The Effeminization of British Men in Modernist Literature

My final essay for British Literature 202: “The Effeminization of British Men in Modernist Literature” via T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and James Joyce’s “The Dead”, and with a smaller reference to William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”. Thanks.

      The Effeminization of British Men in Modernist Literature

Modernism is by no means easy to define. In fact, no one is exactly sure if the movement has even ended yet. But that’s befitting of the period, as well as the pieces of literature that serve to define Modernism. Two pieces, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and James Joyce’s “The Dead”, are epitomes of this modernism. In both, the main characters are paralyzed by an inability to communicate, even while speaking. Whether through Prufrock’s musings concerning love life, or Gabriel’s inability to evoke certain feelings out of his wife, both men experience this effeminization of the intellect and communication. But where does this communicative castration begin? Most likely, in the bustling metropolises and dehumanizing philosophies that precipitate the Modernist movement. The modern man witnessed the killing of fifteen million people in the first Great War – bestial in the sheer amount of murder this war created. Meanwhile, modernity defined man’s character for him: Darwinism told him that he was the offspring of lesser animals, that man was, in essence, himself an animal. Also, Freudian psychoanalysis told man that his psyche was the product of his childhood and sexual instincts. Defined by that which he had no control over, or was too young to consciously alter, the modern man’s identity was no longer his to artifice, but society’s to manufacture at the behest of environment and upbringing. Which makes sense because, when we talk about personalities, sexualities and such today, we constantly hear the phrase “nature versus nurture”. What about “self”? Does the self have no control over these very crucial aspects of identity? Modernity has told these men “no”, that they do not form their own identities but that all things around man molds him into a specific person, whether through nature or nurture or both. And this is the Modernism that Eliot and Joyce are surrounded by – these are the ideas that mold their literature into cornerstone pieces of this movement. Therefore, the identity-less J. Alfred Prufrock and Gabriel Conroy, through various literary techniques, are shown to be in a perpetual decadence, as are their surroundings. In this vein, I will exemplify in T.S. Eliot’s “J. Alfred Prufrock” and James Joyce’s “The Dead” how, firstly,  the main character’s stories are similar in metaphorical movements represented by their physical environments, secondly, how these characters differ from antithetic Romantic characters, and lastly, how both men’s relationships are affected by their decadence of identity.
            In both pieces, we see a downward movement in the narratives that are either represented by, or happen in, the physical world. In Eliot’s poem, the storyline begins “spread out against the sky”, followed by a yellow mist that “slides along the street” (ll. 2, 24). Soon after, the narrator says he should be “scuttling across the floors of the sea” and by the end of the poem he has done just that, saying “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea” (ll. 74, 130). The movement from the sky to the bottom of the sea is crucial to the poem. One might interpret it as a decent into a hell of sorts, psychological or otherwise. Regardless of interpretation, we can feel the narrators increased torment and agony at falling into this chasm of nonidentity.  There is also a descent present in “The Dead”, though it is represented by a very common occurrence: a winter’s snowfall, or the “snow falling faintly through the universe”. This snowfall is seen at both the very beginning and end of the story. Falling “upon all the living and the dead”, this contextual clue indicates some kind of metaphorical snow, not just a literal precipitation. Being the harbinger of winter, the snow is reminiscent of cold and inability of growth. Therefore, in essence, we see a descent in both narratives towards a death of some kind.

Assuredly, this downward movement can be interpreted in many ways, but it seems this declination is exemplary of the descent of the modern man – the death of the Romantic, hopeful man. Gabriel cannot at all identify with Michael Furrey, an old lover of his wife. When Gabriel learns of Furrey, and how he died just to see her a last time, Gabriel then understands what it means to be “in love”. Therefore, he understands that he is not in love with his wife, because he would not have done the same for her as Furrey did. In the same way, we can contrast Eliot’s Modernist poem with a Romantic ideal of William Wordsworth: his three stages of life and actualization. In these stages, starting with childhood, we see first the descent of man from childhood (sheer innocence) to a disconnection from the world in adolescence, followed by a sort of resurrection from adolescence into adulthood. In this Wordsworthian evolution of identity, the final stage of adulthood is not equal to the first stage of innocence that is embodied by childhood, but it is better than the lowest stage of adolescence and disconnection. This adulthood is marked by a sense of understanding of the world, regardless of still being disconnected. Instead of the resurrection we see displayed in this Wordsworthian evolution (exemplified in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye Valley During a Tour, July 13, 1798”), we see a perpetual descent in Eliot’s Modernist poem. As Prufrock grows older and older, he is still unable to understand his self-identity. Thus, we see his psyche fall into decadence until he is drowned at the bottom of the sea, a psychological hell. In this way, both men have fallen into a chasm of inability to identify: Gabriel compared to Furrey, Prufrock with the narrator of “Tintern Abbey”. This is a dichotomy of the empowered Romantic man, in contrast to the effeminized modern man.
            As the two characters, Prufrock and Gabriel, have reached the nadir of their self-actualizations, both have also reached very similar opinions: that they have not, or cannot, fall in love with a woman. These are epiphanies of sexuality and love-life. Prufrock comes to his epiphany at the closing of the poem when he sees mermaids singing out in the sea, saying “I do not think they will sing to me” (l. 125). This is a realization that he cannot connect with the opposite sex, and by symbolizing women as mermaids, Prufrock has basically made them into another species. In fact, he may as well be courting a lobster at the bottom of the sea, as he explicitly wishes to become a “pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (ll 73 – 74). Similarly, Gabriel Conroy comes to understand that he has never truly loved his wife, but has probably only been attracted to her sexually. This epiphany comes when his wife, Gretta, explains how Michael Furrey essentially died just to be with her one last time, and Gabriel realizes that “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman”, including Gretta. By realizing that “such a feeling must be love”, the protagonist understands that this feeling is outside of him, that he has never known it before. And only now has he learned about love, and at that, from an outside source, outside of his own experience. These are the epiphanies of two romantically stranded men; men who cannot come to terms with romantic love for another human being. This is probably because they cannot identify who they are as people, as selves. Consequentially, they cannot love another person without first having a sense of personal identity. So, by having no personal relationship with their identity-less selves, they cannot have personal relationships with other people.

In conclusion, the man of modernism is complex, and difficult to understand. In fact, he may be impossible to comprehend, as he cannot even comprehend his own self. Without an identity, man is almost inhuman, almost animal like. And the world of modernity only served to exacerbate this feeling. After the dehumanizing work of Darwin and Freud, the zoo-like conditions of urban living, and the bestial massacring of the Great War, it does not seem surprising that the men of the early twentieth century were devoid of identity. In fact, it may have been necessary to become identity-less, to recede back into something less than human. Or maybe to recede back into the very epitome of human living. After all, the British Empire was on top of the world during both the Romantic and Victorian eras; therefore, it would make sense that English writers were idealistic at these times. But the Modernist era was the time of post-colonialism, where the English were no longer dominators but equals with the rest of the world – where they had once ruled, they now had to fend for themselves. So, is it possible that the modern era was not really a dehumanizing era, but a humanizing time period for the British? One cannot rightfully answer. Which, as the beginning of this paper states, is befitting of Modernism: it is unclear, even, identity-less.


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The reason for all this is not reasonable. The reason, strictly art, Still makes no sense to me.

The Wheel

December 2009
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