Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Anti-Hero in Modernist Fiction: From Irony to Cultural Renewal

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Anti-Hero in Modernist Fiction: From Irony to Cultural Renewal

Article excerpt

Those who have crossed With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom Remember us--if at all--not as lost Violent souls, but only As the hollow men The stuffed men.

--T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

The hollow men speaking in the epigraph are not much different from Eliot's famous Prufrock, the inadequate modern man whose introspection, self deprecation, and hesitation are all emblematic of a new heroism. The hollow men are spiritually and culturally lacking in the substance of traditional heroes. However, they are aware of their communal, representative insignificance during the post-World War I era in Western culture--and even sing it. This lack of traditional heroism, what I call "anti-heroism," is not particularly modern, as examples can be found in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. (1) However, modern anti-heroism in the early twentieth century is a response to the uncertainties of people about traditional values; it is a response to the insignificance of human beings in modernity and their drab existence; it is a feature of modernism and its zeitgeist. With rapidly changing times and cultural upheavals, the human race questioned moral values. Coherent meaning was lost, and essences were devalued within an atmosphere of cultural decline. Hence, people tried to find meaning in a confusing life, to construct a pattern, or to impose some order on a world they could neither control nor understand. When they could not heroically thrive in a mechaniZed age, they tried to live minimally and internally within the enclaves of art and the subjective mind. (2) I am aware that my thesis about the deficiencies of modern heroes, or their different heroism, does not necessarily break new ground. However, my goal is more of analysis and interpretation. In this essay, I bring together existing theory about heroism and apply it to literary texts in order to examine the nature of (anti)heroism in modernity. And although I use the word "man" in a general sense to denote human beings be they male or female, modernity affected men and women differently and, to some extent, effected a change in gender roles and expectations.

One characteristic of modernism is what J.A. Cuddon calls "fresh ways of looking at man's position and function in the universe" (551). Within a philosophical framework, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx dealt a heavy blow to man's belief in his dignity, innocence, and secure position. Man was found instinctive, lacking in self-control, and subject to economic and social variables. Existentially viewed, and in line with the modernist sensibility, man was seen as an outsider who had lost historical continuity and had no redemption in the past. Existential alienation and angst made modernist writers represent social misfits, brooding men, and suffering victims of incomprehensible forces in a hostile world since man felt lost and despairing. A product of environment and heredity, man was also viewed as an ordinary victim living in squalid conditions. Scientific and philosophical ideas associated with naturalism, and in tune with the modernist temper, made writers depict diseased, impoverished, and unprivileged characters. Moreover, with the upheaval of the Great War and the collapse of the traditional consensus about the nature of reality and the belief in an ameliorable history, the anti-hero became the expected presence in many modernist novels. People no longer believed in traditional heroism as a declining society was inadequate for it and as man had a sense of "powerlessness in the face of a blind technology" (Hawthorn 143). Modern anti-heroism captures the intellectual, moral, and cultural sensibility associated with modernism. A changing society with a changing cultural climate necessitated a change in the models of heroism. Literary genres such as classical epics, tragedies, and romances were no longer there for the display of extraordinary heroism, and the modern anti-hero became the novelistic "everyman. …

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