THE METALANGUAGE OF MODERNIST FICTION
Too little unanimity can be identified in the modernist literary bid, and yet one feature of modernist literature is its explicit interest in fiction as art, or the art of fiction. As compared to the realist narrative conventions, stress is laid upon the mechanisms of writing, though in a manner which distinguishes itself from the postmodernist literature. The modernist novelists’ attitude to literature implies a necessary reference to the specific medium of literature, i.e. literary language, in a sustained effort to keep literature distinct from reality. Language, as well as an ever-growing “interest in the nature and operation of language” function as a feature of modernity marking the evolution from a type of literature centred on meaningful content to one centred on form and writing. The modernist writer voices his/her dissatisfaction with the inappropriateness of language, in as much as it is a medium shared by fiction and reality, by literary and ordinary communication. The way in which Virginia Woolf expresses her anxiety as to the medium of literature can be considered central to the whole modernist mood and practice. “I’m going to […] talk about words. Why they won’t let themselves be made a craft of. They tell the truth: they aren’t useful. That there should be two languages: fiction and fact.”
If the modernist writers assumed a position of self-awareness to their art, and especially to the mechanisms through which the fictional world comes into being, it is hardly imaginable that the reader of modernism could make his way through the intricacy of modernist writing without changing his reading habits. He should place himself in a similar position of awareness to the art of fiction. He is supposed to be conscious of literature as a craft and therefore get trained in its basics or essentials. He should be ready to give up the pleasure derived from reading the novel as entertainment and assume the responsibility of contributing to meaning creation. The language used by the modernist writers draws attention to itself self-reflexively. The reader cannot thus ignore it. On the contrary, it is only based on it that the access to reality, as imagined by the modernists, becomes possible.
This chapter will be thus devoted to the definition of the literary concepts that we consider necessary for a proper understanding of modernist fiction. Explaining them in the beginning of a course of lectures on modernism does not mean that they are completely new to the reader of literature or that they have not been applied to the analysis of the eighteenth or nineteenth-century narrative conventions. It is just that the modernist novels seem to foreground the narrative methods, in the sense that the previously ‘transparent’ literary language that had offered unhindered access to reality is replaced by a more ‘opaque’ one that inevitably scares and repels the reader. To get over this feeling of frustration, it would be better for the reader trained at the school of realism to approach a modernist novel by moving from theory to practice, from literary concepts to literary texts, rather than the other way round, as he had been used to. The commonly acknowledged effort implied by the reading of modernism will be compensated for by the intellectual pleasure derived from coming to grips with an undoubtedly challenging literary phenomenon.
Indispensable to the analysis and understanding of the modernist novels are the categories of narrative technique and character. This is the locus of most modernist deviations from the novelistic norm of the previous centuries. Dissatisfied with the obtrusive intrusion of the omniscient narrator, which triggers a position of subservience on the part of the reader, the modernist novelist loosens the control of the authorial voice over the narrative. The all-knowing and almighty narrator is partially silenced being compelled to a position of equality with the characters’. In exchange, the characters’ voices are made more audible than they had ever been before.
The narrative technique is central to the novel, and it is important to remember that, no matter how skilful a novelist may be in making the reader see and feel, everything comes to us via a form of telling. The narrator is the one who tells the story, or is assumed to be telling a story in a narrative. The narrator is a narrative construct, a fictional voice transmitting the story. The sense of immediacy or distance depends upon the writer’s choice of a certain point of view, which is to say that the reader’s access to reality is always mediated.
Point of view is the position from which the story is told. In spite of a large number of categorisations offered by narratologists, the main distinction is basically made between first-person narratives and third-person narratives.
The first-person narrative is the narrative mode in which the narrator appears as the ‘I’ who recollects his/ her part in the events related, either as a witness of or as a participant in it. The point of view of a first-person narrator is generally limited to his/her limited knowledge and experience, yet it has the advantage of offering the illusion of a natural and direct access to the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. Generally, first-person narrators are ‘overt’ narrators, in the sense that they are given noticeable characteristics and personalities, as sometimes is the case with third-person intrusive narrators. Although conveying a sense of direct implication and immediacy, the first-person narrators are in most cases unreliable, because of their partial or biased knowledge.
The third-person narrative is the most frequently used narrative mode. Third-person narrators, usually omniscient, stand outside the events of the story and they appear in the narrative only under the form of a narrating voice. They have an extensive, unlimited knowledge, which makes them highly reliable. Third-person narrators also have a privileged access to the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings. In third-person narratives, however, and this is especially the case of modernist narratives, knowledge may be confined to whatever is observed by a single character or a group of characters. In other words, the story is filtered through the consciousness and sensibility of one or more characters, the control of the omniscient narrator becoming veiled and unobtrusive. In modern narratives, the withdrawal of the omniscient narrator encourages the emergence of multiple points of view.
From a modernist perspective, the narrator, undoubtedly a necessity for any narrative work, becomes indispensable to the proper formulation of the modernist writer’s literary standpoint. The modernist writer is able to preserve his position of impersonality, the presence of the narrator contributing to the striking of the correct balance between subjectivity and objectivity. Thus, the narrator proves his indispensability by being “an accurate and unflinching observer, schooled to that absolute loyalty towards his feelings and sensations, […] which an author should keep hold of in his most exalted moments of creation.” The apparent distortions at the level of the narrative categories of point of view and narrator are caused by the modernist novelist’s preference for the techniques used to present consciousness in fiction.
