Tag Archives: historical line

Moments of concentrated empathy

In Our Time, Hemingway (1925). Hemingway’s spare prose style and repressed emotions are seemingly inadequate for capturing the trauma his characters undergo. In “Soldier’s Home,” Krebs feels intense frustration because he can’t “make his mother see” the trauma of war, which is something he can’t express.

Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf (1925). Moments when characters are so acute to each other’s emotions, they seem to pick up and respond to each other within their heads, such as exchange between Peter and Clarissa. Also moments when characters feel intently but are unable to convey this, such as Richard unable to tell Clarissa he loves her. Finally, moments where characters are only tenuously related (Clarissa, Septimus) but Clarissa feels intense empathy for Septimus at the party, despite differences in social class.

As I Lay Dying, Faulkner (1930). Between Darl and Dewey Dell, who seem able to communicate nonverbally. Even Darl and Dewey Dell’s accounts contradict what actually was said. Also between Darl and Cash, where Cash picks up a memory Darl recalls of Jewel.

Nightwood, Barnes (1936). Pattern of male characters unable to understand their wives’ emotions, (Guido in 6, Felix in 45), but Robin and Nora have a kindredness the instant they meet. On 64, Robin says “Don’t wait for me,” almost as if it were a response to Nora’s thoughts on their resurrection.

Experiences of shared thoughts in Hemingway and Woolf seem directly influenced by WWI, whereas Faulkner is interested in familial relations and Barnes is interested in kinship between misfits, women. But in Woolf and Barnes, awareness of other characters’ emotions is present in women-women relationships (Elizabeth feels sympathy for Mrs. Kilman and guilt). However, society (and law) prevents same-gender relations, so by the party scene, Clarissa not only feels little kinship with Sally, she feels a snobby towards her. In Barnes, the female relationship is open and Robin and Nora have a more empathetic relationship than Guido/Hedvig, Felix/Robin, whose relationships seem characterized by tragic miscommunications. Finally, three novels have moments where characters seem to pick up in speech where other characters’ thoughts trail off, whereas in Hemingway, the dialogue between Krebs and his mother is disjointed, jumping from one topic to another.

Historical Line: Urban Society

  • Henry James, The Jolly Corner (1909)
  • James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1918)
  • Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body? (1923)
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

These works, to a greater or lesser degree, represent urban life, whether in New York City, Dublin, or London. Two trends, specifically, seem to stand out:

First, the idea of communal social interaction. Only explicitly seen in Mrs. Dalloway, there is a sense of shared consciousness among the denizens of the modern city, who experience the same locations and events, as well as the same sorts of social interactions.

Second, and more applicably to all four texts, is a sort of “urban mystery.” The Jolly Corner and Whose Body? are mysteries, peripherally in the case of the first and primarily in the case of the second – but Portrait and Dalloway also explore the mystery of the human consciousness, particularly Portrait’s first half, where the reader is meant to feel “lost” within the sea of human history and culture.

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.