Essay: Modern Alienation -

Essay: Modern Alienation

“Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other.”
— Guy Debord

Part I

The best comedy tends to not only be hilarious but also surprisingly honest, and often biting. Comedians reveal the worst about the world, albeit showcasing it in a digestible manner. As discussed in lecture, Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times presented factories as symbols of isolation and the workers therein as alienated from “normal” society. The factory itself is a image of modernism, specifically that of urbanization and industrialism, which reached its peak during the 1920s and 30s. People were receptive to Modern Times as a comedy and also as a reflection of the times: modernism, despite the wonderful art, music, philosophies, and writings it created, caused alienation. Traditional values were being challenged, like religion, sex, race, and work ethic, leading to a loss of faith, affection, respect, and ambition. Emotional alienation was especially ubiquitous, the Great Depression being largely responsible for the era’s cynicism. Four prominent authors of the 1920/30s modernism period wrote literary works that expressed this feeling of alienation, namely Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the poetry of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. A number of characters in each work are emotionally alienated from each other and society, and suffer from the loss of affection, or the lack thereof.

In The Sun Also Rises, protagonist Jake Barnes loses affection for Lady Brett Ashley, and she for him. It is not so much a crash of insurmountable differences as a slow realization of mere incompatibility. Wounded during World War I in such a way to lose sexual potency, Jake is irritated with his love life and thus, clings to the only woman he can tolerate. Brett, unlike Jake, has no stability and moves from man to man, seeking emotional substance yet always returning to dependable Jake. He says himself that he “tr[ies] and play[s] along and just not make[s] trouble for people” (Hemingway 39), though this results in his constant catering to other people in an effort to keep the peace. Jake’s affability prevents him from casting off Brett entirely, even after he learns of her affair with Robert Cohn. He tells himself that Brett did love him, but “she only wanted what she couldn’t have” (Hemingway 39) — that is, sex. In the modernist world, a woman like Brett has the  freedom to choose whomever she wants for a partner, resulting in the alienation of those she rejects. Despite Jake’s cynicism, he still has hope for a romance with Brett: “I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around… I started to think about Brett and all the rest of it went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry” (Hemingway 39). Depression hits him heavily at night, as the dark reminds him of war, his subsequent injury, and the loss of sexual pleasure, which ultimately resulted in the quasi-relationship he has with Brett. Jake stops being in denial when he no longer considers Mike as a romantic rival for Brett’s affections; she leaves them both broken when she runs off with bullfighter Pedro Romero. “I had been having Brett for a friend,” Jake realizes. “I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came” (Hemingway 152). Modern alienation estranges people from other people, creating irresponsibility. Neither Brett nor Jake thought about how they were unconsciously only hurting each other by trying to make a relationship work between them. When all is said and done, Brett decides to marry Mike, who is “so damned nice and…so awful” (Hemingway 247) and, in her opinion, what she deserves after all the pain she caused. She mourns to Jake, “ ‘We could have had such a damned good time together’ ” (Hemingway 251). Jake, however, having emotionally alienated himself from her, merely remarks, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Hemingway 251). He no longer retains hope for any sort of future with Brett and (hopefully) decides to move forward with his life,

Continuing on the theme of sexual affection loss, parts of The Waste Land are examples of a more traditional emotional alienation, that between husband and wife. Part II of the poem, ‘A Game of Chess’ is about sexuality, a very modern topic and discussed in a very modernist manner. A boon of modernism is its ability to confront uncomfortable truths, in this case being that sex is not always liberating nor an indicator of personal freedom. While in a pub, a woman discloses to her friend about a conversation she had with another friend, Lil. The latter’s husband, Albert, has been discharged from the army during World War I, and the first woman pressures Lil to “make [her]self a bit smart” (Eliot 495), since her teeth are apparently quite unsightly, and her husband gave her money to buy a pair of false ones. The unnamed woman implies that Albert will be disgusted enough to run off with another woman, an assumption made all the more acrimonious by the fact that Lil seems to be the perfect wife.

She married young, allowed her husband to fight in the war, and had children, but Albert does not love her anymore: “He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you / […] / He wants a good time, / And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said / […] / You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique / (And her only thirty-one)” (Eliot 496). Numerous pregnancies and an personally-induced abortion have taken their toll on Lil’s body; she has lost not only her beauty but also the affection of her husband, who is supposed to love, honor, and comfort her in sickness and health. Instead, he treats her as a sexual toy of sorts, ignoring the consequences of this act (their many children). Lil is even alienated from her friend: “You are a proper fool, I said” (Eliot 496). That this “friend” is discussing the marital problems of Lil in a pub like cheap gossip signifies the level of emotional alienation from which Lil is suffering. She feels no happiness about her husband returning home — if anything, her problems shall only worsen — and when seeking the company of a friend, she is only criticized and her dilemma trivialized: “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (Eliot 496). In a modernist society where women are supposed to be sexually free, Lil is trapped. The last line, “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night” (Eliot 496) were the last words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet before she killed herself. This may indicate that death is now the only path for Lil, due to her loss of affection.

