What was new about Modernist literature
As Ezra Pound maintained, the objective of modernist literature was to ‘make it new’ (Pound; 1934). However, one cannot perceive a definition of such a large literary movement, without, in the post-structuralist manner, by defining its binary definition; realism. Realism was a traditional, non-experimental form of writing which can be characterised by its ‘chronological plots, continuous narratives relayed by omniscient narrators, [and] ‘closed endings’ (Barry 1995: 82).
Modernism, reaching its height in the early Twentieth Century, on the other hand experimented with chronology and narrative, which often has a shocked and perplexed effect on the reader. This essay will define and analyse modernism’s innovation in regard to two very different, landmark texts: To the Lighthouse, written by Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I have chosen to discuss these particular texts as I find them to be extensively modernist in their form and content, yet very distinctive in terms of their genre’s approach to modernism.
First and foremost, Woolf’s use of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique (Kolocotroni 1998: 448), makes her novel distinctively modernist. This practice was new to modernist literature as simple narration and dialogue (in the realist sense) could not portray the psychological dimension of characters, imperative to modernist literature. This was voiced by Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, ‘For the modern “that”, the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology’ (Woolf 1957: 192).
This use of interior monologue is used to portray the unspoken thoughts of the guests at the Ramsay’s dinner party thus emphasising their inability to openly express themselves and their concealed personal torment, be that intellectual, maternal or artistic, ‘She would move the tree rather more to the middle’ (page 138). Therefore due to the characters’ taciturn and the minimal plot, the stream of consciousness technique is vital to the novel’s characterisation; She makes her Mrs.
Ramsay- by giving us her stream of consciousness -amazingly alive; and she supplements this just sufficiently, from outside, as it were, by giving us also, intermittently, the streams of consciousness of her husband, of her friend Lily Brisco, of her children: so that we are documented, as to Mrs. Ramsay, from every quarter and arrive at a solid vision of her by a process of triangulation (Aiken 1958: 17) This stream of consciousness is demonstrated, not only in direct narration but through the use of parenthesis.
Throughout the novel parenthesis serves multiple purposes, for instance for a repeated afterthought or an aside, ‘(The bill for the greenhouse and all the rest of it) (p. 134) and ‘(it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) (p. 214). However, in a more modernist sense, parenthesis creates a non-standard novel form, as can be seen in the use of parenthesis encapsulating an entire chapter, ‘[Macalister’s boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with.
The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea] (p. 243). This creates a stark contrast to the continuous prose used throughout the novel and mirrors the way in which the reader is informed regarding the deaths of several of the characters, for example, ‘[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out.
They remained empty. ] (p. 175). This technique is undoubtedly modernist as it shocks the reader. Secondly, To the Lighthouse also takes on a Freudian stance in the inclusion of the Oedipus Complex. Freud’s innovative theory on infant sexuality (and the unconscious, hence, the modernist’s interest in psychoanalysis and stream of consciousness) was very much in the general literate consciousness around the time the novel was written.
This obsession with the mother and hatred for the father is illustrated in the novel’s opening pages, when James is told by his father, despite his mother’s promise, that he cannot go to the lighthouse (The lighthouse in itself being a phallic image) ‘Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it’ (p. 8). Stevie Davies describes another Oedipal scene in relation to the feminist element of the novel.
This scene contrasts with Mr and Mrs Ramsay’s inability to communicate their love and, mirrors Mr Ramsay’s constant need for sympathy, in which he desires from his wife, and later on in the novel, Lily Brisco. As a result of this suppression and displacement of desire, we witness in the novel the sexualization of the mental life or the cerebration of sexuality.
The most obvious such scene is that in which Mr Ramsay remorselessly plunges the ‘beak of brass’ into Mrs Ramsay’s ‘delicious fecundity’, with the incensed child James ‘stiff between her egs’ at his father’s assault (pp. 33-9). This scene is projected as a violent phallic penetration and appropriation of the female life-force, a close approximation to the reiterative thrusting of the sexual act, its ‘rapture’ (p. 40) connoting an element of rape and its faintly disgusted aftermath carrying post-coital suggestions. And yet all the characters are actually doing is talking, and one of them is actually knitting (rather fast). (Davies 1989: 55) Thirdly, the novel’s form is undoubtedly modernist.
Novel’s such as Sons and Lovers and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, like To the Lighthouse adopt a kunsterroman form, that is a novel depicting the growth of an artist. This is portrayed through the character of Lily Brisco, who, throughout the novel makes an artistic journey in painting Mrs Ramsay’s portrait. This mirrors Woolf’s intellectual journey of depicting her mother through her literature. This is evident in Woolf’s claim that her novel was more of an elegy (this redefinition of genre being very modernist in itself).
Furthermore, Mr Ramsay’s intellectual journey in reaching ‘Z’ is mirrored by his physical journey to the lighthouse at the end of the novel. James also reaches the end of his journey when he reaches the lighthouse, he realises that he doesn’t hate his father but his father’s constant want of pity. James also has the realisation that the adult image of the lighthouse doesn’t necessarily negate the beautiful childhood image. This concept is intensified when Lily realises that Mrs Ramsay is neither right nor wrong regarding the necessity of marriage and children, thus reinforcing the feminist aspect of the novel, that is, freedom of choice.
