Re-reading the Subtexts of Modernity

by Alec Charles (Author)
©2019 Monographs VIII, 236 Pages


What takes place when we examine texts close-up? The art of close reading, once the closely guarded province of professional literary critics, now underpins the everyday processes of forensic scrutiny conducted by those brigades of citizen commentators who patrol the realms of social media.
This study examines at close quarters a series of key English texts from the last hundred years: the novels of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, the plays of Samuel Beckett, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the tweets of Donald Trump. It digs beneath their surface meanings to discover microcosmic ambiguities, allusions, ironies and contradictions which reveal tensions and conflicts at the heart of the paradox of patriarchal history. It suggests that acts of close reading may offer radical perspectives upon the bigger picture, as well as the means by which to deconstruct it. In doing so, it suggests an alternative to a classical vision of cultural progress characterised by irreconcilable conflicts between genders, genres and generations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1 (Yeats, Plath, Hill)
  • How soon is now?
  • Invisibility
  • Reading versus realism
  • Let’s get metaphysical
  • Swansong
  • Air and angels
  • Man of letters
  • The word was God
  • The myth of Cadmus
  • Chapter 2 (Woolf)
  • Cultural heavyweights
  • The shared scar
  • My left shoes
  • The myth of the moth
  • Herstory
  • Chapter 3 (Joyce)
  • Et in Arcadia nemo
  • Some versions of utopia
  • Bloomtopia
  • Isn’t it ironic?
  • The triumph of life
  • More and more
  • Chapter 4 (Beckett)
  • The word of the lord
  • Certain uncertainties
  • Not so sure
  • Darkness falls
  • The roar of the uncowed
  • Wattknott
  • Christ on a bike
  • Notopia
  • Chapter 5 (Larkin)
  • Sounding off
  • Re-reading Mr Ricks
  • Multivalences
  • Death’s postman
  • Race/hate
  • When you have both
  • Saturation point
  • Chapter 6 (Hitchcock)
  • The meanings of Las Meninas
  • The man who mistook his hat for a cake
  • Don’t look now
  • Here’s looking at you
  • Who watches the watchers?
  • Underworlds
  • The eyes have it
  • The man who mistook his mum for his wife
  • Chapter 7 (…)
  • You can call me AI
  • Digital disruption
  • Bottoms up
  • From Russia with love?
  • What is truth?
  • Power to the people
  • Wars of words
  • Twitter twatter
  • Aposiopesis
  • A moment of scrutiny
  • The death of irony
  • ‘They fuck you up …’
  • O tempora, o mortes, o amores
  • Bibliography
  • Index

| vii →


At the end of his classic study of Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson offers the hope that his ideas will make literature seem more beautiful to his readers, without those readers necessarily having to absorb or apply those ideas. One always hopes, then, that one’s attempts to bare certain mechanisms of any particular artefact will afford opportunities for those who encounter that artefact to discover new meanings, uses and pleasures therein, and in other texts. These acts of reading are, in the end, intended only to encourage and support further interpretations. My thanks, therefore, to my teachers and my students, who have so well taught me that.

Thanks, in particular, are due to my friends, colleagues and mentors, past and present, for their advice and support: Terry Biddington, Christian Billing, Jen Birks, Inga Bryden, Glenn Burgess, Joy Carter, Colette Conroy, James Crabbe, Richard Cuming, Valentine Cunningham, Jude Davies, Peter Dean, Emiliana De Blasio, Janice de Sousa, Terry Eagleton, Les Ebdon, Keith Edwards, Neil Ewen, Colette Fletcher, Glenn Fosbraey, Lyndall Gordon, Michael Gratzke, Steve Hall, Vanessa Harbour, Emily Harmer, Chris Harris, John Hayes, Jorma Heinonen, Michael Higgins, Luke Hockley, Dan Jackson, Richard Jacobs, Mick Jardine, Keith Jebb, Jeri Johnson, Sam Jones, Malcolm Keach, John Kelly, Marcus Leaning, Neil Marriott, Pru Marriott, Lesley McKenna, Sarah Mead, Tom Moylan, Darren Mundy, Sheila Nicholson, Brendan O’Sullivan, Angus Paddison, Shira Pinczuk, Charlotte Purkis, Bill Rammell, Bob Reid, Brigitte Resl, Yasushi Saito, George Sallis, Heather Savigny, Carol Smith, Michele Sorice, John Stephens, Gavin Stewart, Liz Stuart, Jane Thomas, Alexis Weedon, Garry Whannel, Kath Whiting, Malcolm Willis, Richard Woodhouse and James Zborowski, and to the late great poets Jon Stallworthy and Geoffrey Hill.