In general terms, the character represents “an existent endowed with anthropomorphic traits and engaged in anthropomorphic actions.” Major or minor, dynamic or static, consistent or inconsistent, flat or round, the character is one of the main fictional constructs that creates the illusion of reality. It is very much on the existence of the character and his resemblance to or difference from the people in the real world that the reader’s interpretation of the fictional world depends. A character in a narrative piece of literature is constituted by characterisation. Characterisation may be direct, in the sense that the character’s traits are given directly, though more or less reliably, by the narrator, by the character himself, or by another character. If the traits can be only deduced from the character’s actions, reactions, thoughts or emotions, one speaks about indirect characterisation. Depending on the artistic position adopted by the novelist, therefore on the nature of his belonging to a certain literary current, the characterisation may produce either typical or highly individualised characters. It seems, however, that characterisation becomes irrelevant with modernist novelists, even if, from a narrative point of view, they do not manifest readiness to renounce character. Subordinated to the concept of form, and more specifically to that of structure, the character is a possible way of access to reality, as seen by the modernists, different from the reality of the realist writers. Most modernist characters emerge from an attempt to put together the individual and the general, repeatable aspects of life. The difficulty arises from the fact that the individual requires an excessive use of details, whereas access to the general would impose the avoidance of details in a text. By using the minute detail in the portrayal of characters the modernist feels that he is running the risk of being too close to the realist literature. “Characters are to be merely views: personality must be avoided at all costs. […] Directly you specify hair, age etc. something frivolous, or irrelevant gets into the book.” The features of generality and indeterminate quality of the characters may make the modernist characters seem too rigid and decorated, but by the artfully organised structure, they always come into significant relations with other characters who round off the whole, eliminating the impression of artefact. Although it is difficult to generalise, we may say that the modernist character is perceived less as a bodily presence than, and this is especially the case of the modernist experimenters, as a centre of consciousness. The interest in the character’s inner life and mental mechanisms required the invention of new methods of investigation, which the reader of modernism must be aware of if he wants to properly decode the meaning of the modernist work.
In a novel, a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length, characters are usually presented in a plot, which may be more or less complex. Plot, as “the temporal synthesis effected by the writer of the elements of action, character, and thought that constitute the matter of his invention” used to operate as an important unifying and ordering principle of the fictional world.
Yet, though the modernists finally give up plot considering it too restrictive for the complexity of the fictional world that they want to render, they never imagine the possibility of building up a work without characters. Moreover, they transfer onto the character responsibilities relating to the narrative construction of the fictional world, responsibilities previously held by a third or a first-person narrator. Consequently, the modernist writers being no longer interested in plot will obviously lead to further emphasis on the character and his inner life and actions. The modernist’s plunge into the character’s mind performed by means of consciousness investigating techniques implies a necessary foregrounding of this narrative category.
Paradoxically, plot is the narrative category one should consider in the analysis of modernist fiction on account of its absence and not because of its being central to the narrative organisation of a novel. To grasp the degree of novelty of the narrative formula proposed by the modernist writers, it is essential to understand that part of the modernist innovation, translated in their departure from the narrative conventions of the realist novel, resides in the resistance of modernist writing to plot.
Any definition of plot implies a necessary reference to the concept of story. Story represents the number of incidents related in a novel in their chronological order, whereas plot implies the order in which the same incidents are narrated, which may considerably differ from the chronological one. “The plot is the selected version of events as presented to the reader or audience in a certain order and duration, whereas the story is the full sequence of events as we imagine them to have taken place in their ‘natural’ order and duration.”
As events are too little relevant in the modernist fiction, and chronological sequencing even less, prominence being given to the characters’ mind and the characters’ subjective response to the world of outer events, plot itself becomes irrelevant. It may be argued that there are modernist novels in which plot still exists. It is true, as we will try to show in the succeeding chapters, but its function is not to organise the material provided by the story, but rather to create the illusion that a solid realist convention in point of novel writing is preserved. Plot, in these cases, is that part of the reader’s inherited knowledge of novelistic conventions on which innovation can be built.
Plot is the dynamic, sequential element in narrative literature. Spatial art, that is the narrative which presents its materials simultaneously, or in a random order, as is the case of modernist narratives, especially aiming at making the mind transparent, resists plot. The ordering effect of plot is generally replaced by the more inclusive organising effect of structure.
If plot refers to the ordering of the story in a novel, structure is a term more appropriately used to cover the overall organisation of a piece of literature as a work of art, which accounts for its being preferred to plot by the modernist writers. Although the concepts of structure and form are sometimes used interchangeably, structure represents more than form as it subsumes categories essential to novel organisation such as plot, theme and form. Structure is the sum total of individual elements involved in the making of a novel, considered in their interrelation, which produces the effect of totality and wholeness. It is true that in a realist novel structure is closely connected to plot and the episodic construction of a novel may, even if only apparently, allow for a different patterning of these episodes, without substantial meaning modifications. In a modernist novel, however, structure plays an essential part, compensating for the absence of plot. The effect of randomness and disorder produced by a modernist novel is, in most cases, the result of an elaborately devised structure. Chapter and section, order and chronology can and do contribute to the understanding of a novel in terms of structure. Yet a significant role in matters of structure is performed by theme, character or narrative technique. The organisation of a novel according to a certain pattern involving contrast, repetition, complementarity, with clear narrative, spatial and temporal limits induces in the reader a sense of structure.
