Beckett, Eliot, and the Futility of Words

Beckett’s Endgame gives a dismal view of Western Civilization. One of the critiques he makes is the futility of any individuals to have meaningful connections. He demonstrates this through the uselessness of words to depict anything meaningful.

The characters in Beckett’s Endgame speak past each other. There is a futility attached to words and the use of words. This is part of Beckett’s critique of Western Civilization: there is no connection and no meaning in anything that anyone says to anyone else. When Nagg begins to pray aloud, Hamm interrupts him, yelling “Silence! In Silence!” (2602). Hamm, who has lost the use of his eyes and his legs, has only his speech and his hearing as a means of communicating with anyone. Yet, he cannot even share his story. He has to lie to his own father, promising sugar plums that don’t exist, in order to get anyone to listen. Clov says that his story is: “The one you’ve been telling yourself all your days” (2603), implying that all he has ever said in an attempt to tell a story is meaningless because it has touched no one.

In addition to the lack of meaning and connection, Beckett examines the fragmentation that words cause in the isolated individual. During one of his monologues, Hamm says: “Then babble, babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark” (2607). Because words can give no meaningful connection between individuals, they act within the individual, fragmenting him so that he does not feel alone. Denied a true dialogue with others, he begins a destructive dialogue with himself that leaves him “in the dark,” incapable of finding anything outside of himself. This is very reminiscent of Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Throughout the poem, Eliot uses different voices and different languages to depict the confusion and lack of cohesion in individuals coming from the tradition of Western Civilization. Both authors are aware of the harm that words can bring through meaninglessness, isolation, and fragmentation, for the individual.

To the Lighthouse and the Desolation of the War

In “Time Passes,” Woolf uses the abandonment and decay of the house to foreshadow the desolation and loss of identity that England experiences following World War I. From the very opening the darkness that the war has brought to England is suggested. In the first chapter, all of the lights are put out. Following that, it begins to rain, and it seems as if “Nothing… could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness” (125-26) that comes creeping in and blurs all distinctions. The blurring of distinctions represents the loss of a clear sense of identity that has befallen the English. The house, abandoned by the fractured family that once maintained it, falls further and further into disorder as the family breaks up more and more. This represents England’s steady fracturing of identity which will make the country unable to forget what happened and return to the way things were.

There is a hint that the decay is contested in the person of Mrs. McNab who is first introduced as coming “to open all windows, and dust the bedrooms” (130). Being an older person, Mrs. NcNab probably represents the attempts of the older generation, and older traditions, to hold this new, desolate England together. However, as the war progresses, she eventually gives up. The task is “too much for one woman” (137), especially a woman who creaks and moans as much as the house itself. She  is forced to leave “the house alone, shut up, locked” (137), mirroring England’s own frozen, gloomy state.

At the same time, “Time Passes” demonstrates how the War renders human life meaningless, and yet nature does not care. The major events that will forever define and divide the family occur in brackets, almost as afterthoughts. It is a jolt when the reader suddenly learns that Mrs. Ramsay has “died rather suddenly”, leaving Mr. Ramsay to stumble in the dark (128), that “Prue Ramsay died that summer of some illness connected with childbirth” (132), that “Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsey” (133). The change of the seasons and the slow reclaiming of the house by nature become the main focus of the story. As the title tersely states: “Time Passes.” Humans’ petty lives are of secondary importance.

Eliot critiques education, isolation of individuals

Arnold believed that through education men could become (more) perfect individuals. As such individuals, they would be concerned with the social welfare of those around them and would work hard (within their respective classes and spheres) to better themselves and others morally and intellectually. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot presents the failure of this notion of culture. He depicts a place lacking in knowledge, and any kind of emotional attachment, occupied by isolated individuals.

The lack of knowledge, or the failure of education, is stated beginning on line 19: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stormy rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images…/ And the dry stone no sound of water” (19-24). Here, education is depicted as being thoroughly inadequate; men have no notion of their history (symbolized by the image of roots), or even of themselves in the present time (symbolized by the branches). Rather than the real, useful, knowledge and education that Arnold believed in, Eliot depicts a world in which men have only “A heap of broken images” for guidance. The lack of knowledge is further seen in the lack of water (“no sound of water”). Eliot emphasizes this towards the end of the poem, saying: “If there were water we should stop and drink / Amongst the dry rocks one cannot stop or think” (335-36). As water is often associated with knowledge, the inability to find any spring, pool, etc. anywhere to drink from symbolizes the ignorance of the modern age.