These coexistent epiphanies symbolise the modernist’s and the structualist’s belief that language (or art) doesn’t just reflect and record the world, instead it shapes it, therefore ‘how we see is what we see’ (Barry 1995: 82). Furthermore, the subjective and autobiographical form adopted by Virginia Woolf, was also embraced by other modernists such as Joyce and Lawrence; where the protagonist (in this case the ‘asexual’ artist Lily Brisco), is the representative alter-ego of the author. Thus contradicting the modern practice of ‘close reading’ and the ‘death of the author’. But in the end the work of each of them, Joyce and Woolf, embodies an intensely and pervasively “personal vision” (Morris 1985: 6). This subjectivity is filtered into the novel, and it seems that Virginia Woolf appears in the characters of Lily, Cam and Mr Ramsay, as well as creating her own presence in the novel through streams of consciousness. This is a highly modernist practice which did not occur in realist texts such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which despite having multiple narrators, was not autobiographical or penetrated by the author’s presence.
Fourthly the novel’s incoherent chronology is distinctively modernist. The first section of ‘The Window’ spans only a couple of hours but constitutes the majority of the novel’s ‘story’,( I say story in this sense, as the novel is devoid of action but over loading with meaning) whereas ‘Time Passes’ spans over a decade and only consists of twenty-six pages. However, the final section of the novel has a more coherent time-line, creating a more immediate, steady journey to meaning.
Moreover, Virginia Woolf has been criticised for having an absence of action in her novels, which perhaps makes her work more dated and realist. The penalty of her culture and refinement is a too highly self-conscious art, an almost fearful aloofness, in Aiken’s words a “dexterous holding of the raw stuff of life of life at arm’s length”. Conrad was equally concerned with the “semi-transparent envelope” about human experience, but he strove to penetrate it, sink his teeth in the solid emotional experience from which it emanates; she gave us simply the envelope (Muller 1937: 317-28)
This can clearly and shockingly be in seen in her priorities regarding action. For example, the only physical action that the reader is involved in Virginia Woolf’s world is Mrs Ramsay’s trip to the shops and the journey to the lighthouse. There are a few references to the outside world, for instance, the loss of Minta’s brooch, Mr. Ramsay’s academia and the result of Paul and Minta’s marriage. Thus due to lack of drama Virginia Woolf’s characters are ‘creatures of shelter, her characters are too delicate to participate in any really big or intense drama (Muller 1937: 317-28).
This is starkly represented with the unconventional divulgence of the deaths of Mrs Ramsay, Andrew and Prue through barren parenthesis and the existence of the First World War (which ironically caused the death of Andrew and the fame of Augustus Carmichael), ‘[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said. They said nobody deserved happiness more]’. These deaths are highly symbolic of the ethereal, fleeting nature of life; despite the maternal virtue, beauty and intelligence of these characters.
Woolf’s lack of ‘narrative interest ‘ thus creates meaning and appeal rather than negating it; how we see is what we see. This was voiced by Woolf in Between the Acts ‘”Did the plot matter?… The plot was only there to beget emotion… Don’t bother about the plot: the plot’s nothing”‘. The novel’s ideology can be very modernist in terms of its reference to society. Most noticeably, the secular aspect in the novel is portrayed through the ‘little atheist’ Charles Tansley and men’s study of philosophy and mathematics, which are objective, non-religious subjects.
Also, the claim that ‘There is no God (p. 279) and ‘leaping into space’ create a bitter and scientific view of life. Despite the novel’s feminist element, ‘Can’t paint, can’t write’, Victorian values regarding gender roles are portrayed through Mrs Ramsay’s need to give men sympathy and protection as they ‘negotiated treaties, ruled India’ (p. 11). This reference to imperialism and the Treaty of Versailles is ambiguous regarding the writer’s opinions, but clearly defines Mrs Ramsay as being content with her role in society, that is unlike Lily Brisco and Mr Ramsay.
Further references to imperialism are used when describing Lily, ‘screwing up her Chinese eyes’ (p. 123), this repetitive statement is again ambiguous regarding imperialism, but is perhaps used to portray Lily as being more sceptical and less attractive than Mrs Ramsay, Prue and Minta. Furthermore the continuous references to literature again create a literary world in which the reader can relate to. This of course presupposes the reader’s cultural intelligence; ‘an oversexed person will never appreciate the art of Virginia Woolf; nor will the fundamentally stupid’ (Bell 1924: 461).
Literary allusions are used throughout the novel, which is very modernist in the sense that Woolf perhaps criticises her predecessors and society’s notion of literature ‘Mr Ramsay said grimly… that very few people liked it (Shakespeare) as much as they said they did. But, he added, there is considerable merit in some of the plays’ (p. 145) and ‘Charles Tansley… has been saying that people don’t read [Sir Walter] Scott any more’ (p. 159). James is told the story of the fisherman’s wife, which takes on a realist stance of having a didactic purpose, thus creating a moral contrast to the modernist novel.
