In the novel, The Birth House, by Ami McKay many archetypal literary theories are present and displayed in multiple areas of the book. The Birth House is a novel set in the same time frame as The Great War. The novel is about a young girl, Dora Rare, who is shown the ropes of midwifery by the town midwife, Miss. Babineau, and discovers that it plays a leading role in her life. She lives in the small village of Scots Bay that is very traditional when it comes to dealing with births and many aspects around that subject. The archetypal patterns within McKay’s novel include finance, domestic abuse, and modern developments invading tradition; archetypal figures present within the novel include a hero, a motherly figure, and a trickster.
In a small, poor town, finance became a recurring pattern. In the novel there are two types of people; the people who have never-ending fortunes and people who work insanely hard but will never have enough money. Many people of Scots Bay would marry for money or a daughter’s
parents would arrange for her to marry into a wealthier family, so that she has a better life. Dora’s Aunt Fran married her husband Irwin for his family’s great fortune. Dora explained “Most of Aunt Fran’s time (and much of Uncle Irwin’s family fortune) goes toward her need for having” (McKay 50). Aunt Fran is one of the very few people of this small town who has the money, let alone is able to spend a ridiculous amount of it on items that seem useless to the other villagers. In Dora’s marriage finance, once again, played a huge part. Her parents arranged for her to marry Archer Bigelow because his family gained a great fortune upon the death of his father. Dora’s mother told Dora “The Widow Bigelow is wanting, is hoping for you and Archer to be wed… she will pay [your father] to build you a house. She will pay for it all, Dora” (McKay 139). The families without great wealth that live within Scots Bay generally choose to arrange their daughter’s marriages so that they know they will be in good hands, by that they really want their daughters to have money so that they do not have to support them. It is strange to think how times have changed, money often does not play a factor in marriage nowadays. Today marriage is normally based on the love the two people share for each other. This was the way that Dora’s parents married, and they were one of very few couples that married for love. When talking about her mother, Dora explains “She was the pretty one who married for love” (McKay 51). I think the fact that Dora says “the pretty one” explains that she was one of very few daughters that was not arranged into a marriage for money. I think that McKay chose to make finance such an important pattern within the novel to emphasize how much better off some families were compared to others and the lengths people would go to, to become wealthy.
Along with arranged marriages, there were also harmful ones. Many individuals, like Dora and Mrs. Ketch, that live in Scots Bay suffered from serious domestic abuse, therefore it is portrayed as an important pattern within the novel. Domestic abuse is defined as “Domestic violence and emotional abuse are behaviors used by one person in a relationship to control the other” (domesticviolence.org). When Mrs. Ketch was in labour she cried out “Let me die, dear Lord. Please let me die” (McKay 12), in which Miss. B responded with “How many times you been through this, thirteen, fourteen? You should know the Lord ain’t like most men…” (McKay 12). This quotation was one that really got to me, it really helped to exaggerate how the men of the village treated their wives, they would have left them to die. The abuse these women face gets to a point that it is so bad, that they would rather die than carry out their lives. Dora was also a victim of domestic abuse in which her husband controlled what she could and could not do. Dora’s husband, Archer, yelled out to her while he was highly intoxicated “Come on, Dorrie, how about I take you to bed and you act like a proper wife” (McKay 173). I feel as though this quotation really emphasizes that most married men of this time controlled their spouses by forcing their wives to sleep with them. It was a way that they obtained power, and if their wives did not obey they would get violent. When Dora fought Archer’s demand he went on to attempt to physically abuse her. Dora explained “He made a fist and raised it high in the air. As he swung to hit me, he missed, punching a hole in the parlour wall” (McKay 174). This just goes to explain that the men of the house hold required authority to feel power, they used this authority to control their wives and get what they want. I think that McKay chose to have Dora be a victim of domestic abuse to show how strong she truly was because although she was beaten and had been through the worst, she never seemed to be down on herself.
Another archetypal pattern I noticed was that modern developments were invading the traditional way of doing things. One of the most important events within the novel was Dr. Thomas, a physician specialized in obstetrics, trying to enter into Scots Bay with a new obstetrics and midwifery facility, and try to take over Dora and Miss. B’s jobs of being the town midwives. One of the first things Dr. Thomas said to Miss. B was “Superstition and wives’ tales may prove true some of the time, but they can’t be trusted. Belief in such practice in today’s day and age does nothing but halt the progress of science. I think what Dr. Thomas meant by this was science is slowly starting to take over society, especially the medical field, that it is about time the ‘traditional’ way of doing things was put to rest and allowed science take a toll on experimenting. Dr. Thomas spent majority of the novel trying to convince the women of Scots Bay that the best way to deliver their children was with medicine to relieve pain and special equipment, and that the way they have been doing it for generations was dangerous and illegal.
Among all these patterns, there are also many literary figures present. For one, Dora portrayed as the hero within the novel. She helped to take on Miss. B’s role of being a midwife after she left, and fought to keep the traditional ways of midwifery present and the modern obstetrics system from invading. Upon departing, Miss. B left Dora a note that included “They gonna need you, Dora. They need you. You gotta keep them safe” (McKay 166). Miss. B was making sure that Dora knew it was her responsibility to take on the role as the new midwife and fight to keep all the expectant mothers and babies safe, and out of high risk situations. She knew that it was up to Dora to keep Dr. Thomas away and to stop him influencing all of these women to undergo the modern way of delivering a child.
Unlike most heroes, the heroic and confident behaviors did not come naturally to Dora. Dora was guided and trained by Miss. B from the age of seventeen right up until her wedding day. She attended a couple of births before she was expected to tackle them all on her own. Even when Dora was expected to do it all on her own she was not as confident and wished to have Miss. B’s presence and talents with her at all times. Dora exclaimed “I wished that the moon she worshiped each night would come and put some Miss. B in me” (McKay 165). I think that Dora is scared that she won’t know what to do on her own, like most people would be when they given such a big responsibility without any warning. Although she does not initially have confidence or knowledge, Dora slowly gets there and gradually works her way up to being almost as good as Miss. B. Even though she did not originally start off as a hero, she gradually worked to become one.
Although Miss. B did not have any children of her own she represented the literary
figure of a mother. Miss. B was known as the motherly figure throughout all of Scots Bay. Since she was poor often after women were done having children they disowned her for her witchcraft, but at one point or another everyone in the village relied on Miss. B. She birthed all the children of the village, and in many cases those children’s children. She only ever wanted these children to live happy and safe lives. She stated ” My house became the birth house… They all came to the house, wailing and keening their babies into the world… All I ever wanted was to keep them safe” (McKay ix-x). I think this quotation really helps to represent the person that Miss. B was, how kind, caring and generous she was, and how she really cared for the well-being of every person within the village; just like a mother would care for her children.
Archer Bigelow, a man who came off as lovely, as the story went on his true colours came through. Archer represents the literary figure of a trickster because at first he came off as the perfect man who every girl wanted to be with, the man Dora fell in love with, and then once they got married things changed and he started to abuse his wife. Dora explains “I knew little about my husband until I lay with him… soon there was nothing gentle left between us, nothing to stop him from forcing his sweaty, cruel body against mine” (McKay 172). Dora clearly means that she knows very little about her husband as it is, but as soon as he forces himself on her all of the things she thought to know about him slowly disappear. I think Dora was just a symbol of how many women felt during this era, as if they had no power and were belittled by their husbands.
McKay was very creative in her way of including literary theories to her novel because there were so many, however a lot of them had much deeper meaning than it appeared.
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