Fractal Myth

Modernism and the City.

[Michelle Chapman ©1996]

This essay focusses on representations of the city in T.S.Eliot's poetry, James Joyce's Dubliners and Virginia Woolf's The Waves.

Modernist writers, including T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf tended to live and write in the capital cities of Great Britain and Europe, using the city as a source of inspiration, a research tool, and a setting for their literature. City living fostered the formation of literary coteries, which encouraged development of new styles of writing to meet modern needs. The Modernists refused to accept the nineteenth-century notion that certain subjects were 'unsuitable' for literature. Their credo, 'make it new', inspired them to search for new subject matter, and new forms of language, which would allow them to express their view of the modern world. The Modernist view of the city leaned towards a pessimistic sense of urban failure, and a feeling of mixed fascination and revulsion is discernible in their writings.

T.S. Eliot's early poetry, published in PRUFROCK and Other Observations (1917), James Joyce's Dubliners (completed 1907, published 1914), and Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), all deal with the negative aspects of the city, bringing to us "the sense of unreality that pervades a world that has lost the rhythm of the seasons, has lost any sense of community, and most of all has lost a sense of purpose."(1) However, it must be remembered that this interpretation of the city is "written by, and for, a metropolitan intelligentsia,"(2) who shared an ambivalence towards city life, and who were using the city in a literary experiment designed to find new forms of expression for the modern age.

T.S. Eliot's participation on this experiment included his discovery of "the poetical possibilities, never developed by any poet writing in my own language, of the more sordid elements of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of the fusion between the sordidly realistic and the phantasmagoric, the possibility of the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic."(3) In his poetry, Eliot avoids explicit statement of his purpose, conveying his meaning through incantatory imagery, which "evokes the unspoken mood"(4) behind the words. The tedium of social life in the city, and its effects on the persona in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' are implied using this method:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
(Prufrock, ll.50-51)

James Joyce, in Dubliners, is also concerned with the use of language to convey meaning and mood. He, too, avoids explicit statement, and his language "is contrived to expose what it affects to endorse."(5) His social commentary on the inhabitants of the city is ironically understated but undeniably present:

... through this channel of poverty and inaction the Continent sped its wealth and industry. Now and again the clumps of people raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed.
(After the Race, Dubliners p.35)

Although Dubliners contains criticism of the city's movement for the revival of Celtic language and tradition, Joyce makes extensive use of the peculiar nature of Irish-English, which borrows from both religion and dialect:

-My little man! My little mannie! Was 'ou frightened, love? ... There now, love! There now! ... Lambabaun! Mamma's little lamb of the world! ... There now!
(A Little Cloud, Dubliners, p.80-1)

Virginia Woolf's development of a modern method of expression involved 'stream of consciousness ' writing, as this "enfranchised her from the unwanted linear structure in which an omniscient narrator moves from points A to B. She arrived instead at a form which could 'use up everything I've ever thought.' [A Writer's Diary, 15 October 1923]"(6) In The Waves, her characters discuss this problem, as they find new ways of describing the city around them:

... in efforts to make a steel ring of clear poetry that shall connect the gulls and the women with bad teeth, the church spire and the bobbing billycock hats as I see them ...
(The Waves p.96)

Woolf demonstrates the effect that a person's language has on the development of identity, and on individual responses to the city. Bernard searches for the perfect phrase, and for this he requires the constant inspiration of city life. Susan, on the other hand, finds language difficult, and "despises the futility of London" (The Waves p.89), preferring the quiet domesticity of the country.

'I see the beetle,' said Susan. 'It is black, I see; it is green, I see; I am tied down with single words. But you wander off; you slip away; you rise up higher, with words and words in phrases.'
(The Waves p.10)

The Modernist concern with language and meaning includes the notion that, in the city, real communication is impossible, due to the isolating effects of city life. T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' and 'Portrait of a Lady' both deal with this inability to communicate. Prufrock, haunted by monotony, attempts to ask "an overwhelming question" (Prufrock l.10). His own self-doubt eventually prevents him from even making the effort:

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
'That's not it at all.
That is not what I meant, at all.'
(Prufrock, ll.94-98)

