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Modernism Defined in T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and James Joyce's The Dead

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Modernism is by no means easy to define. In fact, no one is exactly sure if the movement has even ended yet. But that’s befitting of the period, as well as the pieces of literature that serve to define Modernism. Two pieces, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and James Joyce’s “The Dead”, are epitomes of this modernism. In both, the main characters are paralyzed by an inability to communicate, even while speaking. Whether through Prufrock’s musings concerning love life, or Gabriel’s inability to evoke certain feelings out of his wife, both men experience this effeminization of the intellect and communication. But where does this communicative castration begin? Most likely, in the bustling metropolises and dehumanizing philosophies that precipitate the Modernist movement. The modern man witnessed the killing of fifteen million people in the first Great War – bestial in the sheer amount of murder this war created. Meanwhile, modernity defined man’s character for him: Darwinism told him that he was the offspring of lesser animals, that man was, in essence, himself an animal. Also, Freudian psychoanalysis told man that his psyche was the product of his childhood and sexual instincts. Defined by that which he had no control over, or was too young to consciously alter, the modern man’s identity was no longer his to artifice, but society’s to manufacture at the behest of environment and upbringing. Which makes sense because, when we talk about personalities, sexualities and such today, we constantly hear the phrase “nature versus nurture”. What about “self”? Does the self have no control over these very crucial aspects of identity? Modernity has told these men “no”, that they do not form their own identities but that all ...


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...seem surprising that the men of the early twentieth century were devoid of identity. In fact, it may have been necessary to become identity-less, to recede back into something less than human. Or maybe to recede back into the very epitome human living. After all, the British Empire was on top of the world during both the Romantic and Victorian eras; therefore, it would make sense that English writers were idealistic at these times. But the Modernist era was the time of post-colonialism, where the English were no longer dominators but equals with the rest of the world – where they had once ruled, they now had to fend for themselves. So, is it possible that the modern era was not really a dehumanizing era, but a humanizing time period for the British? One cannot rightfully answer. Which, as the beginning of this paper states, is befitting of Modernism: it is unclear.


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