Thanks are also due to the Hull History Centre, the Utopian Studies Society, the Political Studies Association and the Italian Political Communication Association, and to all at the MPG, SJT, TPR and SEB.

← vii | viii →Continuing thanks are due, of course, to my esteemed editor Lucy Melville and her colleagues at Peter Lang, with whom this is now my seventh book.

This book is dedicated, with the greatest love and respect, to my dear friend and valued colleague, Professor Mick Temple, upon the occasion of his recent retirement.

| 1 →


(Yeats, Plath, Hill)

atonement n. expiation; reparation; redemption; reconciliation; convergence; the act or process of becoming, or the state of being, as one.

If language itself is both the product and the bulwark of patriarchal hegemonies, then the subversion of those structures necessitates the subornation and appropriation of that language. It is the argument of this study that these processes may be addressed by a critical strategy which closely interrogates and channels the undercurrents of such discourse.

This study therefore explores the pleasures and benefits of the increasingly resurgent practices of what we once called ‘close reading’ – a method of critical scrutiny (often at the level of the image, phrase or word) which has fallen somewhat out of fashion with some of cultural theory’s more abstract and broad-brush practitioners, but which has, in recent years, re-emerged in the forensic critiques and satires of bloggers, microbloggers, citizen journalists and members of social media’s democratic commentariat. It seeks to apply such ‘modern’ reading practices to the outputs of variously ‘modern’ auteurs – from Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, through Sylvia Plath, Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin, to Alfred Hitchcock and Donald Trump.

Roland Barthes (1973) suggested that secondary (or connotative) levels of meaning bear the weight of ideological subtexts and mythological contexts in ways more profoundly impactful than the primary dictionary denotations of language. Literature performs and plays primarily at this secondary level. Acts of radical literary representation and interpretation can therefore privilege, expose, interrogate, ironize, ambiguate, problematize and deconstruct the fertile contraries which underlie and underpin discourse and text and the power relations implicit therebetween. ← 1 | 2 →

This study therefore endeavours to advocate the value, relevance and currency of those close subtextual and intertextual readings which reveal such contraries. It approaches a series of texts which, advertently or otherwise, eschew or subvert the conventions of that classic mode of representational realism which assumes the uncritical passivity of its audiences. These texts deploy polysemy, connotation and allusion to chart the holistic relationships between the minutiae of language, idea or image and macrocosmic textual and extra-textual structures. In doing so, they (explicitly or otherwise) invite active practices of reading. Such practices demonstrate that even the most ostensibly reactionary texts can be reimagined by acts of interpretative resistance into paragons of revolutionary speculation.

In short, these insistently modern works afford their audiences opportunities and skills of authorship. They empower readers as active participants in a variety of forms of cultural engagement, as interpretative agents ready to rewrite the textual world. They stimulate those readers to exercise a closeness of scrutiny whose practice appears particularly pertinent to a contemporary culture of produsage (of audiences as active users and producers of meaning). This closeness of focus paradoxically opens up possibilities of almost endless vistas of meaning, and suggests that there is nothing outside the text, insofar as the text may thereby be amplified to encompass and extend the ambit of all textual space (which is all artifice and encultured perception).

