The experience of menstruation is often tied to key moments in our lives as women. Therefore, in literature the monthly bleeding is linked to symbolism and poignancy.
For many of us, our first period is also our first tentative footstep towards adulthood, mixed in with our first stirrings of sexual awakening. Most adult women are familiar with the jolt of a missed period, which can elicit feelings of anguish, hope and of course a million other emotions in between. Periods can mark beginnings and ends and can lend narrative, ritual and rhythm to our lives.
The woman’s curse
Moreover, menstruation has long been tied to religious and superstitious tropes spanning various cultures and traditions. In Christian literary tradition for example, it is a guilty sign of Eve’s original sin; a notion that still haunts western writings today. Therefore periods can symbolise anything from fire and brimstone punishment to a reassuringly communal female experience. It is therefore no wonder that the turbulence of ‘the woman’s curse’ has long factored in literature. Literature, and particularly literature in the novel form, is remarkable partly because it explores the intimate interior life of characters. Menstruation is undoubtedly still a social taboo and is not always comfortably discussed in everyday conversation, however literature provides the ideal space in which to explore the psycho-sexual and social issues surrounding the menstrual cycle.
Five very different works of literature that use menstruation as a significant theme or a source of literary symbolism.
- Are you there God? It’s me Margaret. Judy Blume. Even today, pre teen girls, and let’s face it us post teen girls too, find comfort in Blume’s young adult classic, which explores twelve year old Margaret’s anguish as she worries and waits for her first period to begin whilst simultaneously searching for a religious identity. The anxieties of being a twelve year old girl are eternally relatable as is, sadly, the scrutinising of female bodies and the panic over what is ‘normal’ that never really goes away.
- Carrie. Stephen King. Menstruation is an ideal symbol for exploring the darker side of human existence. Carrie is a startlingly visceral novel filled with blood, symbolising the primal brutality of high school life. Carrie’s late arriving menarche is tied to her full realisation of the extent of her supernatural powers and her violent rebellion. Despite its extremities, iconic Carrie remains one of the few enduring pieces of pop culture that explore the often frightening powers of the female body and of menstruation.
- Written on the Body. Jeanette Winterson. Winterson is pretty much the Queen of creating rich, dynamic imagery that beautifully captures the physical experience of being a woman. Phrases such as ‘When she bleeds the smells I know change colour. There is iron in her soul on those days. She smells like a gun’ are some of the most powerfully evocative descriptions of menstruation in the English language.
- Ulysses. James Joyce. Chapter 18 (‘Penelope’) Ulysses famously involves aging beauty Molly Bloom realising with frustration that she has begun to menstruate just as she is pondering the younger, attractive character of Milly who is now as wild and carefree as Molly once was in her youth. This is within a book where the physicality of women is a prescient theme and within a passage tied up with the interior musings of Molly, whose thoughts have previously been left unheard. As she relieves herself in her chamber pot, she thinks bitterly to herself the universal fate of all women: ‘there is always something wrong with us every 3 or 4 weeks.’
- Wolf Alice. Angela Carter. Carter’s dark fable is a short story within her feminist collection of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber. Wolf Alice is a feral human girl raised by wolves, uninhibited by dirt or discomfort. When she begins menstruating, she becomes aware of the passage of time which gives her an enhanced sense of self awareness. Her menstruation is shown to be a humanising force and allows her to finally feel separate from her natural surroundings for the very first time.
Text: Julia Banim. Photo: Flickr