"Mastomania" Breastfeeding and the Circulation of Desire in Nineteenth-Century France

Lisa Algazi Marcus


The concept of sexual pleasure while breastfeeding, still faintly scandalous in the twenty-first century, circulates in a variety of nineteenth-century French texts, from medical discourse to the fictional works of Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. Although some medical authorities condemned sensual breastfeeding, or “mastomania,” as a vice, others used the promise of sexual pleasure to entice recalcitrant mothers to breastfeed. In representations of maternal breastfeeding found in both literary and medical texts, it is often the male gaze that constructs meaning. The reciprocal desire of mother and infant shifts to include a third person, the narrator-spectator, whose own desire for the breast creates a fantasy of maternal erotic response that is then condemned as a vice. This confusion of subject and object of desire raises complex questions about the motivations of the male authors of these texts. This article uses psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Klein, and Kristeva to argue that the erotic dimension of the breastfeeding couple is tolerated, and even celebrated, in nineteenth-century literature but only if the male gaze constructs and controls the mother’s desire.

Full Text:


We are grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for its ongoing support of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.