How soon is now?

Does modern history follow on immediately from the ancient? Or does it follow, contradict, articulate from, or elaborate upon, the medieval? Was the Renaissance the trigger for modernity? Or was that trigger the Enlightenment, or the industrial revolution, or the age of western European imperialism? And when, if we ever did, did we stop being modern?

For the sake of (this) argument, this text views Modernism as a set of artistic, cultural, philosophical and broadly intellectual approaches, ← 2 | 3 → perspectives and movements which roughly coincide and align with, respond to, and provoke/promote, the period in the history of western civilization which is sometimes referred to as Modernity (with an emphatically and self-consciously capital ‘M’). This period represented both the zenith and the crisis of western imperial-industrial-technological capitalism: the triumph of western civilization and scientific reason realized in industrial warfare on a global scale and the genesis of weapons of mass destruction. It is characterized by a heady, thrusting societal, cultural and economic dynamism, and by a simultaneous collapse of faith in its own purpose, meaning and existence. The modern age is epitomized by this dialectic, by this defining paradox.

To be Modern in this sense is to perform the double-think of a presentism underpinned by an attenuating anxiety as to the diminution of history; it is to be Orpheus forcing himself into futurity ever aware of Eurydice falling away beneath him; it is to experience being as becoming and as essentially essenceless. It is to look upon the sequence of mirrors of moments – each almost reflecting the last in a sequence which might be either progressive or decadent – and to see no origin or end. And it is, eventually, to be able to laugh in the face of this overweening portentousness.

This aspect of the modern continually undermines itself in the tantalizing agonies and teasing pleasures of its own uncertainties, ironies and ambiguities. There is an almost masochistic self-consciousness in this, a metatextual self-absorption whose potential for narcissism is only deferred by its subtextual openness to surrender authorial authority to the subversive interpretative processes of its audiences. There is, ultimately, something crucially democratic in this. It counters the modern era’s frequently authoritarian (and often pseudo-utopian) socio-political conditions and contexts.

The subsequent periods of postmodernity, late postmodernity and/or post-postmodernity (take your pick) then represent a perpetuation and escalation, rather than a reversal, of modernity’s paradoxical tendencies, their logical and ineluctable extension into increasing degrees of incoherence and absurdity. The triumph of materialism is virtuality; the proliferation of universal knowledge heralds the death of truth; the apotheosis of rationalism manifests itself in a brutal, global conflict between religious fundamentalisms redolent of the history of medieval crusades; pluralism ← 3 | 4 → fosters populism; and science offers immortality and at the same time provides various options on the theme of apocalypse.

The novelist Julian Barnes has suggested that to be modern is simply to be ironic (Barnes 1985: 67). We might nuance this sentiment by suggesting that it is to recognize – and relish – these historical and cultural contraries. It is to wrestle with (but not against) a constant awareness of the absurdity of this definitive ambivalence. It is to locate and identify significance between the deceptive superficialities of everyday things.

The meaning of the modern, in this sense at least, for the modern artist and audience, in the processes of reading and reception, might then usefully be seen as lying beneath that apparently depthless surface, at the level of the subtext.

That at least is where this text will look for it.


VIII, 236
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Modernism Literature Close reading
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. VIII, 236 pp

Biographical notes

Alec Charles (Author)

Alec Charles is Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Winchester. He has previously made documentaries for BBC Radio and worked at universities in Estonia, Japan, Cornwall, Chester, Luton and Hull. He has contributed to a diverse range of publications including British Politics, British Journalism Review, Journalism Education, Utopian Studies, Science Fiction Studies, Science Fiction Film and Television, Journal of Popular Television and The Routledge International Handbook of Jungian Film Studies. His previous books include Interactivity: New Media, Politics and Society (2012), Interactivity 2 (2014), Out of Time: The Deaths and Resurrections of Doctor Who (2015) and Political Animals: News of the Natural World (2016), all published by Peter Lang.


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