of a kind of anti-birth, in the form of purging.

Midway through the novel, middle sister is poisoned by tablets girl, another “beyond-the-pale” individual. Falling ill, she is then cared for by the women of the community, who purge the poison from her system through a kind of labour: “Something enormous was coming and it seemed my body wasn’t hopeful of getting it out” (225). Like reversed contractions, the periods of vomiting get shorter rather than longer, and relief “existed in brief lulls, increasingly turning to longer lulls” (230). Here, middle sister is working from birth backwards, from climax to calm. This is a birth aided by women, and a pregnancy induced by a woman whose motivation in her frequent poisonings is that, she writes, “WE WANT THEM TO FEEL OUR PAIN” (267). Tablets girl acts as rapist, as impregnator, forcing inhabitants of the community to undergo the births they make unavoidable for women. The purging is an anti-birth which subverts biopolitical power, taking the threat of pregnancy and turning it into a threat against men: it is during this purging that Milkman is killed.

Following the anti-birth, dynamics begin to shift within the community. Somebody McSomebody fails to attack middle sister when a group of women stop him. Maybe-boyfriend, from whom middle sister has separated, begins a gay relationship with his friend chef (albeit secretly). Furthermore, as Magennis argues, movement returns, and its power is extended beyond middle sister. The children of the area begin to “play Mr and Mrs International” (314), emulating maybe-boyfriend’s parents, world-famous ballroom dancers who, like musicians, actors and sportsmen, are “exceptions” (40) to the sectarian divide and are loved by all. Furthermore, the children decide to dispense with Mr International. All the girls dance together, and they are all Mrs International: “you get to be her every time!” (315) By celebrating female embodiment beyond childbirth, their carefree dancing brings the possibility of escaping conflict and control to the whole community.

The final pages of Milkman describe middle sister’s joy in running again, with the threat of Milkman gone. She experiences it as a “softening,” and “almost nearly laughed” (348) in relief, a sharp contrast to the desperation of Amelia or Jotty’s attempts to evade pregnancy. We know, of course, that the conflict in the novel will continue for many years, but this sense of hope is arguably directed at the contemporary reader: Milkman was published just 10 days before the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Republic of Ireland. In the years following its publication, abortion has also been legalised in the North, and although there are still serious issues with access to abortion services, Milkman seems to speak to this moment, this “softening.” Unlike No Bones and Little Constructions, it offers us a glimpse of a future in which biopolitical control relents, in which heteronormativity relaxes it grip on communities, in which women can dance and run and read-while-walking free from the threat of pregnancy, in which the war against their bodies might finally cease.


Laura Hackett, “‘At war with her body’: the threat of pregnancy in the novels of Anna Burns,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.1.06

About the Author

Laura Hackett is a freelance writer based in Northern Ireland. She studied English at Oxford, where she won the Charles Oldham Shakespeare prize for her undergraduate coursework, before going on to complete a Master’s in English 1550-1700. She was heavily involved in student journalism and her writing won her the BBC Student Critic of the Year award. She has since written for the Irish Times, the TLS, the BBC and Literary Review, among others. Laura has particular interests in Irish literature and writing on pregnancy.

Works cited

Burns, Anna. Little Constructions. 2007. London: 4th Estate, 2018.

–. Milkman. London: Faber & Faber, 2018.

–. No Bones. 2001. London: 4th Estate, 2018.

Conrad, Kathryn. Locked in the Family Cell: Gender, Sexuality & Political Agency in Irish National Discourse. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Cahill, Sean. ‘Occupied Ireland: Amid Hope of Peace Repression Continues’. Radical America, 25 (1995): 51-61.

Feldman, Alan. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

–. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. Trans. Graham Burchell. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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