In this essay, I intend on examining the notion of progress and how it coincides with the rupturing of certain Victorian constraints from the midst of global tragedies such as World War I. I will be analysing on a literary basis to gain a sense of the ‘progression’ that has been made in comparison to different time periods, including perceptions of gender. I will also be exploring literary techniques used. I will be examining the extent of this progression in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).
Modernism was the movement that yearned to break away from tradition and to create a revolutionary form of literature. Barth stated that “modernism was a revolt against conservative value.”1 The strife towards revolution was heavily influenced by numerous wars and by the rejection of writers and artists from the Romantic period. “Arguably the most paradigmatic motive of modernism is the rejection of tradition and its reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, and parody in new forms.”234 (Eco, 1990) Modernism also disapproved of ideologies from previous movements and generations – “Modernism rejected the lingering certainty of Enlightenment thinking and also rejected the existence of a compassionate, all-powerful Creator God.”5 It has been argued that the beginning of modernism was marked by Richard Dedekind’s ‘division of the real number line’ in 1872 and Boltzmann’s ‘statistical thermodynamics’ in 1874. The movement really exploded into life after the conclusion of the first world war. The poet Ezra Pound’s directive to ‘make it new’ was the underlying thesis behind this movement. The great war took the world by shock and the destruction and devastation fractured Europe culturally. New cultures were formed from the ashes of the war; the heinous acts of violence were to be forgotten. The modernist movement was at the forefront of the revolution of culture with the relinquishment of processes and ideas that were evident during previous periods. This revolutionary process of creating a contemporary movement is exhibited in all forms of art. Literature escaped the rigidity of Victorian aspects and could showcase social properties that of which were once tabooed. Writers wrote with more freedom, the statement of ‘progress’ can be seen in the workings of Virginia Woolf and T.S Eliot.
One of the most prominent writers from within the modernist movement is Virginia Woolf. Her story Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1924, is regarded as a modernist masterpiece. The novel depicts the day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway and army war veteran Septimus Smith. The novel uses the technique ‘in media res’ to drop the reader into the conscious mind of various different characters. Woolf creates the aspect of socialistic disparity as many of the characters disguise themselves with a ‘social mask.’ Mrs. Dalloway is described to have a face that is “pointed, dartlike definite” that of which the mirror has reflected “many million times.” Her social image conceals” incompatible” aspects of her personality which could be refracted into divergent and contradictory images. This leads the other characters to see only one of these aspects which they believe to be her Personality.6The uniformed manner in which people have to go about their daily life represses their true personas. This concept is very much based on the rigid class structure which would have been to that of the Victorian time period. I feel the reader is able to understand and follow the stream of consciousness of the given character and are aware of how socialist restraints influence the way people of this time were influenced to act and think.
The fractured storyline of Mrs. Dalloway portrays a society which is changing at a dramatic rate. These changes are highlighted in the New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, as “Mrs. Dalloway offers a scathing indictment of the British class system and a strong critique of the patriarchy. The work’s social satire takes much of its force from ironic patterns of mythic reference that allow the fusion of dramatic models from Greek tragedy and from the Christian liturgy.7 At this time Britain as a country has been changing due to the weakening of Victorian concepts. Woolf highlights the progressive manner of how the country is moving forward both socially and culturally. The juxtaposing personas of Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Smith are symbolic of the idea of progress and a cultural change. An example of this can be seen in the moment of passion Clarissa experienced with Sally Seton. For Clarissa, this homosexual experience was one of the most passionate moments of her life; she cherishes the kiss that occurred 30 years ago, in the garden at Bourton. Woolf’s incorporation of same-sex eroticism and romance defies the social normalities. Homosexuality would have been truly repressed in this time period, yet this moment is when Clarissa feels most alive. In contrast, the death of Septimus represents that an era of repression is coming to an end. “Woolf envisions an allegorical; struggle between good and evil- between Clarissa Dalloway’s comic celebration of life and the tragic death-dealing forces that drive Septimus Smith to suicide.”8 I feel this thesis is applicable to how the modernist movement rose from the destruction left behind from the first world war. Septimus symbolises the ways of old, whilst Clarissa represents an idea of hope and progress within a time period of change.