The major characteristic of modernist fiction remains, however, its clear interest in the individual’s inner life and mental mechanisms. For this reason, it was compulsory that the modernist novelists should think of techniques capable of probing always deeper in the character’s consciousness. Some of these methods are not necessarily new. They had been successfully, though not extensively, used in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century novels as well. What the modernists did was to turn them to good account in the effort to foreground the inner reality, more complex and more real than the outer one.
through the different consciousness investigating techniques and giving up plot
as a structural element are closely related to the modernists’ philosophy of
time, consonant with Freud’s and Bergson’s ideas at the beginning of the
twentieth century. This philosophy of time, as chronology and duration, as a
mental incorporation of objective time into subjective time, is artfully
synthesised in Virginia Woolf’s
But time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented in the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation. […] time when [man] is thinking becomes inordinately long; time when he is doing becomes inordinately short. (47)
Techniques to investigate consciousness in fiction
A term coined by William James to show the way in which consciousness presents itself, stream of consciousness has come to be closely associated with the activity of the modernist writers, intent on presenting the inner life of characters as accurately as possible. The concept, indispensable as it has proved itself to be, on which much of the correct decoding of modernist fiction depends, has been, however, subject to many clarifying discussions from the literary point of view.
The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms refers to stream of consciousness as “the continuous flow of sense-perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories in the human mind; or a literary method of representing such a blending of mental processes in fictional characters, usually in an unpunctuated or disjoined form of interior monologue.”
Quoting a series of referential names in the field, Gerald Prince in Dictionary of Narratology mentions the fact that the meanings of stream of consciousness and interior monologue have often tended to overlap, but he also indicates that there have been tendencies to contrast the two. “[Interior monologue] would present a character’s thoughts rather than impressions or perceptions, while [stream of consciousness] would present both impressions and thoughts.” The difference in meaning and in the capacity of investigating the character’s mental world is paralleled by the grammatical difference between the two. While interior monologue respects morphology and syntax, stream of consciousness presupposes the absence of punctuation, syntax and morphology, being thus able to capture thought in a preverbal stage, before any logical connection has been linguistically established.
Although both definitions mentioned above might partially hold true, we consider that they cannot cover all the possibilities of presenting consciousness that modernist fiction confronts its reader with. It is true that one cannot help noticing Joyce’s preference for presenting consciousness by the interior monologue and everybody is aware at present that Joyce is definitely responsible for setting up the modernist canon. Yet it cannot be denied that it is impossible to account for numerous passages in Woolf’s or Lawrence’s novels in terms of interior monologue. In those passages the presence of an omniscient narrator is still felt, while the reader intuits the fact that what he finally gets is nothing but the character’s mind.
Our presentation of the consciousness investigating techniques is largely based on Dorrit Cohn’s study Transparent Minds. Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction which manages to provide the reader of modernism with the appropriate investigation instruments, covering situations in which the technique of the interior monologue cannot be applied. Cohn identifies various modes of objectifying consciousness and fictional minds in the two major narrative contexts we have already referred to: third-person contexts, and this is the most frequent case, and first-person contexts. The terminology Cohn uses also proves very useful as it manages to grasp accurately and subtly the differences between various degrees of involvement on the part of the narrator as well as various ways of access to a character’s mind.
Dorrit Cohn’s theory is founded on three modes of presenting consciousness in third-person contexts. The first one, ‘psycho-narration’, refers to the narrator’s discourse about a character’s consciousness. It is a technique frequently used to summarise feeling, needs, reactions which are so diffuse that they cannot be properly rendered in a character’s own idiom. The second one, ‘quoted interior monologue’, relates to a character’s mental discourse, “distilling moments of pointed self-address that may relate only distantly to the original emotion.” The third, the ‘narrated monologue’, is defined as the character’s mental discourse in the guise of the narrator’s discourse. Grammatically, the styles adopted to express the character’s thoughts are those available to express the character’s words: direct, indirect and free indirect speech, the reporting verb that indicates speech being replaced by a reporting verb suggesting a mental process.
The omniscient nineteenth-century realist novelist would have had at his disposal, technically speaking, the best narrative environment to use psycho-narration, had it not been for his manifest interest in events and his intention to keep the action moving and place the character in various revealing relationships with other characters. The realist writer was so keen on constructing plot that he reduced the psycho-analytical instances to that minimum that he considered necessary to serve his narrative purpose. The term ‘events’, therefore, also covers the large number of characters and situations the writer had to handle and control by a rapid movement in space and time. Only too little room was left for the characters’ inner lives and unexpressed thoughts. Omniscience offered the novelist a far more tempting possibility. He had the privilege, which the modernists consciously chose to give up, of being able to generalise about human nature. The individual character was given less credit as a consciousness since it represented mainly an example at hand on whose basis generalisation could be made. Consequently, what the novelist assumed as known, the character’s consciousness, was seldom rendered manifest, except for the cases when it engendered the formulation of general truths about the human condition. Instead of allowing the character to hold central stage, this type of narration ostentatiously dealt with the intelligence and character of a narrator who was foregrounded to the fictional individual’s detriment. In the realist novels, psycho-narration inevitably points to the omniscient narrator’s superiority to the narrated consciousness. Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns provides readers with numerous examples of conventionally used psycho-narration.