The fragmentation of culture is also reflected throughout the poem in the lack of any kind of emotional connection between individuals. Eliot describes London and a crowd in that “Unreal City” (60), but as the crowd moves “..each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (65), suggesting that there is no connection and no desire for connection among anyone. Everyone is only interested in his own business. This is also reflected in the interaction between the typist and the “young man carbuncular” (231). They sleep together but have no real connection; the typist “is bored and tired” (236) and the young man “makes a welcome of indifference” (242). This scene presents both an emotional and a moral decay. Whatever culture these two are a part of, it has not made them better human beings.

The ignorance of the isolation together help to undermine any kind of culture that unifies individuals to become some “people” who work for the public good and ordaer. Instead, every human thinks himself a prisoner (“We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (414-415) ). In this manner, Eliot critiques Arnold’s notion of culture, showing that it leads only to confusion and the fragmentation and withdrawal of the individual from others.

BLAST, the Individual, and WWI


To me, reading BLAST was more heartbreaking than it was interesting or surprising. The magazine represents the beginning of a tenuous attempt to glorify the individual, to make every individual, no matter his or her class, into a human being capable of art and artistic feeling. These individuals are not isolated though; they are united in a community of other individuals while maintaining their own individuality. The last line of “Long Live the Vortex” reads: “Blast presents an art of Individuals.” This struck me particularly hard. I feel a certain kinship I had not expected to feel; these authors seem to share my own zeal for the right and the worth of the individual. And yet, in a terrifying irony, these men, who believed so strongly in the individual, who founded a movement devoted to the individual, were about to enter into a war that would destroy the individual. WWI was a time of machines and statistics that showed horrific human fatalities. The concept of the individual that started to blossom in this magazine was buried beneath the overwhelming mass of the dead.

The way the magazine focuses on the individual is also found in the Manifestos. I read the contradiction of “blasting” and “blessing” the same thing simultaneously as an acknowledgment that good and evil exist in all things, and it is up to the individual to piece out what is worthwhile from what is broken and suffocating. Again, these individuals are part of a larger collective of individuals who transcend sides: “We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours” The individual is even sometimes promoted over countries, to the point where the magazine proclaims: “Blast First… England” (later England is blessed). This is gut-wrenching when one thinks of the war that is to come, and how it shall bind people more tightly than ever before into nationalistic units in an attempt to survive the carnage. Clearly, the magazine wished to knock the individual out of complacency, out of the mechanized, divided, modern times, but all of this was undone by WWI. Such notions of the individual as an artist and as on no particular side became vulgar and contemptuous, divisive when the country needed to stand strong. I cannot help but wonder what this movement would have become, what England and European literature were building towards in this and other similar journals, before the war interrupted.

Joyce and Poetic Fiction

In typical prose writing, the story and the development of the character are the most important, most crucial, elements. Beautiful language and imagery are preferable, but the ultimate goal of traditional prose writing is for the author to communicate some story, some series of events. Typically, this also means that prose writing has a clear beginning, middle, and end. However, Joyce turns this on its head.

Rather than focus only on the arc of the story, Joyce also focuses on  the poetic imagery in separate individual moments throughout the stories. He allows each  This makes his writing more poetic than the writings of many other prose writers. One excellent example of this is seen in “Araby” when the narrator beholds his beloved: “The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease” (2220). This description encapsulates a specific moment in a beautiful, poetic way. Many moments like this exist throughout both stories as stand-alone segments that are strung together to create one glittering work.

The endings to his stories “Araby” and “Eveline” are abrupt, not at all like the endings to the traditional prose work. The introduction claims that: “The stories often seem to ‘stop,’ rather than end” (2216). In the case of both stories, the reader is left with an impression of the emotions of the character at a certain time, not a definitive ending. In “Araby,” the narrator has his expectations let down, and sees himself “… as a creature driven and derided by vanity” (2222), and in “Eveline” the narrator’s face is “passive, like a helpless animal” and “her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (2225). In both cases, the abrupt, open-ended ending of the story functions like a poem’s ending, leaving the reader perturbed and thoughtful after the work has finished. Joyce wants his readers to think about what they have read, and he recognizes that denying the reader a definite ending will force a deeper reflection, possibly making the reader see himself mirrored in the work that he has just read. In this way, Joyce is very much a modern writer.