In 'Portrait of a Lady', the lady's attempt to form an intimate friendship with the persona is met with derision. Her attempt to communicate is heard, not as human language, but as discordant music:

The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
Of a broken violin on an August afternoon;
'I am always sure that you understand
My feelings ...'
(Portrait, ll.56-59)

This concept of the failure of the city's language to convey intimate feeling is also present in James Joyce's Dubliners. In 'A Painful Case', Mr Duffy forms an intimate but platonic relationship with an unhappily married woman. He expounds on the theme of love, becoming carried away by the "sound of his own voice" (A Painful Case, Dubliners p.107). His words are just words, without real meaning, and he is consequently shocked when she crosses the bounds of propriety:

The end of these discourses was that one night during which she had shown every sign of unusual excitement, Mrs Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek.
Mr Duffy was very much surprised. Her interpretation of his words disillusioned him.
(A Painful Case, Dubliners p.107)

For Virginia Woolf, in The Waves, communication in the city is hampered by "words that trail drearily, without human meaning" (The Waves p.71). In the heart of London, Jinny suggests that meaning is unnecessary, as it is the ecstasy of making a momentary connection with another person that is important:

Words crowd and cluster and push forth one on top of another. It does not matter which. They jostle and mount on each other's shoulders. The single and the solitary mate, tumble and become many. It does not matter what I say. Crowding, like a fluttering bird, one sentence crosses the empty space between us.
(The Waves p.77)

Louis uses the language of commerce, creating a world-wide network of communication. The power of language to create action, sending ships to "the remotest parts of the globe" (The Waves p.129) is undermined by the trivial cargo: "lavatories and gymnasiums"(The Waves p.129), the unnecessary trappings of civilised city life. For Louis, communication has been mechanised, replacing human interaction on a global scale:

I am half in love with the typewriter and the telephone. With letters and cables and brief but courteous commands on the telephone to Paris, Berlin, New York, I have fused my many lives into one; I have helped by my assiduity and decision to score those lines on the map there by which the different parts of the world are laced together.
(The Waves p.127)

For the Modernists, the failure of communication is one element in the fragmentation of communities that the city encourages. Inherent in their notion of the city is a "view of life as irretrievably isolated."(7) This alienation of the conscious individual among the unthinking masses is seen as responsible for the sordid loneliness of city life, as is the breakdown of family relationships, religion and morality.

In T.S Eliot's early poetry, the city's failure to meet the needs of its inhabitants is attributed to the spiritual sickness of the Western World. The background city-scenery of the poems continually reinforce this sense of social decay. The "restless nights in one-night cheap hotels" (Prufrock, l.6) suggest fruitless sexuality and prostitution, an image repeated in the character of the woman in 'Preludes', whose inner self has been corrupted by her unlovely life in the city slums:

The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
(Preludes ll.26-28)

Eliot uses the technique of 'disembodied body parts' to emphasise the depersonalising effect of city life. This technique, in 'Preludes', suggests the monotony and lack of individuality that rented accommodation in a large city brings:

One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
(Preludes, ll.21-23)

In Dubliners, James Joyce concentrates on the loss of values withing the city community. "Each story in Dubliners is an action defining amid different circumstances of degradation and difficulty in the environment a frustration or defeat of the soul."(8) Relationships in the city are disappointing. In 'Two Gallants', the concepts of 'friendship', and 'courting' are given a sordidly ironic treatment:

He had walked the streets long enough with friends and with girls. He knew what those friends were worth: he knew the girls too. Experience had embittered his heart against the world.
(Two Gallants, Dubliners, p.52)

The paucity of moral values this view of the city implies is continued throughout Dubliners by the characters' views on family life. In 'Grace', the function of Mrs Kernan is to show how a romantic view of marriage is destroyed by the harsh reality of city life:

After three weeks she had found a wife's life irksome and, later on, when she was beginning to find it unbearable, she had become a mother.
(Grace, Dubliners, p.155)

Virginia Woolf, in The Waves, is less concerned with the breakdown of family life and moral values, than with the mechanistic, soul-destroying nature of city-living. In the subterranean London train-station, Jinny has a frightening vision of the city's inhabitants. She sees them as an undifferentiated mass, treading the same paths day after day, trapped in monotonous routine:

I admit, for one moment the soundless flight of upright bodies down the moving stairs like the pinioned and terrible descent of some army of the dead downwards and the churning of the great engines remorselessly forwarding us, all of us, onwards, made me cower and run for shelter.
(The Waves, p.148)

Rhoda, likewise, sees the people around her as lifeless and unimaginative, criticising their uniformity and lack of individuality:

I have been stained by you and corrupted. You smelt so unpleasant too, lining up outside doors to buy tickets. All were dressed in indeterminate shades of grey and brown, never even a blue feather pinned to a hat. None had the courage to be one thing rather than another. What dissolution of the soul you demanded in order to get through one day, what lies, bowings, scrapings, fluency and servility!
(The Waves p.156)

The common element in these three writers' attitude towards the city is the sense of 'the masses', a vast, undifferentiated class of people, to whom most of the characters, and the authors, are socially superior. The view that city life is destructive of individuality "belongs not to the modern city in general, but rather to one distinctive group within it. ... it rests upon a repudiation of the broad city middle class, the commercial bourgeoisie."(9) Paradoxically, the Modernist notion of the city's breakdown in community values resulted, for the authors, in a stronger sense of their own artistic community, united by a common ambivalence towards urbanisation.

T.S. Eliot, in his poetry, often uses allusions to other literature. His imagery is dense and occasionally difficult, for an exact meaning is never clearly stated. This, combined with his selective use of foreign words, shows the assumption of an educated, literary audience:

Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks with a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners,
She smooths the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
(Rhapsody on a Windy Night, ll.50-55)

Eliot shares the Modernist conceptualisation of the city-dwellers as an uncaring multitude, and his poetry is populated by the 'herds' of common people:

Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
(Preludes, ll.41-47)

In James Joyce's Dubliners, the majority of the characters are members of this lower class. However, those Dubliners who have any education or literary talent are fully conscious of the gap between themselves and the people around them. In 'A Painful Case', Mr Duffy refuses to write down his theories for social reform, because he despises the city's inhabitants:

She asked him why he did not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?
(A Painful Case, Dubliners, p.107)

Gabriel Conroy in 'The Dead', although he admits an contemptuous affection for his aunts and their guests, feels that he must revise his Christmas dinner speech to ensure it does not make his audience feel inferior:

The indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would that he was airing his superior education.
(The Dead, Dubliners, p.179)

In contrast, the characters in Virginia Woolf's The Waves have almost no empathy with the people outside their small circle. "She has given an excellent representation of the surface psychology of well-meaning and sensitive people floating without effort on the surface of a social order designed to give them ease and security."(10)Neville, while revelling in the educated, masculine atmosphere of Oxford, casually ignores the right of the commercial class, especially its female members, to even exist:

'When there are buildings like these,' said Neville, 'I cannot endure that there should be shop-girls. Their titter, their gossip, offends me; breaks into my stillness, and nudges me, in moments of purest exultation, to remember our degradation.
'But now we have regained our territory after that brief brush with the bicycles and the lime scent and the vanishing figures in the distracted street. Here we are masters of tranquillity and order; inheritors of proud tradition.'
(The Waves, p.64)

Although the characters in The Waves are intensely concerned with their own consciousness, "not one of them ever considers whether sensibilities as interesting might not be found among the masses they fear and despise."(11) Bernard, the most socially sensitive of the six characters, relies on the working-class people he meets for his phrase-collection. His attitude towards them, however, is unconsciously patronising:

How tolerable is the life of little shopkeepers, I would say, as the train drew through the suburbs and one saw lights in bedroom windows. Active, energetic as a swarm of ants, I said, as I stood at the window and watched the workers, bag in hand, stream into town. What hardness, what energy and violence of limb, I thought, seeing men in white drawers scouring after a football on a patch of snow in January.
(The Waves, p.201-2)

The most pervasive imagery , used by all three writers to suggest the problems inherent in the city, is that of paralysis. In T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', this paralysis is endemic to the city and its inhabitants. The poem opens with an image of inertia affecting the whole city:

When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
(Prufrock, ll.2-3)