They could go back into the past and find other cases where a swift impulse had shattered the edifice of a lifetime. They knew that the history of families and of communities is changeless, irrepressible, incurable. They were aware of the astonishing fact, which takes at least thirty years to learn, that a Sunday-school superintendent is a man. (140)
With the psychological novel, which displays a new marked interest in the character’s inner self, the previously vociferous omniscient narrators are silenced and they become veiled. Although the fictional consciousness moves to the fore, there are narrators who go on imposing a certain distance between themselves and the consciousness they narrate, drawing the reader’s attention to their own presence as well as to a difference in perspective between narrator and character.
In the following fragment from The Ambassadors Henry James, who generally prefers “a certain indirect and oblique view of [the] presented action” by seeing his story “through the opportunity and the sensibility of some […] witness or reporter”, Strether’s in this case, uses psycho-narration to analyse Strether’s inner motions. In other words, although James chooses Strether as the character through whose eyes and sensibility he should filter the whole action, by adopting the technique of psycho-narration, it is precisely Strether’s inner self that James brings under the narrator’s scrutinising lens. Thus, even if Henry James pleads in favour of a veiled narrator, in this example the narrator’s voice is still audible and his perspective is distinct from Strether’s on whom most of the narrative responsibility in the novel is passed.
It might, on repetition, as a mystification, have irritated our friend [Strether] a little; but he knew, as we have seen, where he was, and his being proof against everything was only another attestation that he meant to stay there. (180) (my emphasis)
Yet, though the narrator’s perspective is kept distinct from the character’s, it is not perceived as superior and intruding, as in the case of Bennett’s text. The possessive adjective ‘our’ and the subject of the paranthetical sentence, together with the tense shift from past to present signal the disparity of voice between character and narrator, without placing the latter in a position of superiority to the former. The personal pronoun ‘we’, also including the reader, limits the narrator’s knowledge only to the knowledge that has already reached the reader by means of the narrative, so thanks to Strether’s mediation.
The same effect of distinctiveness of voice and views is obtained in the following fragment from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Lily’s and Tansley’s flows of thought are unobtrusively altered by the presence of another consciousness, that of the narrator, revealed by the pronoun ‘one’, which could have its origin only in the narrator’s generalising thoughts. The fact that the narrator’s voice is equal in intensity with the characters’ voices is also suggested by its being discreetly placed in between brackets.
What damned rot they talk, thought Charles Tansley, laying down his spoon precisely in the middle of his plate, which he had swept clean, as if, Lily thought (he sat opposite to her with his back to the window precisely in the middle of view), he were determined to make sure of his meals. Everything about him had that meagre fixity, that bare unloveliness. But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike anyone if one looked at them. She liked his eyes; they were blue, deep set, frightening. (312)
Similar in intention, i.e. to silence audible narrators and enable the foregrounding of fictional consciousness, the two texts differ as to their narrative realisation. While Henry James learns to veil his narrator and to assign narrative tasks to the character, Virginia Woolf foregrounds the fictional consciousness and learns to give due, though not exaggerated, credit to the omniscient narrator, whose voice, equal in intensity with that of the character, contributes to keeping the narrative under tighter control.
An alternative position is that of a veiled narrator who almost completely identifies with the fictional consciousness. Thus the narrative creates the illusion of a perfect coincidence between the authorial and the character’s voices. The consonance of the two voices makes the reader perceive the narrator’s knowledge of the character’s mind as coincident with the character’s self-knowledge. The modernist writers generally prefer more direct monologic techniques of presenting consciousness in their novels, such as the interior monologue or the narrated monologue. Yet they also resort to this type of consonant psycho-narration, which indicates the fact that they feel it closer to the more direct monologic techniques extensively used in the stream-of-consciousness novels.
A good example of consonant psycho-narration is offered by Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, its narrator’s characteristic being the ability to adapt his style to the age and mood of the novel’s hero. The narrator is still a reporter of the character’s thoughts, feelings and sensations. He uses a language full of verbs and nouns of consciousness, but deliberately avoids assuming the position of superiority which would have been indicated by the presence of explanatory commentaries or the presence of subordination such as “He thought that”. The narrator is sympathetic with the character’s thoughts and feelings, the reporting being carried out by metaphor, and not by abstractions or generalities. The tone is always highly individualised and involved, never neutral.
He heard the sob passing loudly down his father’s throat and opened his eyes with a nervous impulse. The sunlight breaking suddenly on his sight turned the sky and clouds into a fantastic world of sombre masses with lakelike spaces of dark rosy light. His very brain was sick and powerless. He could scarcely interpret the letters of the signboards of the shops. By his monstrous way of life he seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it echoes of the infuriated cries within him. He could respond to no earthly or human appeal, dumb and insensible to the call of summer and gladness and companionship, wearied and dejected by his father’s voice. He could scarcely recognise as his his own thoughts, and repeated slowly to himself. (104-105)
Although considered more appropriate for rendering the mind transparent in the nineteenth-century conventional novels, psycho-narration is still preserved as a technique by the modernists because of one major advantage that neither the quoted interior monologue nor the narrated monologue can have. While both the interior monologue and the narrated monologue are, from a temporal point of view, limited to the very instant when the character formulates his silent speech, psycho-narration is temporally flexible, and its flexibility is almost limitless, due to the narrator’s possible movement in time over a larger time span. Dorrit Cohn considers that one of the reasons why psycho-narration still exists as a means of expressing consciousness in twentieth-century fiction, in spite of the narrator’s apparently omniscient intrusion, is its temporal elasticity which allows both contraction of a longer time span and expansion of the instant.
