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The modernist movement of the early twentieth century drastically changed the way that art and literature were perceived in western culture. The themes expressed in modernism are perhaps some of the most diverse, disturbing and difficult to understand. One of the principal themes expressed in modernist literature is alienation; this motif can be found in James Joyce’s story “The Dead”, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, and Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Each piece evokes the idea or feeling of alienation in a unique way.
James Joyce’s “The Dead” is a short story which presents the theme of alienation primarily through the central character: Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel’s attendance at a Christmas party hosted by his aunts is coupled with a feeling of isolation and revulsion for social activities. Gabriel longs to escape the company of the people at the party; he yearns to go outside in the cold and walk beside the river instead of socializing with those inside (Joyce 2355). Gabriel is socially alienated because of his “paralysis of will, energy and imagination” (Stevenson 49). This is especially evident in his failed attempts to connect meaningfully with Lily, Miss Ivors, and his wife, Gretta. Both Lily and Miss Ivors say things which make Gabriel feel anxious and uncomfortable because he is unable to communicate effectively with them; Gabriel does not make an effort to overcome disagreements and as a result he constantly seeks escape and isolation. Gabriel’s physical longing for his wife is not reciprocated by her; Gretta’s introspection and her lack of awareness of Gabriel’s feelings isolate Gabriel to the point that he is finally forced to examine his own feelings and his past. At this point, Gabriel understands that as he is estranged from other human beings, he is also estranged from himself.
It is the ending of “The Dead” which epitomizes the modernist theme of alienation. Like many other characters created by James Joyce, Gabriel experiences an epiphany at the end of “The Dead”. Gabriel’s awakening is not a truly positive one; the epiphany is his true realization of isolation. Gabriel experiences his epiphany through his wife: it is her memories and realizations that prompt him to examine his own past (Gillies 138). Gretta’s nostalgia for the past and what might have been with Michael Furey cause Gabriel to reflect on his own past; Gabriel realizes that “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (Joyce 2373). This epiphany is rendered hollow because in it there is no redemption: Gabriel realizes how alienated he is from his own wife, from love, and from life itself. This moment of utter loneliness and isolation is compounded by Gabriel’s consciousness of death and its physical manifestation in the snow that is covering Ireland at that moment. The bleak observation made by Gabriel that “One by one they were all becoming shades” (Joyce 2373) is a one that clearly defines Gabriel’s view of life. Although death is inevitable, it is made out to be more tragic because so many people have never truly lived. This alienation from life is symbolized in Gabriel’s reaction to the snowfall: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”(Joyce 2373). This poignant ending to the story illustrates Gabriel’s feelings of isolation and alienation perfectly.
T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland is often lauded by critics to be one of the pillars of modernism. The theme of alienation is as prevalent in this poem as are the poem’s literary references. The fragmentation of the poem is the essential alienating factor of the piece; the poem “suggests a way of experiencing material, historical, time-bound existence, daily life, as never really wholly real” (Underhill 150). The fragmentation of the poem exists on a multitude of levels; each one serves to alienate the poem’s ‘voices’ from one another or to alienate the reader from the work itself.
To begin with, the technical language of the poem is highly fragmented and confusing: “The sections proceed, disjunctively, like some fearful dream, while the fractured syntax and collage of ‘found-sounds’ articulate the modern Babel as Bedlam” (Brown 92). These elements can be interpreted as reflecting a wasteland of language: within the structure of the poem, grammar is barren and meaningless, sentences are dead husks and the occasional tattered bit of coherent meaning waves aimlessly about in a dry wind of purpose. As a result, the reader of The Waste Land cannot claim familiarity with the basic mechanics of the English language. In a poem with so many complicated and multiple meanings, the fragmentation of language alienates the reader further.
The individual ‘characters’ of The Waste Land are fragmented as well; these alienate the reader because of the vast amount of associations which must be drawn with each character. The characters range in social status: gods, beggars, sailors, kings, queens, madwomen, and fortune tellers compete for prominence with eunuchs, hat-sellers, single mothers, lords, and faceless children. Unlike many mythological or biblically-inspired texts, “the constant disruption of quotations and allusions expresses less the mythic control sought for by two generations of scholars than the chronic unraveling, under stress, of a broad-based Harvard education” (Brown 92). The plethora of historical, mythical, religious, and literary references contained within The Waste Land are used in the Imagist and Symbolist tradition: references breed allusion which then allude to more references. The amount of references and allusions becomes even more overwhelming and thus alienating when one takes into consideration the global context of the poem. Although most basic western cultural archetypes are present in the poem, the inclusion of eastern and more obscure references make the meaning of the poem even more difficult to grasp. The Hindu and Egyptian references as well as those made in languages other than English are not meant to be understood; they are only accessible to a learned scholar. The Waste Land is a poem which depicts alienation and isolation on an epic scale; the profound desolation and confusion that the poem presents to the reader is balanced precariously by the sheer wealth of knowledge and history behind the piece.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella which influenced many later modernist writers, including Eliot and Joyce. Heart of Darkness is, in many ways, an impressionist story of alienation amongst other things. The central characters of the story, Charlie Marlow and Jim Kurtz, are the only characters who are given human names. All of the other characters are given purely functional names; these often are simply their job or their relation to the main characters. This denial of human individuality serves as an alienating force in the story. By assigning names such as ‘manager’ or ‘the Intended’ to characters, Conrad renders them as symbols and thus they are strictly functional to the outcome of the story (Stape 46).
The struggle for one’s soul and individual humanity is one of the themes which directly relates to the theme of alienation in Heart of Darkness. Conrad presents Marlow as a character who senses his inevitable isolation from humanity. It is Marlow who states:
…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live as we dream – alone (Conrad 2224)
It is this statement which epitomizes the theme of alienation in Heart of Darkness. Marlow cannot reconcile memory and life in the present time; he is alienated by those around him because he feels that they cannot truly understand his message.
Some of the most significant factors which present a sense of alienation in Heart of Darkness are the paradoxes. The paradoxes presented include the juxtaposition of a ‘barbaric’ culture against a ‘civilized’ one. In Heart of Darkness, civilization embodies barbaric principles: “Society saves us from corruption, yet society is corrupt” (Stape 47). This paradox is never openly stated, but it is evident throughout the story that Marlow’s opinions and experiences of what he considers ‘civilized society’ change. This change is not a newly gained respect for the ‘civilized’ aspect of Africa, it is a cynical criticism of the barbaric nature of humanity in general. Marlow, as well as the reader, is ultimately left with a feeling of utter fatigue and estrangement from humanity. Heart of Darkness ultimately presents a story of utter isolation and alienation from humanity and from the self.
In conclusion, the theme of alienation has been clearly presented and examined in all three works. The modernist movement towards intellectual and emotional exploration of the self often presents isolation and alienation as the inevitable conclusion. While this theme in literature may not be the most comforting, it is one of great truth. Often it is through alienation that we experience our quintessential nature. To journey into a Heart of Darkness, to see “The Dead”, to live in The Waste Land: these are works which present an important truth as well as a commentary on what it means to be human in a modernist age. The alienated human spirit is both profound and revealed.
Abrams et al., The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Brown, Dennis., The Modernist Self in Twentieth Century English Literature. Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Abrams et al. 2205-2263
Gillies, Mary Ann., Henri Bergson and British Modernism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996.
Joyce, James. “The Dead”. Abrams et al. 2345-2373
Stape, J.H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Stevenson, Randall., Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. Revised Edition. London: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Underhill, Hugh., The Problem of Consciousness in Modern Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
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