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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 5 (Larkin)


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toad n. an amphibian; a biform, a polymorph; an obsequious person; a contemptible creature; an ugly, subterranean thing; an iconic literary character of renowned generosity, joviality, vanity, impetuosity and hubris; a curmudgeon, a grouch … (in the East Riding of Yorkshire, pronounced ‘turd’).

‘Are you prepared for what night will bring?’ asks Philip Larkin in the second poem of his first collection, The North Ship (Larkin 2003: 5). Four poems later he implores us to ‘prolong the talk’ in a bid to ‘drive the shadows back’ (Larkin 2003: 9). Discourse offers to stave off the ‘endless silence’ of the heart, the ‘silences of death’, ‘the certainty of permanent extinction’ (Larkin 2003: 13, 25; 2002a: 345).

Larkin thus sets out his stall early on in his oeuvre. Like Beckett (or Derrida, for that matter), he overtly deploys language to defer, or distract from, the inevitable. Yet his death-centred discourse threatens, even so early on, to exhaust the poet’s vitality, to make him give up life ‘for fear of death’ (Larkin 2003: 34). His infamous (and sometimes self-inflicted) desperation is therefore tempered by a sense of its own relentless ironization. And so, in another early verse, he questions his begrudging other people’s enjoyment of their ‘wasted hours’ while his own are engulfed in ‘ice-grey misery’ (Larkin 2005a: 51).

Larkin’s juxtaposition of his misery with others’ happiness is both ironic and self-effacing. Published in 1951, for example,...

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