Modernist Metropolis

Modernism was the first literary movement to take urban life as a given, as a form of experience that was categorically different from any other kind of life. Baudelaire was fascinated by the “flaneur”, the man who strolls the city aimlessly as a way of life. The city, with its anonymity, darkness, vastness and mechanisation inspired the modernists, it attracted and repelled them in equal measure.

Modernist writers, most of them from suburbs or small cities, gravitated to London, Paris, St. Petersburg and New York. London was the first home of Anglo-American Modernism, but the city’s essentially commercial character eventually sent most of the writers elsewhere. Irrespective of whichever city, the city was almost always the subject of the modernist writer. James Joyce during his exile which he spent moving between Paris, Trieste and Zurich, wrote everything about the vibrant life of Dublin. Hart Crane composed his epic poem The Bridge about the Brooklyn Bridge, the monument of engineering and architectural beauty that made New York city the centre of American urban life. Eliot’s melancholy poems reverberate with the loneliness and the lack of meaning that the city dwellers often feel.

Different authors offer varied approaches to get hold of the tangible reality in the modern city. In Mrs. Dalloway, it is the city’s complex impressions that link the consciousnesses of the two major characters together. Virginia Woolf’s characters explore “the centre of life itself” with its vibrancy, dynamism and energy.

In contrast, D.H. Lawrence understands the metropolis as a place of despair and alienation. Hence Women in Love shows London as a sinful place inhabited by superficial characters that find their satisfaction in drinking, offending and having sex. Thus, these two modernist texts offer different representations of urban life in a rapidly changing metropolis and therefore present a fuller image of the real and unreal London.

The characters Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith capture the fleeting moments of life in the city on a June day. Both characters stroll ‘flaneur-like’ through the metropolis and feel the vibrancy of London. Yet, their responses to the same urban symbols differ from each other.

The unreal cities Jerusalem, Alexandria, Dublin, London, Paris etc. in Modernist literature represent the turmoiling metropolis formed as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution which is a seat of alienation, darkness, rootlessness and disorientation like in Chaplin’s Modern Times’. The modernist individual is caught in an existential angst, devoid of dignity, purpose, value and meaning reminiscent of a Beckettian void and Kafkaesque claustrophobia manifest in Lucky, Pozzo and Gregor Samsa.

Categories: Literature

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