During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Modernist movement questioned the social, ideological and hierarchical paradigms of society. This movement is centred, as described by Marshall Berman, around the primary condition of “constant change. ” Such as the aftermath of the war, new technologies, the rise of unions, feminism and the self-made man. This theory of the condition of Modernism is explored through Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, and Rhapsody on a Windy Night by T. S Eliot.
Within these texts, the reader is positioned to question the consequences of the rigid class system when faced with an evolving world, where social pleasantries come at the expense of emotional wellbeing and, the individual’s awareness of “constant change” in terms of the passing of time and the implications of understanding one’s own mortality. Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway considers the determents of strict social systems within society. A. D. Moody describes in, Virginia Woolf, the impulse of the upper class to “turn away from the disturbing depths of feeling, and towards a conventional pleasantness. Woolf satirically idealises Lady Bexborough who “opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed. ” This repression of emotion, is inbuilt into upper class culture, is questioned as it faces a changing world which presents new situations which rely on emotional connection. Septimus, as a result of his upbringing, values his reaction to Even’s death, “congratulat[ing] himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The reader is then positioned, through a repetition of “desperation,” to sympathise and recognise the detriments to Septimus’ mental health as a result of this emotional disconnection. Sir William Bradshaw embodies this hierarchical expectation, specifically within the medical arena, of a distance from emotional attachment. His treatment of Septimus is no different from the treatment of any other patient, “Proportion, divine proportion, Sir William’s goddess. ” Woolf’s lexical choice in “divine” and “goddess,” focuses on the holy connotations.
The “divine” process comes at the expense of Septimus and Rezia’s emotional welfare and relationship. The social norms of hierarchical systemsare unable to deal with the changing context of the war, and prevent human connection. Deterioration of relationships is explored further through Clarissa and Richard’s interactions. Richard, despite being very much in love, is unable to communicate his attachment to Clarissa, “Partly one’s lazy; partly one’s shy. ” As Richard contemplates the state of his society, he comments that the “fault wasn’t in them… ut in our detestable social system. ” His social commentary on prostitutes mirrors the reader’s reaction to Richard. We are positioned to neither dislike nor blame him for his inability to express his love, but to blame the social system in which he has been indoctrinated. The culture of hierarchical systems which prevents human connectedness leaves individuals isolated and questioning traditional normalities. This Modernist questioning is fundamentally brought about by the fragmentation and disillusionment of society, which cannot unite when facing a world of constant change.
In the same way that class hierarchies are a repressive force in Mrs Dalloway, T. S. Eliot explores urbanisation as the cause of the repression of natural instinct and. As the changing world presents a faster paced urban lifestyle, one struggles to maintain stability. Rhapsody on a Windy Night describes the “cat” which feeds on “rancid butter” and the lonely “moon” with “smallpox cracks. ” Natural imagery is distorted into a negative light though the diseased connotations of “rancid” and “smallpox. ” The romanticised idea of a moonlit stroll is at juxtaposition with the dominant images of “skeletons” and “sunless geraniums. Urban sprawl, like the clasp of the social system, cannot cope with the rate of change In response to encountering “nocturnal smells,” the speaker says “cross and cross,” as the scents bring back different recollections. However this term also implies a religious sacrifice or burden, as the reach of urbanisation comes at the cost of the speaker’s contentment. This destabilisation of the speaker’s psyche is a Modernist concern which stems from societies inability to deal with “constant change. ”
Modernism is explored through Woolf’s writing, as a condition brought about by the awareness of changing time and mortality. Virginia Woolf, as a member of the Bloomsbury Group had access to a variety of philosopher’s works, including that of Sigmund Freud. His concept of “Thanatos” considers all organic life to contain an urge to “restore an earlier state of things. ” Otherwise known as a “death instinct,” it drives people towards death in order to return to a sense of peace. The influence of this theory is ingrained into Mrs Dalloway. The passage of time towards death is mapped incessantly by “Big Ben. The sound that “flood[s]” her room consumes everything; life is at the mercy of time. Big Ben is “as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, swinging dumb-bells this way and that. ” The personification of the clock tower intentionally interrupting society, symbolises time itself which reigns impenetrably over everything. However, Woolf contrasts the strict measurement of exterior time, with the unrestrained nature of interior time. The characters have the ability to experience life within themselves, at a rate outside the controls of the clock.
Clarissa embodies this characteristic by taking a mundane object, such as a “roll of tweed,” and relating it to “her father[who] bought his suits [there] for fifty years. ” This use of non-linear structure and stream of consciousness conveys how each individual responds to an awareness of “the dwindling of life. ” As Clarissa “fear[s] time itself,” she strives to comprehend her reality and the inescapable cessation of life, which is the presence of her “Thanatos. ” Later within the novel, Clarissa’s reaction to Septimus’s suicide is positive. She feels “glad” at his decision, for “‘twere now to be most happy. Despite the initial jarring nature of her response, the audience is encouraged to understand death “embrace[s]” an individual whose happiness would be compromised continuing life. In this way we see how the incessant continuity of time presses upon an individual’s awareness, so that they have a contemplation of mortality and modernist ideals. Time, as an inescapable presence, is similarly explored in Rhapsody on a Windy Night. As oppose to Big Ben measuring the passing of time, “every streetlamp that [the speaker] pass[es] beats like a fatalistic drum. Again, personification is used to amplify the imposition of time’s continuity upon the individual. This imposition is made stronger through the idea that the streetlamps, which symbolise time, are the ones commanding the speakers actions. First to “regard that woman,” and “regard the moon,” until finally “sleep, prepare for life. ” After which the speaker hails “the last twist of the knife. ” The insinuation being that only in unconsciousness are we fully alive, relating back the Freudian concept of “Thanatos,” one’s inbuilt instinctual drive towards death.
In this way we can see how Rhapsody on a Windy Night, similarly to Mrs Dalloway, explores how the constant changing and passing of time, makes an individual aware of their own mortality within a Modernist construct. In conclusion, the Modernist period which is explored within Mrs Dalloway, by Woolf and Rhapsody on a Windy Night, by T. S. Eliot, deals with the primary condition of constant change. It explores change in terms of culture and society, and how those changes are not dealt with by the class system and urbanisation of society. And finally it deals with change in terms of the continuity of time and the presence of mortality.