With the use of hypertextual elements such as moving images, sound, text, and video clips, along with research into historical context, Christine Wilks creates a unique piece of online literature. Underbelly combines the experiences of the female coalminers, or “Pit Brow Lasses,” who worked in the coal mines in England during the 19th century with the life of a modern day female sculptor in order to convey the struggle many career driven women face today; the decision to have children. Both the present day artist and coal mining women from the past are dealing with the same difficult decision, whether or not they should have children with a career, and by comparing both the women from the past and present the author is able to show that this issue has been going on for many years. There is still no solution for the woman’s struggle between career and child rearing even in today’s society where a career driven women with children has become a norm.
In the introduction of the text, the author explains that the female sculptor accepts the opportunity to carve a stone sculpture on the site of a former Yorkshire Colliery, a place consisting of a coal mine and other structures where the coalminers worked. As she is sculpting the artist states, “I tune into the echoes of the past,” meaning she uses influences from the past as a means of getting inspiration for her work, and as a result the artist becomes connected to the Pit Brow Lasses. Both the Pit Brow Lasses and the artist are carving to get to something precious. For the coal miners it’s coal, and for the artist it’s the finished piece of art. While they are trying to work and become successful, they are also questioning whether or not they are doing something meaningful.
The voices from the past and the present are layered on top of one another in this hypertext, allowing the reader to see the connection between the artist and Pit Brow Lasses clearly. Wilks accomplishes this effect with the intricate and unique interface. The interface consists of strong female imagery, and was designed to look like not only a coal mine, but also a uterus. The reader is lead through the text by clicking on icons such as the sculptor’s chisel and small swirls which produce a variety of voices and images. Some icons reveal more female and reproductive imagery such as uteruses and developing fetuses which fly around the screen. Other icons consist of the stories and voices of both the artist and Pit Brow Lasses. Some of the voices are clear and rational. For example, the artist’s voice talks about creating a sculpture, while the other voices are the coalminers themselves telling their own stories. Yet other voices within the text are disembodied and less logical and say things such as, “Such pleasure I felt holding her baby. Should I be denied that? Why?” and “bad timing, it’s a matter of bad timing.” These voices are present throughout the text and will play one at a time or simultaneously, resembling the subconscious and only focusing on deep desires and worries.
To allow the reader to understand the anxiety women experience, they have to play a game at the end of the hypertext in which they are given a choice; become pregnant (though it’s not guaranteed), leave it to chance, or never become pregnant. As the reader is deciding, a warning is issued stating, “Time is running out. You’ve had twenty fertile years to decide. Which will you take? Choose! Choose!” in order to make them anxious. When the reader chooses an option, a “Wheel of Fortune” style wheel is presented, and the reader has to spin it to see whether or not they become pregnant, and if their lives are good or bad. The text allows the reader to play until they are satisfied with the outcome, when the text ends.
Underbelly is a unique piece of digital literature because it uses the tools of a hypertext not only as enhancement, but to portray the meaning and themes of the text in a way that would not be possible in print media. The voices replace conventional text and aid in an even stronger connection with the women speaking, while the different layers of imagery, including hidden background images and flying images, add a three dimensional aspect to the setting. The interactive and game-like interface creates a new experience for the reader in which they can become a part of the text and even experience the same pressure and anxiety as the characters.