Psycho-narration is a way of articulating a character’s inner life in the competent and accurate words of a narrator at moments when thoughts are so deep and obscure that there is an increased risk of their remaining unverbalised but for the narrator’s verbalising intervention.
Of all modernist novelists, D.H. Lawrence is the one who manifests a marked preference for psycho-narration. His preference is accounted for by the fact that his novels deal with zones of the subconscious or the unconscious whose presentation always requires a narrator’s mediation. In Cohn’s opinion, “any one of D.H. Lawrence’s novels yields a rich metaphoric complex, made up of all kinds of electromagnetic, igneous, and meteorological hyperboles.”
As a characteristic of
She sounded purely anxious. Nevertheless, Gudrun, with her arms outspread and her face uplifted, went in a strange palpitating dance towards the cattle, lifting her body towards them as if in a spell, her feet pulsing as if in some little frenzy of unconscious sensation, her arms, her wrists, her hands stretching and heaving and falling and reaching and reaching and falling, her breasts lifted and shaken towards the cattle, her throat exposed as in some voluptuous ecstasy towards them, whilst she drifted imperceptibly nearer, an uncanny white figure, towards them, carried away in its own rapt trance, ebbing in strange fluctuations upon the cattle, that waited, and ducked their heads a little in sudden contraction from her, watching all the time as if hypnotised, their bare horns branching in the clear light, as the figure of the women ebbed upon them, in the slow, hypnotising convulsion of the dance. (Women in Love, 196) (my emphasis)
Paradoxically, and most surprisingly, the writers whose intention is to present the mind and the inner self as directly as possible have to resort to the most indirect of methods when they come to the portrayal of the most deeply hidden zones of psychic life, the subconscious and the unconscious. Thus, no matter how serious the writers’ reluctance to it might have been, psycho-narration proved indispensable as “the most direct, indeed the unique, path that leads to the sub-verbal depth of the mind.”
The interior monologue or the ‘quoted monologue’ is another technique used to present a character’s consciousness. It is not an invention of the modernists, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century novels characters were allowed the freedom to express their thoughts and feelings in the form of the quoted monologue only after elaborate introductions on the part of the omniscient narrators. The narrator’s and the character’s voices were felt as clearly distinct. The presence of the introductory formulas (‘he thought’, ‘he whispered’, ‘she asked herself’) combined with the use of the quotation marks drew the reader’s attention to the existence of two points of view, different or coincident, yet distinct. Because of the clear distinctiveness of voices, the method of interspersing the narrator’s discourse and the character’s interior monologue is seldom, if ever, used by the modern(ist) writers. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to find such alternations even in works such as James’, Lawrence’s or Conrad’s, whose indebtedness to the techniques of realism is quite obvious. This avoidance may be accounted for by the fact that the modernists considered the separation of voices a much too explicit, even annoying, separation between the external and the mental worlds. Or, what the modernist practice tends to demonstrate is exactly a continuity between the exterior world and the world of the mind.
Paul wished he were stupid. ‘I wish,’ he thought to himself, ‘I was fat like him, and like a dog in the sun. I wish I was a pig and a brewer’s waggoner.’ (Sons and Lovers, 114)
In the modern novel, James Joyce’s work providing the clearest examples, the separation line between the narrator’s discourse and the character’s inner discourse is wiped off, the effect being one of increased textual continuity. The character’s monologue and the narrator’s reported discourse melt into each other, being almost impossible to distinguish between the two. The interior monologue is no longer signalled by the use of the quotation marks, but by the shift of tense from past to present, the change in person, and sometimes the specificity of the monologue’s idiom, the more so as the introductory formulas are very often dropped.
The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time. Last time I was here was Mrs Sinico’s funeral. Poor papa too. The love that kills. And even scraping up the earth at night with a lantern like that case I read to get at fresh buried females or even putrefied with running gravesores. Give you the creeps after a bit. I will appear to you after death. You will see my ghost after death. My ghost will haunt you after death. There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel. Feel live warm beings near you. Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.” (Ulysses, 121)
With the exception of the first sentence signalling the presence of the narrator, the paragraph includes Leopold Bloom’s monologue, apparently unmarked and unanchored. To become aware of his having smoothly entered the character’s consciousness, although he is not encouraged to keep the narrator’s and the character’s voices distinct, the reader must be highly perceptive. He must identify the change in person from the third to the first, the shift of tense from past to present, and most importantly, as is often the case with Joyce’s quoted monologues, the passage from the narrator’s narrative language to the character’s idiom.
According to Cohn, even when the frequency of occurrence of the thinking verbs is higher in the modern psychological novels, their function is rather an incantatory than one of separating the narrator’s and the character’s discourse. Their being used rather redundantly is reminiscent of the narrator’s presence, without, however, imposing the narrator as an aggressively distinct voice. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a radical experiment in this direction. If it were not for the minimal introductory formulas, the novel would be easily regarded as an autonomous monologue under the form of a first-person text. The Waves is a multiplication of quoted monologues, introduced by minimal narratorial interventions, on account of which the reader interprets the text as a third-person and not as a first-person one. There are, however, instances in Woolf’s novel when the reader is required to make a considerable effort in order to correctly assign the interior words to a certain character. The interior monologue extends across paragraph boundaries and there is no repetition of the narrator’s orienting intervention.