A narrative that follows a strict time linear is not apparent in modernist texts. Woolf uses flashbacks and memories to create a stream of consciousness within the text. This creates an interior time structure within the consciousness of the characters. The image of London as a city and especially the inclusion of Big Ben at the beginning of a new chapter creates an exterior reality to that of the characters from within the narrative. The reader is following the interior stories of each of the characters, whilst the rest of the exterior world continues to develop and progress. These two-time frames combine and form a “technique which helps the novelist to merge interior and exterior time in repetition (for example Clarissa, Septimus and Peter Walsh all reciting lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline) and her characters are united by the constant use of memory.”9 The idea that the exterior time continually progresses is contrasted by the fact that all of the characters still live in the past. Clarissa’s most fond memory is the kiss she shared with Sally Seton, whilst Septimus is haunted by the death of his close friend and comrade Evans. The past is as important as the present day in the narrative of the story. Clarissa’s link with time is especially poignant as the progression of time and life means she is getting closer to death, which is her ultimate fear.
T.S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ controversially critiques the futility of progress in the modernist era. Through progress, society is losing a sense of originality and culture. Eliot’s the Wasteland is renowned as one of the most influential and innovative poems in the English language. Eliot’s form of writing is full of allusions and references to works of the past. He is one of the most important writers from within the modernist movement yet; “His allusions also show that the poet is not content with the modernism; as modernism rejects the high moral values of culture and society. He alludes mostly to the metaphysical poetry.”10 T.S Eliot’s reference and use of other poets and artists work are profoundly apparent in the ‘Wasteland.’ This famous piece of work can be seen as an eye-opener to its readers. Eliot uses this fragmented piece of poetry to help preserve the classical pieces of culture from across the ages. “Eliot’s aim in writing poetry is similar to Dante’s; which is to save the living people from the melancholic condition. They also aim to move them into a happy circumstance in an indirect way; as the metaphysical poets also did. Eliot’s main goal is to save the universe from suicide.”11 In his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot stresses the importance and influence of previous writers on the current generation of writers. He states: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poet and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.”12 This is why the ‘wasteland’ is made up of exerts of literary masterpieces from across history.
Through the poem, Eliot epitomises a barren and fruitless future in contrast to the days of former glory. Eliot importantly starts the poem off with a reference to the month of ‘April.’ This is usually a month when life and love flourish. Eliot, however, believes that it is the ‘cruellest’ month as the ‘wasteland’ juxtaposes the natural progression of life. Nothing can grow and flourish in this barren ‘desert’, even in the time period of usual prosperity. With reference to the idea of spring Eliot incorporates notions from Crescenzo Formicola’s poem Pervigilium Veneris, as the protagonist declares “when shall I be like the swallow.” Cleanth Brooks states the allusion is also connected with the Philomela symbol. (Eliot’s note on the passage indicates this clearly.) The sister of Philomela was changed into a swallow as Philomela was changed into a nightingale. The protagonist is asking, therefore, when shall the spring, the time of love, return, but also when will he be reborn out of his sufferings, and–with the special meaning which the symbol takes on from the preceding Dante quotation.”13
Eliot’s creation of the Wasteland shows his desire for a future that is based on tradition and culture. The minds of society need to enrich themselves and engage in a manner that celebrates genius from the past. Kenner and Eleanor Cook state that Eliot creates the idea that the ‘wasteland’ is an ‘urban apocalypse.’ Society is trapped in the interior prisons of their minds, slaves to modernity and the overhang of the impact from World War I. These people have been turned into zombie-like creatures, brain dead, shackled by routine. The fortune-teller Madame Sosostris foresees “crowds of people, walking around in a ring”, this has reference to Dante’s Inferno. The circular ring represents the rings of hell, as society has imprisoned and condemned the majority of the population to a life of eternal suffering.
