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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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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...

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