‘Now the wind lifts the blind,’ said Susan, ‘Jars, bowls, matting and the shabby arm-chair with the hole in it are now become distinct. […]
be divided, or kept apart. I was sent to school; I was sent to
‘But who am I, who lean on this gate and watch my setter nose in a circle? I think sometimes (I am not twenty yet) I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. […] (72-73)
The text goes on like this presenting Susan’s monologue for a couple of other pages, without the narrator’s signalling again that it is Susan’s thoughts that the reader is experiencing. The only graphical mark, of which less attentive readers may sometimes be unaware, is the absence of closing inverted commas at the end of those paragraphs that are to be interpreted as a single character’s monologue.
By adopting the technique of the quoted monologue, the narrator draws the reader’s attention to his still being in control of the narrative. The narrator may be more or less neutral, depending on which the reader will be more or less aware of the distinctiveness of viewpoints, narrator’s and character’s. There are novels in which the interior monologue is embedded in and connected to psycho-narration. But in these cases, the interior monologue readily lends its idiom to psycho-narration, which gets thus contaminated and more difficult to recognise.
He snorted. He felt about this engagement as he always felt about any engagement; the girl is much too good for that young man. Slowly it came into her head, why is it then that one wants people to marry? What was the value, the meaning of things? (Every word they said now would be true.) Do say something, she thought, wishing only to hear his voice. For the shadow, the thing folding them in was beginning, she felt, to close round her again. Say anything, she begged, looking at him, as if for help. (Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 355)
This contamination in cases in which the two techniques happen to occur together is suggestive of the fact that psycho-narration and interior monologue do not usually tolerate each other in character-oriented narrative situations. The narrator’s investigation of the character’s consciousness through psycho-narration alongside the character’s voicing of his own inner life create narrative discontinuities, inducing in the reader a feeling of arbitrariness and redundancy of perspective. This is the reason why, more often than not, modernist novelists avoided such a combination, preferring instead a mixture of psycho-narration and narrated monologue, whose effect of continuity was far closer to their intention of equalising the narrative voices involved. In a novel like Joyce’s Ulysses, which abounds in quoted interior monologues and where the passage from narration to quotation is so smooth that it is almost impossible to tell for sure where one ends and the other begins, psycho-narration is hardly ever used. Not only are the quotation marks which signal this passage omitted, but there are hardly verbs of consciousness such as ‘he thought’ or ‘he pondered’ to announce the use of psycho-narration.
Mr. Bloom walked behind the eyeless feet, a flatcut
suit of herringbone tweed. Poor young fellow! How on earth did he know that van
was there? Must have felt it. See things in their foreheads perhaps. Kind of
sense of volume. Weight. Would he feel it if something was removed? Feel a gap.
Queer idea of
This specific use of the quoted monologue in a third-person narrative context results in a subjective rendering of the internal vision, on the one hand, and on a mixture of subjective and objective expression of the external happenings, on the other. Besides, in Ulysses the narrator and the character share not only the field of vision, but also the idiom through which they relate it.
The quoted interior monologues create the illusion that the reader has access to what the character really thinks or feels, as “the narrator lends the quotation of his characters’ silent thoughts the same authority he lends to the quotation of the words they speak to others.” We may thus say that the use of the quoted interior monologue has the same effect in psychological realist novels as the use of the dialogue. In point of illusion creation, they perform, roughly speaking, the same function: “just as the dialogues create the illusion that they render what characters ‘really say’ to each other, monologues create the illusion that they render what a character ‘really thinks’ to himself.” . Yet although the monologue seems to resemble the dialogue grammatically, the two differ semantically, as in the monologue ‘I’ (person speaking) ‘you’ (person spoken to) coincide, each pronoun containing the other within itself.
The narrated monologue is mainly a literary invention. It is a third mode of rendering a character’s consciousness in third-person contexts. This technique is characterised by a transformation of the character’s thought or language into the narrative language of third-person fiction. The narrator’s words function as a mask for the character’s inner voice. Both on account of the ambiguity of voice generated by the use of this technique and of the highly delusive form of this same technique, the modernist novelists seem to have shared a clear preference for the narrated monologue. The preference for a less direct technique of rendering consciousness may surprise us in the light of our discussion of the two other techniques presented before. There certainly are modernists, Lawrence for instance, who show, as a general characteristic of their work, a predilection for psycho-narration, so for a more indirect technique. Some others, especially the so-called experimentalists, Joyce, in particular, privilege the interior monologue, a far more direct technique of presenting consciousness. Yet, all of them assimilate the narrated monologue as a convenient way of accessing the character’s inner world under the guise of the narrator’s words. The consensus regarding the effectiveness of this technique may be accounted for in two ways. Firstly, the modernists aim at a certain degree of impersonality, which this mixture of voices is likely to ensure. Secondly, the modernists intention is to free the reader, while still maintaining the authorial control over the narrative, which could be better effected by a less direct mode of expressing the character’s consciousness. Since the narrated monologue wipes off the boundary between narration and quotation, it is a technique privileged by those narratives which focus on the character’s mental and emotional life.
Let us consider the following fragments from the work of various modernist novelists, sometimes having divergent attitudes as to how to express the fictional mind and inner world.
