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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 3 (Joyce)


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forge v. to shape in metal; to create an enduring object by concentration, effort or pains; to imagine; to counterfeit, to fake.

James Joyce shared Virginia Woolf’s mission to modernize the mythos of the western cultural tradition; but, in place of Woolf’s sense of the almost overwhelmingly tragic inevitability of historical cycles, Joyce offered a comedic optimism which inscribed historical realities within a virtually utopian vision.

Mirroring the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, James Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses recounts the story of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a middle-class Irish Jew, as he wanders around Dublin and eventually encounters the young Stephen Dedalus, a character already familiar as the protagonist of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Published in 1939, Joyce’s next and final novel Finnegans Wake by contrast takes place over the course of one night: it invents its own portmanteau vocabulary to articulate through an almost incoherent chaos of languages, literatures and cultures the dreams of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and his relationships with his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle and their sons Shaun the postman and Shem the penman.

Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are novels of immense structuration, but ones that resist the finitude of structure itself. They are works in perpetual progress, works of ongoing interpretative construction rather than completed literary constructions. As such, they eschew the interpretative closure typical to the works of more...

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