Prufrock, the persona of the poem, is paralysed by his sense of inferiority, and reluctance to expose himself to the ridicule of his city acquaintances. This becomes so strong that he is prevented from fulfilling his desire to communicate, even with those who are special to him:

To wonder, 'Do I dare?' and 'Do I dare?'
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
(Prufrock, ll.38-39)

James Joyce, in explaining his motivation for Dubliners, said: "My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because the city seemed to me the centre of paralysis".(12) Like Eliot's poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', Dubliners begins with an image of paralysis, a paralysed priest, symbolic of the failure of religion to meet the spiritual needs of he city's inhabitants:

It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle. But I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.
(The Sisters, Dubliners, p.3)

Paralysis also prevents the characters of Dubliners from leaving the city. 'Eveline' finds herself unable to follow her romantic dreams of escape from the degrading life that caused her mother's insanity, as she is paralysed by her own sense of helplessness. Little Chandler, in 'A Little Cloud', dreams of a life of literature, but when he attempts to introduce this dream into his home life, he finds himself forced into helpless inactivity:

It was useless. He couldn't read. He couldn't do anything. The wailing of the child pierced the drum of his ear. It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life.
(A Little Cloud, Dubliners p.79-80)

The characters in Virginia Woolf's The Waves experience paralysis, not from the moral, economic or intellectual deprivation of city life, but from the gap between their private life of the imagination, and the reality of the city. Rhoda is most affected by the paralysis, even reliving an experience from Virginia Woolf's childhood: "There was the moment of the puddle in the path; when for no reason I could discover, everything suddenly became unreal; I was suspended; I could not step across the puddle; I tried to touch something ... the whole world became unreal."(13) Rhoda feels paralysed when she must participate in the city's public life, as she finds the attention of other people threatening:

But I am fixed here to listen. An immense pressure is on me. I cannot move without dislodging the weight of centuries. A million arrows pierce me. I, who could beat my breast against the storm and let the hail choke me joyfully, am pinned down here; am exposed.
(The Waves, p.79)

Rather than follow the Romantic desire for escape from reality, the Modernists preferred to confront their audience with the world as they saw it. Although their characters may dream of escape, such dreams are shown to be ultimately futile. In T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', Prufrock tries to escape from the monotony of city life into a surreal, fantasy world where he is free:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
(Prufrock, ll.73-74)

The effect is momentary, but significantly, his means of escape is through sea imagery. This motif of escape by sea is repeated at the end of the poem, as Prufrock consoles himself for his failure to communicate by dreaming of friendly mermaids. This dream is also temporary, and the city soon reasserts itself in Prufrock's consciousness:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us and we drown.
(Prufrock, ll.129-131)

James Joyce's Dubliners also dream of escape overseas, and away from "dear dirty Dublin" (A Little Cloud, Dubliners p.70). However, "those Dubliners who have reached England or the Continent ... show by continuing to behave like other Dubliners that to be transported physically overseas is not necessarily to find a new life, or to be changed essentially at all."(14) The boys in 'An Encounter' make elaborate plans for their escape from the city and school. Their excitement is fuelled by their reading of cheap American paperbacks:

The adventures related in the literature of the Wild West were remote from my nature but, at least, they opened doors of escape.
(An Encounter, Dubliners, p.11)

Their plans are foiled, and instead of escape, the boys meet with proof of the perversity and corruption of the adult world. 'Eveline' also makes romantic plans for her future over the sea, and for escape from the city:

She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live.
(Eveline, Dubliners p.33)

Her dream, too, goes unrealised. Despite their lack of success, the characters in Dubliners continue to look towards the sea with hope, dreaming of a new life somewhere other than their own city:

For the first time in his life he felt himself superior to the people he passed. There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin.
(A Little Cloud, Dubliners, p.68)

In The Waves, Virginia Woolf uses the sea as the major contrast to the city. The sea is everything the city is not. It is beautiful, many coloured, and natural:

Blue waves, green waves swept a quick fan over the beach, circling the spike of sea-holly and leaving shallow pools of light here and there on the sand.
(The Waves, p.20)

