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How authors use their own socio-geogaphical similarities or differences to write: “Melanctha” (1909), A Portrait (1916), In Our Time (1925), As I Lay Dying (1930)

Stein: American (self-)exile writing in Paris
Joyce: Irish (self-)exile writing in Paris
Hemingway: American (self-)exile writing in Paris
Faulkner: American writer from the South

Gertrude Stein writes “Melanctha” in a geographical and social context that is certainly alien to her by trying to convey the experience of blacks living in a town called Bridgepoint, a predominantly black community based off of an American city. As a result, the glimpses into the setting are mainly provided by an unusual dialogue that acts as community gossip, with Melanctha’s own experience being constantly filtered through other people’s relationships with her. Stein’s style of using dialogue to show community, paired with the strangeness of the dialogue reflects her conscious difficulty in understanding the African American experience, due to both her racial and geographical differences. James Joyce writes an autobiographical novel, so the socio-historical context of his life became A Portrait’s context as well. Stephen shares Joyce’s previous experiences with Irish nationalism, authority of the Catholic church, political unrest, religious divides, and even his ultimate exile. By using a context that he lived through, Joyce maintains more authority, guidance, and criticism toward his character than Stein. Hemingway’s choice to write about experiences during and after World War I is also slightly autobiographical because of his own service in the war. However, the fact that he too goes into exile yet writes a novel that addresses his home country directly is different from both Stein’s and Joyce’s experiences of exile. In Our Time, written while he lived in Paris, addresses the American community about the emotional damage of war, but his inter-chapters focus on warring itself, as well as Spanish bullfighting, somewhat internationalizing the message. Moreover, Hemingway’s work is didactic, showing his confidence over the experience about which he writes and reflecting that his exile was a strength for his writing, for it appealed to his American audiences but addressed international violence. Faulkner, who was from Mississippi, writes through the lens of magical realism to portray the absurdity of life in the rural South. Knowledge of Faulkner’s own experiences growing up in the South creates a sort of incompatibility, since the novel is at times hard to believe, such as when Jewel is away in town yet he narrates his mother’s death. Such moments of unlikelihood provide the reader with a paradox of Faulkner’s own understanding of this setting, in which he lived through the American South yet still cannot comprehend the unbelievability of it.

In total, Stein is unable to understand the community she writes about, Joyce has an absolute grasp over the context of his character, Hemingway is able to deliver a message about his home and his lived experiences overseas, and Faulker shows a difficulty in explaining the context in which he grew up. As time passes, the use of socio-geographical experiences in modern literature (in these four stories) begin experimentally, with complete and deliberate distance by Stein, then the authors begin to bring the contexts of the stories closer to their own experiences. However, the later novels, which are all purposefully autobiographical to some extent, continue to create distance between one’s own lived experience and the possible lived experiences of their characters.