Fear Contaminates New Motherhood in Karen Russell’s “Orange World”
In Karen Russell’s 2019 short story “Orange World,” becoming a new mother means discovering new worlds governed by fear. In her forties and on the brink of another miscarriage, Rae, whose pregnancy is diagnosed as geriatric and at high risk for genetic anomalies, makes a deal with a devil to save her baby. Three months and a healthy son later, she breastfeeds the devil, who resembles a “mutant red raccoon” (246) every morning at 4:44 a.m. as she is convinced that this is the only way to protect her son. The guilt from giving in so easily to the devil pushes her out of the Orange World “where most of us live” (236) and into the Red World, a mother’s worst nightmare with “babies falling down stairwells and elevator chutes. Speared by metal and flung from passenger seats. Drowning in toilet bowls and choking on grapes” (237). Rae enters the Green World, “a fantasy realm of soft corners and infinite attention” (236), a world we all wish to live in, when she bands together with a group of moms with similar devils. Russell uses the devil to highlight the fear, desperation, self-doubt, and guilt accompanying new motherhood. Russell sets “Orange World” during a vicious Portland winter and then enlightens Rae on the three-color coded surreal worlds that accompany new moms while her mother is on the other side of the country; this emphasizes the struggle between her old self and new self, which causes an extreme form of isolation and fear. These techniques, with the friendships Rae, forms with a hilarious group of moms, helps stress the story’s core message: the only way out of this treacherous Red World and into the “the ideal” (236) Green World is by authentic friendships with mothers who have gone through or are going through similar trials and tribulations.
“Orange World” suggests that the fears new moms feel during pregnancy and in the early weeks following birth may appear diabolical. Yes, fear makes emotionally vulnerable people, like new moms, easy to control; however, Rae makes a deal with the controlling devil on the brink of another miscarriage; therefore, in “Orange World,” it is the fear of losing her baby and never being a mother that brings the devil to life. After the deal with the devil, Rae does ponder over this severe mistake, “Why hadn’t she thought to appeal to heaven? Rae wonders now. She took the first deal offered. She’d done a better job negotiating for the Subaru” (238). Russell does this to show that she understands that we are all capable of bargaining with the devil and selling our soul to him; that is why Rae’s devil is recognizable to mothers and anyone who has spent time worrying for a loved one.
Deep down inside, Rae knows that her deal with the devil was made due to her desperation; however, three months into new motherhood, she cannot break this deal due to the fears that now manifest themselves in the ritual of night feeding. Russell uses the daily morning feeding ritual to underline those routines governed by fear are hard to break: “‘But I’m not ready to wear it yet. I’m afraid of it! I don’t want my family to suffer” (257). Furthermore, Russell makes Rae feeding the creature seem endearing. She gives the creature almost human vulnerabilities to highlight how quickly and easily most of our bad habits become part of us. Russell understands how we excuse our devils and learn to live with them, “[t]o deviate from the pattern she established would be to risk other deviation” (249). Russel uses this statement to explain why so many of us choose to live with the devil we know.
New motherhood produces isolation from the world previously accustomed to by the new mother. A struggle between the person she once was and the person she now must be is something many new moms feel. After the birth of her son, Rae’s isolation from her old self is accentuated by the extreme Portland winter through which Rae navigates. This geographical setting shapes the plot and intensifies Rae’s loneliness in the new terrain of motherhood. However, it is not Portland nor the intense winter that causes alarm in her life but the three surreal worlds that manifest themselves due to the struggle between her old self and her new self. Rae, like most of us, lives in an Orange World up until the birth of her son, “Orange World is a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives. It’s a baby’s fat hand hovering over the blushing coils of a toaster oven. It’s a crib purchased used” (236). However, the realization of this Orange World does not occur to her until she becomes a new mom and imprisons herself in the pits of the new terrifying Red World. Veteran moms speak of a “Green World, a fantasy realm of soft corners and infinite attention” (236); however, only when Rae faces the isolation from her old world, and tackles the loneliness she feels in her new world, will Rae discovers this Green World. Russell uses these three color-coded surreal worlds to show the struggle between the old self and the new self for new mothers. However, more importantly, these worlds give hope, showing that a new mother can live in this ideal Green World that veteran moms live with time and support.
Russell uses Rae’s mother and husband to show how new mothers need connections but not with their family and friends. Rae’s mother is on the other side of the country. Due to the time zone difference, Rae’s mother cannot give Rae the lateral support she needs. She needs her mom physically close to her. Furthermore, Rae’s mother is dealing with her own fears of death, hope, and love due to the severe labor of caring for her elderly dying mother; therefore, she is emotionally and mentally unable to help her daughter. When Rae’s husband notices that she is too tired to feed, “‘You must be tired.’ [says Rae’s husband] ‘It feels good to be food.’ [says Rae’s] ‘What-’ [says Rae’s husband] ‘I said. I feel lucky to know what it means to be food before I am dead.’” (253). Even though her husband notices there might be a problem, he cannot help her as she tricks her inner self and him into thinking that what she is doing feels good, that she is happy being food for their son. What makes it harder for him to help Rae is that now she has spiraled into a martyr complex statement about where many new moms can end up, made by Yvette “Women like you love to play the martyr, don’t you?” (261), and simply he does not understand this. Even though her husband is physically right next to Rae, he is just as far away in knowledge and understanding of Rae’s situation as her mother is in physical distance. Russell uses these two different types of family relationships to stress how the need for connection does not mean a need for connection with a family member or a friend because the only person that can help a new mother is someone is a another mother who is physically, emotionally, and mentally available to her.