The mechanistic beat of the city is contrasted with the rhythm of breaking waves, and both have equal impact on the lives of the characters. The only character who successfully escapes the city is Susan. Her refusal to accept its fascination, and her dreams of domestic life, allow her to see the city from a different perspective:

I will not send my children to school nor spend a night all my life in London ... But now I pass on, out of London again; the fields begin again; and the houses, and women hanging washing, and trees and fields. London is now veiled, now vanished, now crumbled, now fallen.
(The Waves, p.45)

Rhoda also dreams of escape from the city, but her method, like Prufrock's, is through the imagination. She develops double-vision allowing her to see both worlds at once, but the city continually asserts itself in her dream:

Behind you is a white crescent of foam and fishermen on the verge of the world are drawing in nets and casting them. A wind ruffles the topmost leaves of primeval trees. (Yet here we sit at Hampton Court.) Parrots shrieking break the intense stillness of the jungle. (Here the trams start.) The swallow dips her wings in midnight pools. (Here we talk.)
(The Waves, p.171)

Although Rhoda does finally manage to escape the city, her method is suicide - which is hardly an acceptable alternative.

Throughout their works, the Modernists expressed their disgust with the dirt, decay and desolation of the city. In T.S. Eliot's poetry, the addictions of civilisation seem an inevitable part of the streetscape:

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways
(Prufrock, l.60)

The addiction imagery of Prufrock's pessimism is repeated in 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night'. The stale smell of alcohol and cigarettes mingles with other smells from city life, creating a nauseating odour:

Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.
(Rhapsody, ll.65-68)

James Joyce's portrayal of Dublin life also focuses on the smells of the city. In a letter to his publisher, Joyce claimed "It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look in my nicely polished looking-glass."(15) This moral dimension of Joyce's work, exposing the corruption of the Irish city, was commented on by Bernard Shaw: "In Ireland they try to make a cat cleanly by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject."(16) One focus of Joyce's disgust in Dubliners is the city's treatment of its children:

The golden sunset was waning and the air had grown sharp. A horde of grimy children populated the street. They stood or ran in the roadway or crawled up the steps before the gaping doors or squatted like mice upon the thresholds. Little Chandler gave them no thought. He picked his way deftly through all that minute vermin-like life and under the shadow of the gaunt spectral mansions in which the old nobility of Dublin had roistered.
(A Little Cloud, Dubliners, p.66)

Also criticised is the hypocrisy of city-dwellers, especially those who claim moral superiority. Mr Duffy is singled out for special treatment, and his reprehensible disclaimer of responsibility points out some of the social problems and attitudes of life in the city:

Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded hi,. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul's companion! He thought of the hobbling wretches he had seen carrying cans and bottles to be filled by the barman. Just God, what an end! Evidently she had been unfit to live, without any strength of purpose, an easy prey to habits, one of the wrecks on which civilisation has been reared.
(A Painful Case, Dubliners, p.111-112)

In Virginia Woolf's The Waves, it is Rhoda who reacts with revulsion to the city. She, also, comments on the smell of the crowds, and on the depersonalising effect of so many people:

I should stand in a queue and smell sweat, and scent as horrible as sweat; and be hung with other people like a joint of meat among other joints of meat.
(The Waves, p.122)

K. Flint had pointed out that, in The Waves, "References to broken chimney-pots, factories, gasometers and crowded city streets serve only as reflections of a character's state of mind, rather than as pointers to social conditions."(17) Louis, alone in his room after Rhoda has left him, is intensely aware of the decay of his surroundings. Although he has mentioned them many times, at this moment they seem particularly horrific:

Broken and soot-stained are these roofs with their chimney cowls, their loose slates, their slinking cats and attic windows. I pick my way over broken glass, among blistered tiles, and I see only vile and famished faces.
(The Waves p.155)

To anchor their characters, and justify their view of the city, each Modernist writer developed a technique of realism, making the city recognisable to their audiences. T.S.Eliot, in 'Preludes', uses the language of the senses to bring the city alive. The elements of the city itself constitute the poetry:

The burnt out ends of smoky days [smell/taste]
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet [touch]
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat [sound]
On broken blinds and chimney-pots [sight]
(Preludes, ll.4-10)

