Exploring how the figure of the “wild child” in contemporary fiction grapples with contemporary cultural anxieties about reproductive ethics and the future of humanity
In the eighteenth century, Western philosophy positioned the figure of “the child” at the border between untamed nature and rational adulthood. Contemporary cultural anxieties about the ethics and politics of reproductive choice and the crisis of parental responsibility have freighted this liminal figure with new meaning in twenty-first-century narratives.
In Wild Child, Naomi Morgenstern explores depictions of children and their adult caregivers in extreme situations—ranging from the violence of slavery and sexual captivity to accidental death, mass murder, torture, and global apocalypse—in such works as Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Denis Villeneuve’s film Prisoners. Morgenstern shows how, in such narratives, “wild” children function as symptoms of new ethical crises and existential fears raised by transformations in the technology and politics of reproduction and by increased ethical questions about the very decision to reproduce. In the face of an uncertain future that no longer confirms the confidence of patriarchal humanism, such narratives displace or project present-day apprehensions about maternal sacrifice and paternal protection onto the wildness of children in a series of hyperbolically violent scenes.
Urgent and engaging, Wild Child offers the only extended consideration of how twenty-first-century fiction has begun to imagine the decision to reproduce and the ethical challenges of posthumanist parenting.