When reading Gaskell’s text, I did see a lot of tension between the modern era and the older way of thinking and doing in Cranford. However, I do not think that I would have noticed similarities between Gaskell’s text and Darwin’s theories if I was not looking for them. The first thing that I noticed when examining the text with Darwin in mind was the similarity between Gaskell’s descriptions of the town and its inhabitants Darwin’s descriptions of the Fuegians. There is an observing, objective element to the descriptions given of Cranford, as if the narrator were a kind of naturalist. There are several phrases that really drive the sense of a naturalist describing what she sees home, such as: “there were certain rules and regulations for visiting and calling (1433).” Furthermore, we later learn that the narrator is a visitor to the town, not one of its proper inhabitants, just as Darwin was a visitor to the natives whose cultures he described.

The main point in the text in which Gaskell seems to directly address one of Darwin’s theories is her description of the relationship between Captain Brown, Miss Jessie, and the sickly Miss Brown. Darwin wrote about the “Struggle for Existence” which included “…not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny (1273).” The end result of this struggle is that “…the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply (1277).” However, Miss Brown, one of the weaker individuals in the evolutionary struggle serves as an impediment and a drain on Captain Brown and Miss Jessie, who are more fit individuals. In particular, she wrecks her fitter sister’s chances to have children and a life of her own.

In her life, “Miss Brown used to accuse herself, not merely of hast and irritable temper, but also of being the cause why her father and sister were obliged to pinch, in order to allow her the small luxuries which were necessaries in her condition (1439).” This shows a sense of uneasiness that her own weakness and wasting illness is the cause of distress to the stronger, healthier members of her family. Furthermore, it is revealed that Miss Brown is the reason that Miss Jessie, who is, by all accounts, an exceedingly healthy and able individual, has not married and had children. Miss Brown shows remorse for holding her sister back on her deathbed, saying: “How selfish I have been! God forgive me for letting you sacrifice yourself for me as you did! (1445).” After her sister’s death, Miss Jessie is able to marry, and has a child, demonstrating her fitness to live, be happy, and leave offspring. I am unsure whether Gaskell is agreeing with Darwin’s theories of evolution or not, but she has certainly painted a subtle picture of the strong being held back by a sense of duty to their weaker kindred.

Arnold: Using Hellenistic Education to Combat the Woes of Modernity

Arnold is dissatisfied with modernity to a greater extent than many of his contemporaries. This becomes clear in “Dover Beach” when he speaks of the wonders of modernity and technology that seem “So various, so beautiful, so new,” as having “… neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” The end result of modernity, as evidenced by the riots and unrest that Arnold say in his time, is a nation of men “…on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night. “ He echoes this ominous warning in Culture and Anarchy when he says: “[we English have] blind faith in machinery, because of our want of light to enable us to look beyond machinery to the end form which machinery is valuable” (1598). The English, and the moderns in general, have been swept up in the crush of modernity without real understanding of how they should be aiding their fellow men. They follow their trivial, selfish desires.

In his solution to the problems of modernity, Arnold is like many of his contemporaries. He feels that it is duty to use moral and intellectual methods to enact social and cultural reforms which benefit everyone. He sees education as the primary means to accomplish this reform. His definition of what kind of education is different; he advocates the liberal arts. Rather than a trade and machine oriented education, Arnold feels that the English must turn to an older Hellenism, which he believes would aid men in “the pursuit of sweetness and light (1598)” that is necessary to build a society committed to the welfare of the whole. He believes that Hellenism and a Hellenistic education allow “our consciousness free play and enlarging (1603),” which will help individuals look past their own selfish personal, class, and professional interests, and consider the good of the country as a whole. This theme is also echoed in his reference to Sophocles in “Dover Beach,” who hears the roar of the ocean, and into whose mind “it brought… the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” Sophocles was one of the Ancient Greek tragic playwrights, and his themes echoed the disastrous consequences of the selfish individual.