James Joyce, conscious that his view of the reality of Dublin life was controversial, crated the "most elaborate apparatus of realism"(18) through his use of exact topographical features, and his cataloguing of facts about his characters' backgrounds which link them to the life of the city:

He had been a clerk in the Midland Railway, a canvasser for advertisements in The Irish Times and for The Freeman's Journal, a town traveller for a coal firm on commission, a private inquiry agent, a clerk in the office of the Sub-Sheriff and he had recently become secretary to the City Coroner.
(Grace, The Dubliners, p.157)

Ezra Pound said of Joyce's realism, "[h]e gives the thing as it is. He is not bound by the tiresome convention that any part of life to be interesting, must be shaped into the conventional form of a 'story'."(19)

Although Virginia Woolf's characters prefer to avoid realism, Bernard's insight into city life gives us a picture of London stripped of the illusions with which the characters have surrounded it. The 'reality' of accident and crime in the city is emphasised, showing the futility of the citizens' everyday life.

I observed with disillusioned clarity the despicable nonentity of the street; its porches; its window curtains; the drab clothes; the cupidity and complacency of shopping women; and old men taking the air in comforters; the caution of people crossing; the universal determination to go on living, when really, fools and gulls that you are, I said, any slate may fly from a roof, any car may swerve, for there is neither rhyme nor reason when a drunk man staggers about with a club in his hand - that is all.
(The Waves, p.204)

The Modernist portrayal of the city is by no means all negative. They also experienced a fascination with city life that outweighed their disgust. Their development of a city language enabled them to "melt down and transform into strange and beautiful images"(20) the harsh realities of city life. This element of Modernism and its relation the city emerges in T.S.Eliot's 'The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock', where the pollution that covers the city is described in sensual, almost affectionate terms:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains.
('Prufrock' ll.15-18)

In a letter to his brother, James Joyce stated that Dubliners was meant as a celebration, as well as a criticism, of the city. "When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the 'second' city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice, it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world."(21) In 'Araby', the children play happily amongst the grime of the streets, and the noise of people becomes the music of the city:

We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs' cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-of-you about O'Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land.
(Araby, Dubliners p.23)

In 'The Dead', Joyce celebrates traditional Irish hospitality, both through his description of the overloaded table of party food, and explicitly, in Gabriel's speech.

-the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our fore-fathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.
(The Dead, Dubliners p.204)

In Virginia Woolf's The Waves, it is Jinny who is most appreciative of the city. Neville calls London the "centre of the civilised world" (p.52), and Jinny sees beauty in the machinery of the city, feeling it to be a triumph over the savagery of the pre-industrial world:

Think of the superb omnibuses, red and yellow, stopping and starting punctually in order. Think of the powerful and beautiful cars that now slow to a foot's pace and now shoot forward; think of men, think of women, equipped, prepared, driving onward. This is the triumphant procession; this is the army of victory with banners and brass eagles and heads crowned with laurel-leaves won in battle ...
These broad thoroughfares - Piccadilly South, Piccadilly North, Regent Street and the Haymarket - are sanded paths of victory driven through the jungle.
(The Waves, p.149)

The final method used by the Modernists to present the city is the technique of epiphany, in which a character catches a fleeting glimpse of existence beyond their oppressive environment. In T.S.Eliot's 'Prelude', an urban dawn gives a lonely woman an experience of the city that transcends her limited and limiting life:

And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
('Preludes' ll.31-34)

The poem ends with another epiphany, as the persona has an intensely spiritual vision, inspiring sympathy for the soul of the city:

The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
('Preludes' ll.50-51)

This insight is temporary and soon fades to revulsion and disgust, as the tedious monotony of city life encompasses the universe:

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
('Preludes' ll.52-54)

In James Joyce's Dubliners, epiphany celebrates the beauty of the city's structures, and shows that the city can inspire happiness and content. The boy in 'An Encounter' experiences such an epiphany, as his pleasure in a spring day, and excitement about his truancy becomes embodied in the bridge he waits beside:

All the branches of the tall trees which lined the mall were gay with little light green leaves and the sunlight slanted through them on to the water. The granite stone of the bridge was beginning to be warm and I began to pat it with my hands in time to an air in my head. I was very happy.
(An Encounter, Dubliners p.13)

Little Chandler, walking through Dublin dreaming of a literary career, experiences an epiphany linked to the ugly houses of the urban slum. The vision endows the houses with a sense of a mysterious hidden life unrelated to human occupation:

As he crossed the Grattan Bridge he looked down to the river towards the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the river-banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and begone.
(A Little Cloud, Dubliners p.68)

The final moment of epiphany in Dubliners is also the final moment in the book. Gabriel, in 'The Dead', has a vision of Ireland blanketed in peace-bringing snow as he falls asleep:

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.
(The Dead, Dubliners p.224)

Epiphany also provides moments of insight for the characters in Virginia Woolf's The Waves. The noises of the city street are the impetus for Louis's vision of perfect poetry, transcending the individual sounds:

'The roar of London,' said Louis, 'is round us. Motor-cars, vans, omnibuses pass and repass continuously. All are merged in one turning wheel of single sound. All separate sounds - wheels, bells, the cries of drunkards, of merry-makers - are churned into one sound, steel blue, circular.'
(The Waves, p.101)

Rhoda has a powerful moment of epiphany in which she sees the representation of universal harmony and order in the city's architecture, momentarily regaining her faith in life. Her feeling of stability and permanence show the importance of epiphany for allowing the characters to go beyond the confines of daily life in the city:

'Like' and 'like' and 'like' - but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing? ... There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated; we are not so various or so mean; we have made our oblongs and stood them on squares. This is our triumph; this is our consolation.
The sweetness of this content overflowing runs down the walls of my mind, and liberates understanding. Wander no more, I say; this is the end.
(The Waves, p.123)

The literature of these three authors, T.S.Eliot, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, provides a perspective on the Modernist attitude towards the city. From within their 'literary community', they ventured out to present the world as they saw it. Their distaste for the corruption of the city, both physical and moral, mingled with their impulse to celebrate it as a centre of civilisation. As artists, they developed a peculiarly urban imagery, and endowed they city street-scapes with a transcendent symbolism, creating a new literature for the modern age.


1. Brooks, C. A Shaping Joy - Studies in the Writer's Craft p.45.
2. Holloway, J. 'The Literary Scene' in Ford, B. Pelican Guide to English Literature p.71.
3. Eliot, T.S. 'What Dante Means To Me' in To Criticise the Critic and Other Writings p.126.
4. Kenner, H. 'Bradley' in Kenner, H. (ed) T.S. Eliot - A Collection of Critical Essays p.37.
5. Stewart, J. Eight Modern Writers p.432.
6. Lee, H. The Novels of Virginia Woolf p.93.
7. Craig, D. The Real Foundations - Literature and Social Change p.173.
8. Ghiselin, B. 'The Unity of Dubliners' in Beja, M. (ed) James Joyce - Dubliners and A Portrait of an Artist p.106
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11. Lee, H. op. cit. p.172.
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13. Woolf, V. 'A Sketch of the Past' in Schulkind, J. (ed) Moments of Being p.90.
14. Ghiselin, B. 'The Unity of Dubliners' op. cit. p.111.
15. Joyce, J. Letter to Grant Richards, in introduction to Dubliners op. cit. p.xv.
16. Shaw, B. Letter to Sylvia Beach, in Hutchins, P. James Joyce's Dublin, p.16.
17. Flint, K. 'The Waves' in Briggs, J. (ed.) Virginia Woolf - Introduction to the Major Works p.424.
18. Spender, S. The Struggle of the Modern p.224.
19. Pound, E. 'On Dubliners' in Dennings, R. (ed.) James Joyce - The Critical Heritage p.67.
20. Spender, S. The Struggle of the Modern p.224.
21. Joyce, J. 'Letter to Stanislaus Joyce' in the Introduction to Dubliners (Penguin 1992) p.xvi.


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Marker's comments.

87% - This is very detailed and careful work with excellent use of quotation. Perhaps some more argumentative material on the city - especially the aesthetics of the urban - would have strengthened the piece, as well as some more sustained readings of individual texts.

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