A need for connections with other mothers is the beating heart of “Orange World.” To help articulate the importance of close friendship with other mothers, Russell first shows that it is common for new moms to be afraid of other moms; she then adds the new moms’ group, “Every adult face looks freakishly huge to Rae” (244). The new mom’s group is another foreign landscape that new moms need to navigate through. Rae was once a “science journalist” (253), and by trying to be the person she was before her baby came along, she cannot come to terms with the new world that the baby has brought. Rae does not want to admit to her old self that she cannot do this independently; she was independent and successful in her old world; therefore, Rae does not need help, and the last thing she wants is to be a part of this new freakish foreign world filled with moms. “Veteran mums seem so smugly certain of everything. Yvette with her cloth diapers and her homemade yogurts – how does Yvette know for certain what this devil can and cannot do” (248), and that is why it takes so long for Rae to go and meet with the group of mothers. However, it is when she finally opens up and is honest about her devil that she starts fighting her fears off one at a time, “Yvette doesn’t bat a false eyelash. Indeed, a look of naked exasperation flashes across her carefully made-up face. ‘That fucking thing. It’s been coming south of Powell?’” (247). Yvette’s matter-of-fact reaction to Rae’s devil demystifies Rae’s creature into just another motherhood problem a mother needs to solve.
Rae is continually advised to make hard choices, first by her mother and then by the mother’s group. Russell understands that letting go of one’s false beliefs, one’s fears, is hard. Russell repeats this sentence twice in the story, “If you believe that, what else do you believe?” (242, 262). Russell is questioning our beliefs. The devil represents that toxic inner voice of self-doubt and guilt that plagues pregnant and new mothers. He is that inner voice that we all bargain with during times of need. However, Russell goes further and makes us question this voice, “Who are you bargaining with? Rae wants to ask. Who do you imagine is listening?” (264). Russell clearly states in “Orange World” that it is just a voice, the devil isn’t real, he can be fought. Rae can fight her guilt, shame and be free from these false fears, as can all new mothers. However, to do this, they will need to make authentic friendships, as Rae makes. Russell uses Yvette as the voice of reason, “It’s easier to believe in the devil than “admit that you are powerless like the rest of us” (261). Yvette has four children, and having lost one of them, even after bargaining with the devil, makes her the all-wise and all-knowing mother, but more importantly, the mother that new desperate, lost, and alone moms need to seek. Russell uses Yvette to let new mothers know that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Mothers like Yvette will help new moms govern the new world they are in, [“Yvette says] ‘Does a problem go away on its own?’ Yvette says. ‘It does not” (257). Russell uses hilarious dialogue within the mother’s group highlights the importance of genuine friendships with other moms, “‘Don’t read anything online,’ one mother counsels. ‘They’ll tell you your baby is going to die and sign off with an angel emoji’” (248). Russell clearly states that information and support found online is the wring type of connection. This fake connection spirals a new mom into the Red World. It is only through real face-to-face physical connections that new moms enter the Green Worlds, “Marie and Rae sit side by side. Under the table, Marie takes her hand. It feels a little traitorous to make a new friend when she is out of touch with everyone she loves. But it’s happening to them, a friendship” (255). Through Yvette, Maria, and the other moms, Russell emphasizes that only real connections with real moms can help new moms out of the Red World and into the Green World.
A pregnant woman is expected to know how to be a mother because she is a woman. However, the fact of the matter is that being a mother is foreign territory to new moms, and sadly, being the perfect, all-knowing mother as soon as the first baby is born is a myth that new moms need to be aware of. Many fears arise with the expectation that accompanies new motherhood. These fears escalate exponentially for new mothers, like Rae, who have had difficulties conceiving or have had miscarriages. In the first part of “Orange World,” Russell explores this landscape of new motherhood without a family support network or a strong group of mothers around to help. Russell shows how desperation, guilt, and self-doubt can lead to isolation and loneliness and push new mothers like Rae into a terrifying Red World. However, in the second part of the story, Russell’s true message shines. A new mother does not need her mother or a family member to help her navigate this scary uncharted terrain. New mother need any mother who can physically, mentally, and emotionally be available to her during the first few months. “Orange World” emphasizes the importance of close, authentic friendships with veteran mothers if new mothers are to live in the Green World.
Russell, Karen. “Orange World.” Orange World and Other Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, Vintage Books, A Division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, 2020, pp. 235-266.