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Situating Annie Ernaux’s L’évènement and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in a reproductive justice framework, I argue that both the memoir and the film contribute to working-class historiographies by documenting backstreet abortion in times and places where it was heavily criminalized: 1960s France and Communist Romania. Committed to a working-class aesthetic with roots in neorealism, Ernaux and Mungiu focus singularly on an event once deemed unrepresentable in literature and cinema. Drawing upon the distinction made between empathy and “rational compassion” made by Paul Bloom in Against Empathy (2016), as well as from Kelly Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (2001), I contend that Ernaux’s memoir and Mungiu’s film call upon us to have compassion but not empathy for their protagonists, university students from working-class backgrounds who were denied the range of reproductive options afforded to more privileged women. Through metatextual commentary and carefully orchestrated camerawork, respectively, Ernaux and Mungiu decenter their narrative subjects, confronting us with emotions and experiences with which we cannot identify. At the same time, they underscore the need for solidarity between female outlaws through their portrayal of backstreet abortion as a feminist quest, revising Joseph Campbell’s male-centered monomyth. Their works transcend a pro-choice/pro-life position and remind us of our ethical imperative to bear witness to marginalized women’s histories.


This is the accepted manuscript of a book chapter published as: Tomasulo, Victoria. "Re-Presenting the Un-Presentable: Annie Ernaux’s L’évènement and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and Two Days." The Palgrave Handbook of Reproductive Justice and Literature. Edited by Beth Widmaier Capo and Laura Lazzari. Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

Made available under the SpringerNature Accepted Manuscript Terms of Use:

Available for download on Wednesday, June 25, 2025