Reading a modernist novel entails bearing in mind a whole new world of ideas, a quite different perspective of giving life to those ideas than other written works and certainly a new aspect of accepting those ideas as a reader. It is not easy to pinpoint modernism’s roots and it is also difficult to say exactly what it expresses. However, one thing that is clearly proved in a modernist novel is the fact that there is a change in the understanding of the human self and the interaction between characters and events. Perhaps the easiest way of understanding the ideology of modernism is to focus on a novel written by one of the most famous modernists concentrating on the techniques and the basic general ideas that are applied in it.
Such a famous modernist that contributed to emphasizing modernism as one of the major movements of the 20th century is considered to be James Joyce. His modernist novel Dubliners offers a tremendous possibility of pinpointing the elements of modernism through analysing its basic themes, narrative devices, structure, imagery and language. Joyce chose to name this collection of short stories Dubliners as its scene is set in Dublin. The title leads the reader to presume that it is a book about life and that it describes it as it is; but this novel regards life from one aspect only. James Joyce often presents the protagonists’ motives as unworthy and their minds confused and he also tries to convince the reader that his people are as he describes them. It could be characterized as a group of short stories but a novel too, in which the separate stories of its protagonists compose one essential story, that of a human soul, which is confused and has damaged its relation to the source of spiritual life and cannot restore it.
To begin with, the reader of Dubliners immediately becomes aware of the unexpected change from the first three stories, which are told in the first person narrator by the protagonist of the story, to the twelve following stories which are narrated in the third person. In the first short story of Joyce’s novel, The Sisters, the author probably wanted to present the child as an innocent narrator of his own tale, which later gives way to stories of adults. In The Sisters the boy seems to be very intelligent as he can realise what has happened, when he finds out that the priest had his third stroke. From the opening sentences of the story “There was no hope for him this time.” the boy becomes conscious of the death of the priest and he feels that the action is completed and that consequently no prognosis is necessary. He actually expects the priest to be dead and as soon as he gets home his suspicion is confirmed.
The fact that this story begins with the death of a priest, shows Joyce’s views on Catholicism in that period. In the whole novel he presents his priest characters in an ironic way. On the other hand, with the appearance of the priest in The Sisters an ambiguity emerges, as it means different things to different characters, even to the little boy. He was considered by people of Dublin to be a fallen, failed priest. The boy’s uncle says to Old Cotter: “The youngster and he were good friends. The old chap taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him.” And Old Cotter responded: “I wouldn’t like children of mine to have too much to say to a man like that.” So, it is obvious that the priest was a good friend to the boy; nevertheless he was not considered as a successful and good priest to society.
Moreover, the boy’s feelings are also very interesting as they seem to be quite complex. On the one hand, the priest seems to represent to the boy a world of knowledge and authority and he seems to be sad about his death. When he hears Cotter’s comments about the priest’s relationship with the boy, he gets angry: “I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance to my anger. Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile!” On the other hand, he later admits that he felt quite relieved about the priest’s death: “I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death.”
Consequently, we observe that the little boy feels sad about the death of Father Flynn and also lost without him. He dreams of being far away in a country in the East, but then again he realizes that he is still in the city which he resents and, unfortunately surrounds him: “I felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange-in Persia, I thought…But I could not remember the end of the dream.” Simply by interpreting this thought of the little boy, we can recognise how eager the Dubliners were to escape eastward and leave their city to a more living world.
Joyce’s Dubliners could also be considered a work of modernist literature if we consider the last and longest story of this collection, The Dead. Again, this story is told through the consciousness of the characters but some times the narrative is made up of third person description: “Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!”
This combination that James Joyce uses is to present the events as they are and to represent to the reader the inner perceptions of human consciousness. Furthermore, some critics claim that there are quite a lot of coincidences in Gabriel’s life which remind us of Joyce’s own experiences. For example, Richard Ellmann wrote in The Backgrounds of ‘The Dead’: “In Gretta’s old sweetheart, in Gabriel’s letter, in the book reviews and the discussion of them, as well as in the physical image of Gabriel with hair parted in the middle and rimmed glasses, Joyce drew directly upon his own life.”
Moving on, modernism has a strong tendency to encapsulate experience within the city and to make the city-novel one of its main forms. As in other stories of Dubliners, Joyce also uses in The Dead an emphasis on the urban landscape as the setting and almost the subject of the story. When Gabriel leaves his aunts’ house he provides in great detail the whole picture of the city: “The morning was still dark. A dull, yellow light brooded over the houses and the river; and the sky seemed to be descending, it was slushy underfoot, and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings. The lamps were still burning redly in the murky air and, across the river, the palace of the Four Courts stood out menacingly against the heavy sky”.
This forms a sharp contrast to the passage describing Gabriel’s feelings about the snow as he looked out of his window and illustrates Joyce’s excellent use of vocabulary. This use of language such as dull, murky and brooded and the description of the sky descending, paints a true picture of Dublin in the snow, dirty, wet and depressing. Moreover, the author’s use of the word menacingly to describe the Four Courts indicates to the reader how Dubliners felt about the judicial system of the time.
Another section of this story which is important to mention is the part where Gabriel’s wife listens to a song which reminds her of the past. Throughout a large part of the story, it is clear that Gabriel connects western Ireland in his mind with a dark, threatening savagery whereas the east and south are considered by him to be more tame and cultured. Without knowing it, the song “The Lass of Aughrim” is a challenge to him. The song has a special relevance; it is about a woman who has been seduced and abandoned by Lord Gregory and she comes to his house begging for admission. It brings together the peasant mother and the civilized seducer, but Gabriel does not listen to the words; he only watches his wife listening. “Gabriel watched his wife, who did not join in the conversation…She was in the same attitude and seemed unaware of the talk about her.” Later, when Gabriel finds out about his wife’s ex lover in Galway, he realizes that a passion has nothing to do with her present life with him in Dublin, but is due to her previous life in Galway.
In conclusion, it could be emphasized that frequently, a novel has no real beginning, since it plunges us into a flowing stream of experience with which we gradually familiarize ourselves by a process of inference and association, while its’ ending is usually open or ambiguous, leaving the reader in doubt as to the characters’ final destiny. What modernists and James Joyce, in particular aimed at is not just to present a common, easily understood story, but to make the readers understand the general picture of the words and even experience by their isolation, sexual desire, interaction of time, ugliness of the modern cities and fear. It is a fact that, understanding every little detail in a modernist novel, is impossible; what really happens, however, is the reader is considered to be a human being with the power of mind and the freedom to reach his own conclusions in this kind of writing. Every person’s perspective may be different. After all, everything in modernism is relative…