Skepticism in the efficacy of belief in modernist literature

Here, I am posting a college essay from 2014. Feel free to weigh in, or contact me with constructive criticism. This was also published in the Journal silverstreams


  1. “The starting point of modernism is the crisis of belief that pervades twentieth-century culture: loss of faith, experience of fragmentation and disintegration, and shattering of cultural symbols and norms” (Susan Stanford Friedman). Discuss the skepticism about the efficacy of belief in Modernist literature.

What is Modernism?

Modernism as a literary movement presents some difficulties in terms of categorization; there were a series of movements with similar ideas and themes rather than any singular interpretation. It was a series of reactions in art and literature following modernity: the period of time that saw rapid development of technology, and unprecedented growth of cities around industry. “In poetry modernism is associated with moves to break from the iambic pentameter as the basic unit of verse, to introduce vers libre, symbolism, and other new forms of writing. In prose it is associated with attempts to render human subjectivity in ways more real than realism: to represent consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and the individual’s relation to society through interior monologue, stream of consciousness, tunnelling, defamiliarization, rhythm, irresolution” (Childs, 3). Both Ford Maddox Ford and T.S. Eliot were influential figures associated with literary modernism, and their own disillusionment with the direction of society following changes brought on by the wider cultural and technological development was reflected in their work. It is less bound by convention than many literary movements and perhaps even more philosophical in nature than simply literary per sae. The starting point for this movement was the crisis of belief that individuals experienced.

Modernism requires context to understand, being characterized by breaks away from previous literary tradition for its inadequacy to capture aspects of experience. Ford is famous for his fiction, but we should also remember that he was an editor, essayist and critic in his own right – being an influential figure on 20th Century literature. He associated with many other writers in London and Paris, being a publisher for many of those with whom he shared a vision, and also influenced. T.S. Eliot was also a prominent figure, writing his own prose and discussing poetry with Ezra Pound- who played no small role in getting Eliot’s poems published and discussing how to break away from tradition to newer forms of poetry. We can see the influence of countless ideas such as imagism or the direct treatment of the image – and the depiction of subjects which were a consequence of, or symptomatic rather, of modernity.“The starting point of modernism is the crisis of belief that pervades twentieth-century culture: loss of faith, experience of fragmentation and disintegration, and shattering of cultural symbols and norms” (Susan Stanford Friedman)

One of the important events that affected literature and art in the western world was World War 1, or as it was known at the time: The Great War. It was fought over ideals and originally expected to last a fraction of the length of time that it did. This was a cumulation in an already deepening crisis in belief expressing concerns in the direction modernity was taking society at the turn of the century. Both Eliot and Ford wrote before the war, but their style and subject choice changed drastically during and after the war years. Ford worked in the British war propaganda industry, and fought in the war- it was only after he returned that he began writing The Good Soldier, which was set shortly before the war. The title was accidental, allegedly misconstrued after Ford attempted an ironic reply to a publisher’s suggestion to change the name to be more in line with postwar marketing “…To my horror six months later the book appeared under that title.” (Ford, 5). Following the widespread destruction of the Great War, there was a widespread crisis of belief or sense of disenfranchisement after many saw technology used for widespread destruction.

Disenfranchisement seems like an apt term: loss of control is something that can also be seen in The Good Soldier (1915). The narrator Dowell seems unable to admit, or see what has transpired: let alone do anything to stop it. Edward Ashburnham is described in terms according his social status initially, though behaviors suggest other character traits. The opening lines “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” (13) may seem clichéd at this stage, though certainly the events depicted are tragic. Dowell is an unreliable narrator, giving a non-chronological account of the events: creating an impression and then slowly revealing details that seem to contradict this impression and undermining himself; describing the events surrounding the breakdown of the relationships of both couples but often omitting detail or forgetting to mention important events e.g. Ashburnhams suicide which is left until the end; and doesn’t have great attention given to it “I wanted to say, “God bless you”, for I am a sentimentalist. But I thought that perhaps that would not be quite English good form, so I trotted off with the telegram to Leonora. She was quite pleased with it.” (Ford, 199). Limited knowledge, and representation of multiple viewpoints can be seen in The Good Soldier, as well as the absence of viewpoints such as of Dowells wife Florence: who interestingly never really communicates with him throughout the narrative.  Their relationship doesn’t receive direct treatment, and seems to be loveless- and possibly something to do with her fortune: though Dowell denies this implicitly. All we have left from the tale is doubt at the veracity of the tale spun by Dowell; this is exactly the effect that inconsistencies in the detail have on the reader.

