And, as usual, it was impossible to determine whether abortion was banned because it was wrong, or whether it was wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.” (Annie Ernaux, Happening)


Happening (L’Événement in its original title in French) is an autobiographical novel written by Annie Ernaux on the subject of abortion. Published in 2000 (and first translated into English in 2001 by Tanya Leslie), it retraces the struggle of a young 23-year-old student to have an abortion, four years before the contraceptive pill was legalised and twelve years before the Veil Act of 17 January 1975. During a simple medical check-up at the Lariboisière hospital in Paris, the narrator is transported back to January 1964, to the traumatic moment of her clandestine abortion. Although the memory of this event is distant, its impact remains indelible. Lost, the young woman hid her pregnancy from those close to her for two months, desperately seeking a solution. In Paris, she finally found an underground nurse who provided her with the necessary equipment. Then, in her student room in Rouen, she found herself with the foetus between her legs, a heartbreaking scene that she describes as a sacrifice. This autobiographical account, both terrifying and moving, is told with the brutality of the facts. Happening sheds light on a society mired in its principles, taboos and class contempt. 

A personal happening

“I want to immerse myself once again in this period of my life, to find out what was found there. This exploration will be woven into the fabric of a narrative, the only way to capture an event that was nothing but time inside and outside of me. A diary and an intimate journal kept during these months will provide me with the reference points and evidence I need to establish the facts. Above all, I will endeavour to go down into each image, until I have the physical sensation of ‘joining’ it, and a few words emerge from which I can say, ‘that’s it’. I shall try to conjure up each of the sentences engraved in my memory which were either so unbearable or so comforting to me at the time that the mere thought of them today engulfs me in a wave of horror or sweetness.” (Annie Ernaux, Happening)

Happening is an autobiographical novel telling the story of Annie Ernaux, the courage of a free woman. We follow, step by step, the journey of a young woman seeking an abortion. We are at her side; we feel her suffering, her torments. She is a heroine like all the heroines of the past, a captive of male domination, shunned by all, despised by society, seen as a mere object of curiosity. Ultimately, this novel tells the story of millions of women around the world. Although it was written in 1999, recounting events dating back to the 1960s, clandestine abortion is still an ignored, trivialised phenomenon in many parts of the world. 

A taboo happening

“Neither of us had mentioned the word abortion, not even once. This thing had no place in language.” (Annie Ernaux, Happening)

Abortion is often considered a taboo subject due to various cultural, religious, political and social influences. Religious beliefs play a major role, as many religions condemn abortion as immoral. Culturally, the strict social norms surrounding women’s sexuality, motherhood and the family stigmatise abortion. It also raises political questions about reproductive control and women’s rights. Finally, because abortion is experienced differently by each woman, personal and emotional experiences make the subject more delicate: most of the time, it is a difficult choice, even a traumatic one. This emotional, cultural and political complexity fuels the taboos surrounding abortion and makes discussions about it sensitive and divisive.

Annie Ernaux’s raw, minimalist, factual writing is perfectly suited to the story, which makes the facts seem all the more brutal. Annie Ernaux seems to be both the main character and the author, commenting on the story. This dual perspective allows readers to be fully immersed in the narrator’s torments. Her loneliness, which is particularly brought forward, is indicative of the way society treats women who wish to have an abortion. This loneliness is all the more striking in the novel given that the young woman is apparently surrounded by friends and a boyfriend. In reality, the people around her do not understand her decision, but merely judge her. Some, like the man who induced her pregnancy, are even indifferent to her situation.

Just when she thought she could find help around her, the narrator is quickly caught up in reality: she finds herself completely alone in the face of the disdain of those around her and the contempt of the doctors. Some of them seem afraid of losing their jobs. Even a man who campaigns for the right to contraception is not particularly touched by the student’s situation.

A dangerous happening

“Time ceased to be an insensible sequence of days, to be filled with lessons and lectures, stations in cafés and the library, leading up to exams and the summer holidays, the future. It became a shapeless thing advancing inside me that had to be destroyed at all cost.” (Annie Ernaux, Happening)

Clandestine abortion poses considerable dangers to women’s health and well-being. Performed in unsafe conditions and often by unqualified individuals, it exposes women to an increased risk of serious complications such as haemorrhage, infection and uterine perforation. In the absence of adequate medical follow-up, those who undergo clandestine abortions may not receive the care they need to treat these complications, which can have serious, if not fatal, consequences. In addition, the lack of pre- and post-abortion counselling and the associated legal risks in countries where abortion is illegal can lead to limited access to information and appropriate medical care.

The difficulties experienced by the narrator in the course of the story are a reminder that the legal ban on abortion has never prevented women from resorting to it clandestinely. Neither the Supreme Court judges who declared that the American Constitution did not guarantee the right to abortion, nor the countries that only allow abortion in cases of danger to the mother or rape, will prevent women from having abortions, whatever the cost. For this reason, the guarantee of a universal right to abortion is more necessary than ever.

Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux is a French author who was born on September 1st, 1940 in Lillebonne, Normandy. Growing up in a family of traders in the provincial town of Yvetot, she studied at the University of Rouen, where she obtained a degree in modern literature.

Her career as a novelist began in the 1970s, marked by a literary exploration of her own life and personal experiences. She often drew on her memories and reflections on society to create works that question collective and individual memory, as well as social structures.

Alongside Happening (2000), her most famous works include A man’s place (1983) (La Place,1983), in which she recounts the story of her working-class father, and A girl’s story, (1987) (Une femme, 1987), in which she explores her own experience as a woman in society. Her writing style is characterised by precise, spare prose, in which every word is carefully chosen to express deep feelings and powerful observations.

Throughout her career, Annie Ernaux has received numerous awards and distinctions for her work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022. She was also elected to the Académie Goncourt in 1989. Her commitment to autobiographical writing and her contributions to contemporary French literature have made her a key figure on the literary scene.

To know more…

Annie Ernaux’s novel Happening was adapted for screen in 2021. The film Happening was directed by Audrey Diwan.

L’Événement, Annie Ernaux, 2000, Paris, Éditions Gallimard. 

Happening, Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie), 2001, Seven Stories Press.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.