What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party! A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party – the Bradshaws talked of death. He had killed himself – but how? Always her body went through it, when she was told, first, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party! (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 203)
He was walking down along the matting and he saw the door before him. It was impossible: he could not. He thought of the baldy head of the prefect of studies with the cruel noncoloured eyes looking at him and he heard the voice of the prefect of studies asking him twice what his name was. Why could he not remember the name when he was told the first time? Was he not listening the first time or was it to make fun out of the name? The great men in the history had names like that and nobody made fun of them. It was his own name that he should have made fun of if he wanted to make fun. Dolan: it was like the name of a woman who washed clothes. (Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 62)
As he dried himself a little with his handkerchief, he thought about Hermione and the blow. He could feel a pain on the side of his head. But after all, what did it matter? What did Hermione matter, what did people matter altogether? There was this perfect cool loneliness, so lovely and fresh and unexplored. Really, what a mistake he had made, thinking he wanted people, thinking he wanted a woman. He did not want a woman – not in the least. (Lawrence, Women in Love, 129)
The narrated monologue confronts the reader with an alternation between narration and reflection. There is a constant movement in and out of the fictional mind, movement which sometimes is almost imperceptible, as there is a coincidence between the basic reporting tense and the tense used in the character’s language. Thus the inner and outer worlds are perceived as fused, being extremely difficult at moments to decide whether it is the fictional mind or the narrator’s unobtrusive intervention that one contemplates.
The narrated monologue is to be seen as a strategy of compromise between quoted interior monologue and psycho-narration. The narrated monologue and the quoted monologue share the question forms, the expressive elements, the incomplete sentences, the deictic orientation. What keeps the two techniques distinct is the use of tenses and pronouns, whereas the distinction between narrated monologue and psycho-narration resides in the absence of introductory mental verbs in the former technique. Thus the narrated monologue is felt to be a technique more direct than psycho-narration and more oblique or indirect than the quoted monologue.
The obvious ambiguity of voice inherent in the narrated monologue leads to its being perceived as suspended between the immediate quotation and the mediated narration. Being a strategy of compromise, it is favoured by most modernist novelists, as it strikes a proper balance between the omniscient narrator’s control and the fictional mind’s independence. Consequently, the use of the narrated monologue also effects a subtle compromise between the innovative experimental modernist elements and the necessary, though apparently rejected, realist convention. Paradoxically at first sight, it is exactly those novelists who devised the techniques of the dramatic novel, in James’ terms, who aimed at an objective narration and opted for unobtrusive narrators that willingly adopted the narrated monologue, as a means of reintroducing the subjectivity of personal experience into the novel.
Yet, if the first two techniques presented above characterise a monologic type of narrative, the narrated monologue is a strategy specific to a dialogic one. Besides, “the narrated monologue is a choice medium for revealing a fictional mind suspended in an instant present, between a remembered past and an anticipated future”, reason for which it is preferred both by those modernists who are more conservative in point of form, such as Lawrence, and by those who are more experimental in their novels, such as Woolf.
The complexity of the modernist novels derives from the fact that the narrated monologue never appears in isolation. It is frequently alternated and mingled with the indirectness of narratorial intervention, under the form of psycho-narration, or the directness of figural consciousness, under the form of quoted interior monologue. The combination of techniques offers a profound and complete image of the character’s intricate inner life with a clear movement in depth from the conscious level to the unconscious one.
Given the fact that there may be autobiographical narrators who are expected to have inner lives of their own to narrate, there are also modes of presenting consciousness in first-person contexts. Paralleling the three devices described above, whose frequency of occurrence in modernist novels is hardly contestable, one can identify means by which the consciousness can be objectified from the problematic standpoint of a narrator investigating his or her inner self in the first person. They are called, using Cohn’s terminology, self-narration, self-quoted or self-narrated monologue. Yet, in the case of the modernist novelists such modes of presentation do only seldom appear. And, in the rare situations when they appear, they are just instances of radical experimentation embedded within a more general third-person framework. That is why we shall refer to them when approaching radical experiments in a novel such as Woolf’s The Waves or an episode such as ‘Penelope’ in Joyce’s Ulysses. It may be also profitable to focus on first-person narrators when trying to account for the intricacy of narration such as that offered by Conrad in his novels.
We may ask ourselves how important setting is as a convention in a novel that focuses almost exclusively on the mental activities and the inner life of the characters. No matter if it is vague or more precise, if it presented objectively or if it acquires a symbolic function, the setting refers to the spatial and temporal circumstances in which the events of a narrative occur. Or, modernist novelists have proved that events are by far less relevant than what is going on at a mental level.
To be able to understand the literary significance of the setting in a modernist novel, we have to start from a definition of the term and what exactly it covers in its broadest sense. In a restricted sense, setting may be used to refer to the place and time where the characters appear, including their social context. In a broader acceptation, it can cover the customs, beliefs and mentalities of a specific type of society, the particular locations in which events take place, but also the atmosphere and mood created by all the other elements.
Because of its close relationship to plot and character, setting proved indispensable as a novelistic convention to the realist writers. In the nineteenth-century realist novel, the setting was used either to render the character’s mood or to contribute to the definition of the character’s situation. When explicitly pushed to the fore, the setting expressed mainly the theme of the novel, and consequently the author’s view of the world, at times becoming even more important than characters or plot.