The text is loosely based on two separate affairs, and some of Fords own personal life. Writers like Ford used their own experiences to create, and experimented with form to reflect experience within an increasingly complex world. The world was becoming smaller, or rather increasingly interconnected. Along with this, there were changes in the way that people lived and consequently, how they saw and experienced the world. Modernism developed because of a combination of these factors as people began to make an effort to make their art new; there was a marked shift towards the abstraction of concepts and an inward turn towards the depiction of introspective and emotional aspects of reality. The texts are never at one point in time, instead flitting back and forth through memories and associations. Disintegration, the experience of modernism seems to be in line with this word. The break down of morality in particular seems to come up a lot as well as attention being drawn to contradictory aspects within society. The Ashburnhams lived in India for a period in order to avoid financial ruin and are now out of place returning to England for the duration of the narrative. As well as the breakdown of relationships, we can see a breakdown of individuals. Insanity is also addressed in the text, with the ending revealing one of the main characters Nancy rendered unable to speak save two statements: God is Omnipotent, and the word “Shuttlecocks”(Ford, 196).

T.S Eliot also struggled through the years of the war “..the war has blocked the best possible opportunities and openings” (Eliot, Quoted in Eliot, V. introduction, xi)- trying to join the army but ending up having to return to a previous job at a bank after spending two weeks out of work. This took a toll on his health and psyche, and this is reflected in some of his poetry, for years he searched for a tranquil place to work on a longer poem. This was to become an extensively researched written piece of work and heavily edited, entitled The Waste Land. Eliot himself considered this one of his best poems. Disillusionment seems to overshadow the piece of poetry, encapsulating the breakdown of literary tradition. Eliot’s poetry can also be understood a little better with some study of his prose and the footnotes included as an appendix.

The Waste Land is a series of vignettes and narratives with rapidly shifting Point of View. “The shattering of cultural beliefs and norms” (Friedman, 97) seems like an apt description of the disintegration that is characterized within the work, featuring rapidly shifting point of view though the shards of stories that are thematically linked such as the section entitled The Fire Sermon (Eliot, Section 3), which is named after a Buddhist sermon on giving up physical desires. Eliot’s poetry features a myriad of references and allusions alongside fragmentation. There was a movement towards breaking down the subjects into frames because it is impossible to capture the subject; as reality is mediated by experience which is inherently subjective- “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/A heap of broken images” (T.S. Eliot, lines 21-22).

Truth is a concept that is hard to define, and in a sense modernism was all about subjectivity. Using language to represent a subject presents a challenge for the writer, or rather impossibility: there is a fundamental disconnect between the “truth” and the representation that is given. The subject therefore escaped realism as a vehicle of exploration. Modernist literature is characterized by experimentation with writing to suit the subject depicted, with narrative form, viewpoint and style. There was a turn inward for literature, as the subjective reality of situations became an interest because of skepticism towards any objective truth when the understanding of reality is experiential in nature. Susan Stanford Friedman elaborates, stating “In a variety of ways suited to their own religious, literary, mythological, occult, political, or existentialist perspectives, they emerged from the paralysis of absolute despair to an active search for meaning” (Friedman, 97). The modernist movement was reactionary- Ideas and concepts entwine with words, in deep and complex narratives that employ strategies to highlight the fundamental doubt, the crisis of belief that pervades modernism.

Works Cited

Childs, Peter. Modernism. London: Routledge, 2008, Print. 3-4.

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Ed. Valerie Eliot. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: Orlando. 1971. Print.

Ford, Ford Maddox. The Good Soldier. Penguin: London. 1915. Print. 5-196. Xi.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn : The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981. Print. 97

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