Comparison of the modernism and post-modernism styles in literature using Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs. Dalloway", T.S. Eliot’s "The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock" and Michael Cunningham’s "The Hours".
Modernism and post-modernism are two important literary eras, in which some of the most famous writers have lived and worked.
In both literary styles, the reader is given full knowledge about the characters and hast to find out for himself how the character’s minds really work, what drives them to do what they do and why they react to certain situations as they do. This is best expressed by the famous Irish writer James Joyce who once said:“The author retiers from the scene, files his nails and lets the reader work with his own mind.”
Modernist and post-modernist authors are different in the way they see the world around them. While modernist authors and their book still hold the western culture and virtues highly, post-modernism is more critical of the western world’s actions and beliefs. Also, while modernism focuses on the feelings and thoughts of a character, the interior, post-modernism focuses on the exterior, on actions rather than intentions.
Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prufrock” are two pieces of literature famous for their style and are widely used to define the literary era of modernism, while Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” is an award winning example of post-modernism. “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Hours” share several features that make them alike and some that differ from each other. Those this text will examine are intertextuality, stream of consciousness/tunnelling and fragmentation.
Stream of consciousness and tunnelling are closely related ways of letting the reader know what different characters think about a situation or each other. Stream of consciousness is a literary feature that shows how the human brain works, randomly associating different things with one another, rather than working totally linearly. This is shown in “The Hours” when Clarissa Vaughn walks down the street, thinking of buying flowers when she sees a plastic bag floating in the wind. In her mind she follows the path of the plastic bag into the Hudson river and finally into the ocean where a turtle, a creature that can live up to 200 years of age, she thinks on, will eat the bag and die. She then returns to her current task, buying flowers. Another example of stream of consciousness can be found in “Mrs. Dalloway” when Mrs. Dalloway is in a flower shop and hears a limousine backfiring. Everyone in the street gathers around it, wanting to know who the important person inside is. Mrs. Dalloway thinks it is the Queen and imagines a party being planned at the palace, then of her own planned party. Both authors use stream of consciousness to express the thoughts and feelings of their characters, but while Woolf focuses on Mrs. Dalloway and her personality, Cunningham makes Clarissa think of “the bigger picture”, possibly referring to man’s pollution causing the death of planet Earth.
Tunnelling is also used by both authors to express feelings. Cunningham uses it when Clarissa meets an old friend in a park. He wants to kiss her on the lips in a friendly way, but then she turns away, thinks why she did only to turn back to miss his lips. Meanwhile, her friend thinks about how old Clarissa is. An example of tunnelling in “Mrs. Dalloway” is Septimus thinking the trees are talking to him, Lucretia senses his madness, walks away and wonders how Septimus could have turned into a madman. These to different examples show again that Woolf focuses on the inside, while Cunningham stays on the surface.
Another feature of modernism and post-modernism is intertextuality. Intertextuality is used by Cunningham and T.S. Eliot starts his poem “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” with a stanza in Italian from a piece of work written before his time, probably to sort his readership, only allowing those willing to struggle through a foreign language to read the rest of the poem. Cunningham uses extracts of “Mrs. Dalloway” read by his character Mrs. Brown to express her feelings and thoughts of suicide because of superficial, little things. Again, Cunningham uses this stylistic device to look at how exterior factors cause Mrs. Brown to think more about suicide, while Eliot uses it to intellectually sort his audience.
Another prominent feature of the modernist and post-modernist styles is fragmentation. Cunningham’s “The Hours” is basically three different stories in one book, divided and the aligned newly to convey the jumping between three different time periods and three different main characters, who are somewhat intertwined but separated throughout most of the story. Woolf uses fragmentation differently; she makes different characters, such as Lucretia and Septimus, have subplots, totally unconnected to the actual main plot.
The two styles of modernism and post-modernism are closely related in some aspects but totally different in others. After WWII, early post-modernists sought to distance themselves from the inward looking modernists by broadening their view. Both styles seek to connect their characters not only on one, but on several levels, not only through speech and action, but through thoughts, feelings and memories.