Mr Ramsay’s continual quoting of poetry throughout the novel portrays the importance of literature in life and emphasises the fact that To the Lighthouse is an ‘art novel (Fiedler 1974: 194). Moreover, Mr Ramsay’s quoting of William Cowper’s The Castaway ‘We perished, each alone’ (p. 224), is paradoxical, as in the poem only one man dies, yet the personal plural pronoun ‘we’ is used. Mr Ramsay’s use of this allusion perhaps suggest that due to his wife’s death, he and his children, and indeed mankind has perished.
His use of literature as an outlet for emotion is similar to what Virginia Woolf has done in her ‘elegy’. The Waste Land like To the Lighthouse is undoubtedly modernist, and shares some of the novels characteristics such as its innovative ideology and use of allusion. However, where the novel celebrates life, the poem condemns it. The novel despite having an informal time line and having an ephemeral tone, is continuous and whole; The Waste Land on the other hand is fragmented, a principle characteristic of modernism.
The Waste Land is fragmented in terms of its structure. The poem is divided into five sections, and the first section is divided into four vignettes, with each part having a different speaker, ranging from an aristocratic German woman to a western soldier from World War One. The poem is also fragmented in terms of its poetic form. For instance partial rhyme schemes and short bursts of structure have a simultaneous stabilising and destabilising effect on the reader in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, due to the fragmented content of the section.
The inclusion of non-English is confusing, but the reader is not expected to translate these immediately. The use of non-English creates a cosmopolitan form thus reminding the reader of the fragmented nature of Twentieth Century Europe. Furthermore, in the first half of ‘A Game of Chess’ Eliot uses unrhymed iambic pentameter, a form which is usually associated with social stability, to describe the paranoid thoughts of an aristocratic woman. However as the woman disintegrates Eliot includes repetition in her speech to her lover, ‘”Speak to me.
Why do you never speak. Speak. “‘(p. 34). This prose-like use of dialogue is an overlap of genre, which is similarly used in To the Lighthouse when Virginia Woolf’s writing becomes poetic. The second half of ‘A Game of Chess’ is very modernist in it’s use of working class vernacular, such as the repetition of ‘”I said”‘ and ‘”she said”‘, and again it breaks the convention of iambic pentameter representing stability. In ‘The Fire Sermon’ the form is musical which is used to represent cheap sexual trysts ‘Twit twit twit’ (p. 6), this association with sermon and sordidness is blasphemous, a departure such as this is similar to the atheist tone of To the Lighthouse. Like the third section, ‘What the Thunder Said’ has a musical form, whereas the reader is relieved by the reasoned and structured final stanzas, which contrasts with the repetitious style of the apocalyptic opening. The Waste Land unlike To the Lighthouse alienates the reader, through its overuse of religious, philosophical and literary allusions of Greek, Medieval and Victorian literature.
Eliot voiced this ‘difficulty’ in The Metaphysical Poets ‘The poet must become more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. ‘ Eliot achieves this through his use of allusions, non-English and ever shifting persona. Like Woolf’s novel, The Waste Land has a modernist ideology regarding imperialism and war. The social divide is symbolised in ‘A Game of Chess’ by the frustrated, overly emotional love of the aristocratic woman(who mirrors Cleopatra’s suicide) and the cultural, regenerative love of the working class woman.
This portrays their unhappiness with culture and the inability of sexuality in rescuing them. Death like Woolf’s novel is expressed in an unconventional way which is typical of modernist literature. For example the death of Phlebas is portrayed in a matter-of -fact way, ‘Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead’ (p. 39), which illustrates the transient nature of life. This is further intensified with the Eliot’ s version of the Crucifixion, in which Jesus is not resurrected.
Unlike To the Lighthouse, The Waste Land is very cosmopolitan and historic which enables the reader to perceive the nature of society on a grand scale. For example, in ‘What the Thunder Said’ cities are destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again-which mirrors the downfall of ancient cultures in Jerusalem, Greece, Egypt and Austria, further emphasising the transitory nature of life. However, despite the innovation of modern texts; there are realist ideas and styles which have infiltrated through into the modernist movement.
Firstly, the concept of the unconscious was not new to modernism, however psychoanalytic approaches did reach a climax in the modernist era with the publication of Freud. Secondly, character’s sometimes remain to be Victorian and ‘out dated’ in comparison with the new forms of writing and ideology in modernist literature. For instance the stereotypical character of Mrs Ramsay as a mother and wife (this is exemplified by her forename not being disclosed to the reader) is old fashioned when compared to the feminist and intellectual elements of Lily Brisco and Mr Ramsay.
Thirdly, the bildungsroman form employed in several modernist texts is not exclusive to modernist literature as realist texts such as Wuthering Heights, depicts the growth of several characters through to adulthood. In conclusion, modernism did make literature new in its use of contemporary notions such as psychoanalysis and social circumstances such as imperialism and war. The modernist moved away from coherency and objectivity and towards difficulty and subjectivity. However, modernism’s most innovative factor was its use of form to creating meaning.
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