Although they gave up plot or reduced it to a minimum, giving prominence to characters and especially to the characters’ inner reality, modernists never thought of abandoning the supportive materiality of setting. Keen on the significance of each detail in their novels, they definitely made setting into a highly significant element of their work. Yet no common denominator can be found for the particular use made of setting in particular novels by particular modernist novelists. They seem, however, to agree that setting, as part of an inherited set of conventions, should be preserved and turned to good account if an understanding of their work was to be facilitated. In other words, they knew that setting was a compulsory ingredient in the readers’ recipe for what a good novel should be and this knowledge had to be profited by. Setting gets thus assimilated to character, it is, in a way, internalised. In spite of its being delineated in a delusively realist manner, the modernist setting is characterised by indeterminacy, more often than not acquiring a symbolic value, which contributes to a better understanding both of character and of the writer’s worldview.
In its most straightforward sense, a symbol is taken to mean anything standing for or representing something else beyond it, generally an idea that one conventionally associates with it. Thus the symbol is used to evoke unseen worlds or to move one beyond appearance, towards a hidden order of everyday reality. According to Kant, the symbol refers to “the attributes of an object which serve the rational idea as a substitute for logical presentation, but with the proper function of animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into the field of kindred representations stretching beyond its ken” . In simpler terms, a symbol is a word or phrase that points to a concrete referent – be it object, scene or action – that also takes some deeper significance conventionally associated with it.
Being always interested in the beyond
of things, all modernists make extensive use of symbols, sometimes weaving them
into an elaborate texture without whose proper understanding the overall
meaning of the novel is incomplete. This is obviously the case of
A symbol is also seen as a highly evocative image. Rather vaguely, ‘imagery’ is held to express those uses of literary language that evoke sense-impressions by reference to concrete or perceptible objects, actions or states. The imagery of a literary work includes the set of images available in that specific work, which most often are ‘pictures’ appealing primarily to sight, but may also be interpreted in terms of the other senses.
Yet, no matter how important these rather insubstantial aspects may be to the correct decoding of the work’s meaning, the reader of literature should never forget that they take on meaning only within a more comprehensive framework that includes plot, structure, narrative technique, character and so on.
We would say that parody is also a means of ‘probing beyond’, more specialised and highly analytical. It is a subversive technique used to bring under a critical lens the potentialities or limitations of a certain work, style, technique, by imitation, or better said mimicry. We could say that parody characterises a dialogic type of literature, which mainly addresses an educated and knowledgeable audience, capable of understanding the critical activity as inherent to the literary enterprise and not separated from it. Parody always presupposes the impersonation of the alien style, although the parodists’ intentions may differ substantially. “[It] always attacks its butt indirectly, through style; it ‘quotes’ from and alludes to its original, abridging and inverting its characteristic devices.” This is done with a view to making an ironic comment either on the ‘original’ or on the new work or to questioning the appropriateness of existing techniques for the expression of a certain reality. If a serious style is applied to a trivial subject matter, parody comes closer to the burlesque. If it is used to criticise manners or behaviour, it is related to satire. But the most compelling situation from the point of view of the modernist writer and the reader of modernism is to be found in parody critically analysing style itself and its expressive potentialities.
Joyce, who practically tried out all imaginable techniques of investigation of the real, makes the most extensive use of parody in his work. His intentions are less those of a satirist than those of a self-aware creator interested in analysing the very potentialities of language and seeing how deeply language, as an investigation instrument, can go into the darkest recesses of the real.
The following court scene in Joyce’s Ulysses is narrated in a style that parodies the style of Celtic legends, with clear reference to the Druid system, which casts a special ironic light upon the debased contemporary Irish society and the workings of its inhabitants, be they learned or not.
And whereas on the sixteenth day of the month of the oxeyed goddess and in the third week after the feastday of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, the daughter of the skies, the virgin moon being then in her first quarter, it came to pass that those learned judges repaired them to the halls of law. There master Courtenay, sitting in his own chamber, gave his rede and master Justice Andrews sitting without a jury in the probate court, weighed well and pondered the claims of the first chargeant upon the property in the matter of the will propounded and final testamentary disposition in re the real and personal estate of the late lamented Jacob Halliday, vintner, deceased versus Livingstone, and infant, of unsound mind, and another. (340)
In Chapter One, modernism was defined both within the system of the literary tradition and within the cultural context characteristic of the turn of the century. In Chapter Two, modernism was defined starting both from the theoretical contributions of important turn-of-the-century and modernist novelists and based on the contradictory response generated by modernism in the age. Both chapters have been underlain by the clear effort to generalise on modernism and the main issues relating to the modernist novel, the individual novelists’ contributions being used only as necessary exemplification. The subsequent chapters are underlain by the effort to particularise. They will offer a more detailed reading of the works of some of the novelists generally associated with the canon of modernism, with a view to demonstrating that the modernist art of fiction simultaneously implies observance of and deviation from the narrative norms. No matter how experimental the modernist novelists may have been in their intention to represent what they considered to be the more ‘real’ reality, they never disregarded their position within the larger framework of the literary tradition. It is only based on the proper assimilation and exploitation of the inherited conventions that the modernists could make their experiment intelligible and accessible to their readers.
The style underlying it is the free indirect one, a major mode of representing speech and thought, situated between indirect speech and direct speech. For a more detailed description of free indirect discourse see Michael Toolan, Narrative. A Critical Linguistic Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 1991)
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