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Published:August 15th, 2007 15:03 EST
Linking Modernist Themes Through Time and Works

Linking Modernist Themes Through Time and Works

By Julie Whiteman

Starting off with James Joyce`s Dubliners, many aspects of modern literature can be traced-- the first being repetition.  In a sense, repetition is what holds Dubliners together. Joyce uses the sense of sight to portray a message about Dublin.  He repeats seeing colors such as grey and brown, and also seeing things such as fog, dust, and pollution.  The use of  reification is evident when he writes of the people as if they were robots who repeat the same steps and actions every single day, such as going to work.  However, Joyce uses this language symbolically, as modern literature tends to do.  Even though many of these things were true of Dublin in that time, the language and descriptions of images represent other ideas, not just applied to the city of Dublin.  And all these words and descriptions, when placed together, represent themes, particularly in Dubliners, of paralysis and escape as he describes Dublin to be a place that has been left behind by the time.  The citizens just get so caught up in their repetition of life that they do not seem to see the paralysis that is taking place and if they do, they do not know how to escape.  The subjectivity that Joyce uses is this language of repetition as being what shapes the people`s identities and realities.

Joyce also uses symbols, such as the central apple tree ", which can be seen as a symbol of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.  Ellipses are also used as symbols, which indicate missing words.  This gives the reader the chance to have their own ideas and place their own words, or language, in this space, leaving that sort of open-ended feeling.  In this way, Joyce gives a feeling of existentialism not only to the characters in the book, but also to the readers.  However, the main element used in Dubliners is that of quotidian, or every-day hum-drum existence.  Not really moving forward or backward but, as I mentioned before, a paralysis in which the people are stuck.

In very similar ways, The Waste Land uses some of the same elements of modern literature to convey the messages of T.S. Eliot.  Mainly the idea perceptions, such as people looking out into the world and perceiving a wasteland... whether that is what is really there or not.  Eliot also uses symbols such as the repeated use of water as a symbol of rebirth.  He experiments in the form of the work using different narrators, or voices, to create multiple perspectives, much like a modern artist of the time might do. Eliot switches back and forth with voices of positive and negative perceptions of the same time, memory, or object.  He uses moments of reality and moments of allusion to counterbalance each other in the design of the work.  The feeling of existentialism is almost overwhelming in Eliot`s work, as it seems that existence in this wasteland is quotidious, if not totally meaningless.

Samuel Beckett`s work Endgame seems to continue and build on the techniques of these two earlier writers. Endgame also uses repetition of words to portray and reiterate important ideas or themes that Beckett is trying to get across to the reader. The story in the play itself is meant only to be symbolic. Many of the repeated phrases are symbolic of phrases from the Bible, such as It is finished, " which is repeated many times. Much like Dubliners, Endgame portrays a strong sense of paralysis. Hamm can not do anything for himself. He must rely on Clov for his existence. And Clov, even though he has the option of leaving, chooses to stay and take care of Hamm, even though he repeatedly questions himself as to why he stays but comes up with the answer that there is nowhere else to go. They are each others` paralysis. Quotidian plays a huge role in the story, as well. For example, whenever Clov stands anywhere but right beside Hamm`s chair where he normally reports to, Hamm tells him to move back because it gives him the shivers " when he stands anywhere but in that same spot. Also, when Hamm asks Clov to look out the window and tell him what the weather is like or what he can see, Clov always has the same report of zero. " The number between 1 and -1: the mid-tone. Many things in the play are described as being grey. Not white and not black, but grey. When Clov is describing what he sees outside and also when Hamm is asking the color of his toy dog. At one point Clov even says, The end is terrific! ", and Hamm replies, I prefer the middle. " This language is used symbolically.

Beckett uses language as a modernist writer would, as non-transparent. But he also gives the reader an idea of how this works when Clov says, I use the words you taught me. If they don`t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent. " To me, this thoroughly describes the way modernist writers view, and also use, language. Language is cultural, it is learned, and everyone has their own language and their own perception of it. At one point Hamm says It is finished, we`re finished. Nearly finished. There`ll be no more speech. " And when Clov asks What is there to keep me here? ", Hamm`s response is The Dialogue. " So in Endgame, language, and the subjectivity of it, seems to be the thing that keeps the ball of life rolling. Since Hamm cannot see or move, all he can do is talk to Clov. This makes language one of the most important elements of this book. The form of the play also seems somewhat as experimental as the form of The Waste Land. Existentialism is evident and possibly even exaggerated since Hamm, Clov, Nell, and Nagg seem to be the last people left on Earth. They are isolated in one room and their lives seem to be the epitome of meaningless. And many of Hamm and Clov`s arguments are reminiscent of the bittersweet writings in The Waste Land. The way Clov keeps saying he is going to leave and Hamm tells him to go, and then comes up with some favor he needs done first.

Endgame also leaves us with an open-ended ambiguous ending, as much of modern literature seems to do. We are not sure if Clov has left for good or if he will come back, as he did in the beginning of the play, and remove the handkerchief from Hamm and the whole episode will start over again. This is just one of the many things that makes Beckett`s work a great example of modern literature. Whether it be Joyce, Eliot, Beckett, or any other modernist writer, these elements of writing are what keep our minds working and wondering and alert. Modernist writing has always confused and shocked, but unlike many of the messages given through its writings of paralysis and stagnation, it invites and stimulates the mind to explain, analyze and-- most importantly-- expand.