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Re-reading the Subtexts of Modernity

Alec Charles

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.

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Chapter 1 (Yeats, Plath, Hill)


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(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...

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