Gender constraints were in evidence during the Victorian period with Society based upon a clear, patriarchal structure. The modernist movement aimed to influence society, so the general structure would be more gender neutral. In a rather controversial manner, Eliot decides to give more power to female characters throughout the poem. This is a bold yet unique statement, as through the ages women were seen as minorities in comparison to their male counterparts. Carol Christ states in “The Waste Land’ Eliot, with a desperate virtuosity, presents various ways of constituting the male and female, as if in search of a poetic figuration and voice that place him beyond the conflicts that characterize his earlier poetic stances.”14 The female characters he uses have a certain degree of power over the male ones. This is something that would be relatively new to both literature and society. The women’s voices from within the poem “juxtapose the meditations of a male voice with a number of female portraits: Madame, Sosostris, the wealthy woman and the working-class woman in “A Game of Chess,” Marie, the hyacinth girl, and, in Eliot’s rough draft of the poem, Fresca.”15The strength of females is epitomised by the demise of the male characters in the early parts of the poem, with the males mentioned being either dead or dismembered. These include the drowned Phoenician sailor, the one-eyed merchant, the fisher king, the hanged man and the corpse that is planted in the garden. Eliot defies traditional stereotypes and evokes the notion that the males are the weaker of the two sexes. The poem, however, alters the gender balance with Eliot’s introduction of Tiresias. Eliot states in his note on the passage that “the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.” Tiresias’s transgender state allows him to relate to both sexes. Perhaps, more importantly, Tiresias power to prophesise and to look into the past and present; acts as the bridge between the modern world and the sought-after days of yesteryear.
The ‘Wasteland’ defies a logical time frame and by doing this Eliot can incorporate references from literary masterpieces that derive from different cultures across the world and history. The allusions he uses come together to form the poem which expresses Eliot’s desire to return to a classical period, which is appreciative of art and culture. There is a wide variety of literary icons that Eliot incorporates into his work including William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Thomas Middleton and John Milton. These references combine and form a physical representation of ‘waste’ as the variety of different cultures begin to blend in with each other. The knowledge and insight each allusion offers are compromised due to the random way they are connected to one another. The unsystematic use of each literary references does, however, make the reader research further; as the poem makes no real logical sense. Paradoxically Eliot believed as the reader expands their knowledge of the allusions more ‘waste’ is produced. The discourse of the poem is juxtaposed by the poet’s intention. The more research a reader puts into it, the less sense the poem makes as the cultural references progressively build up like waste. It could be argued that the reader would be expanding their knowledge of other literary works. As a consequence, the reader would be fulfilling Eliot’s aspiration, i.e. they would be immersing themselves in history and culture, which is a society Eliot was yearning for.
Arising from the decline of certain Victorian constraints, I feel modernism as a movement truly coincided with a sense of progression which is notable on a social and cultural level. The First World War was one of the most devastating historical events. The modernist movement helped to lead the development from this historic crisis. I believe the workings of T.S Eliot and Virginia Woolf show this concept of progression from previous time periods of literature, especially the romanticist period. Woolf uses a wide variety of significant, yet minute indicators, to draw attention to the idea of a progressing world. For example, the homosexual interest Clarissa has would not be apparent in a world that was previously solely based on the patriarchal structure. Through the inclusion of a variety of literary classics it is apparent Eliot would like to return to a period before that of the modernist movement. He evokes the idea we are losing a sense of regard for classical work but ironically this neglect of historical masterpieces gives an indication of progress. Eliot, at first sight, seems to be disobeying the underlying thesis of the modernist movement through constantly referring to the past. I feel that by referring to the past a true sense of progression can be identified through the comparisons of the different time periods. The modernity of this movement is enhanced by references to the past.
1 (Barth, 1979)
2 (Eco, 1990)
3 (Steiner, 1998 )
4 (Childs, 2000)
5 (Pericles, 2000)
6 (R.Maze, 2000)
7 (Marcus, 1981)
8 (Marcus, 1981)
9 (Otilia, 2014)
10 (Barzinji, 2013 )
12 (Eliot, 1919)
13 (Brooks, 1939)