Alice B. Toklas is the subject of her Autobiography, but she is not the author. Rather, it was written by her lover, Gertrude Stein, a modernist author and contemporary of Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and other members of the modernism movement. Toklas referred to these people as “geniuses,” and respected them in a stand-offish sort of way. It was Stein who was the respected author, and thus, only through her could Toklas interact with said geniuses — or rather, their wives. Though homosexuality was generally frowned upon even in the increasingly liberated times, Stein’s friends were apparently very broadminded and treated Stein and Toklas like any other couple. This, however, also meant imposing heterosexual roles upon the pair: Stein was the masculine genius, and Toklas the feminine partner. Though their relationship is understood to be a happy one, it can be seen as a reflection of modern alienation; that is, Toklas’s lack of social affection from the geniuses (and Stein, in a way). Toklas considers calling her autobiography, “The Wives of Geniuses I Have Sat with,” for she has “sat with so many… I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near geniuses, of would be geniuses, in short I have sat very often and very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses” (Stein 671). There is a slight hint of bitter sarcasm at this recollection; when she meets the Picasso, it is Fernande Picasso with whom she chats, not the great painter himself. Stein did nothing to discourage these scenarios, and these interactions that make it clear about whom the autobiography is really. Sympathetically, Toklas can be seen as the Watson to Stein’s Holmes, a rather apt comparison considering whom those stories were written by and their subject (albeit reversed). Stein is the real subject of the work, utilizing third-person point of view to examine her own life. It makes for an interesting read because of this, but emotionally alienates Toklas, the supposed narrator. Stein gets the praise for the best-selling work because Toklas would not receive any literary affection at all, for she is not well-known. Even if it had actually been written by her or had her name as the author (which, admittedly, would have detracted from the book’s appeal), she is still largely associated with Gertrude Stein, and it is about the latter that readers were eager for information. This lack of affection is another reflection of modern alienation.

On the other side of the tracks, so to speak, the lack of social and emotional affection is prevalent in Langston Hughes’s poetry. Hughes was an African American writer who criticized white supremacy and revealed the sufferings of black Americans through his writings, specifically his poetry, which was often written for children. His poems are simple yet contain powerful themes about isolation, injustice, and African culture. “Dream Variations” is an especially relevant poem for the early modernist era. Though the narrator seems happy enough — “To fling my arms wide / In some place of the sun, / To whirl and to dance / Till the white day is done” (Hughes) — it is the adjective “white” that is telling. This is a white world (under the assumption that the narrator is black), and the blacks are under white mercy until night: “Then rest at cool evening / Beneath a tall tree / While night comes on gently, / Dark like me” [emphasis added] (Hughes). Jazz and blues tend to be associated with nightclubs, the smooth tones and beats echoing into a shadowy alley. Hughes’s poems are full of blues/jazz rhythms, an indication of his pride for African American music. Since blacks are not tolerated during the day (where they can be seen by whites), only at night are they allowed to thrive and celebrate. “To fling my arms wide / In the face of the sun, / Dance! Whirl! Whirl! / Till the quick day is done” (Hughes) demonstrates the narrator’s desire to be part of the white world; that is, an unsegregated America. Estrangement from the outside is a typical feature of emotional alienation. Day and night are natural opposites, and blacks and whites are given similar attributes: irreconcilable, divergent, and unequal. However, decades before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech during the Civil Rights Movement, Hughes also dreamt of a world without judgment of a person’s skin color. A world in which the narrator can “Rest at pale evening… / A tall, slim tree…” in the daylight of whites, and yet have a peaceful transition into “Night coming tenderly / Black like me” (Hughes). Here, the narrator is expressing pride in his blackness, suggesting a harmony between blacks and whites. Night and day are indeed in opposition to each other, but they technically work together to make one whole day. Although now the narrator is emotionally alienated from the world in which he rightly feels he belongs, the lack of affection he receives does not come into conflict with the affection he is willing to give.

Part II

T.S. Eliot

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

The main feature of Eliot’s writing in The Waste Land is the mixing of classical and modern. This excerpt starts off with, “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song”, but instead of discussing the more natural aspects of the river, such as its clarity or size, Eliot lists bits of rubbish: “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends”. The irony that a river in this day and age would not be full of garbage is typical of Eliot’s style. Any humor that could be derived from this is immediately subject to a mood whiplash, as he goes on to say that the trash is normally a “testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.” The river is clean because no one is around; it is alone. The mention of nymphs is, again, taking the ancient and placing it in the new.  The lines are long, almost prose-like, since Eliot only simplifies his poetry when making a specific point. Here, a sentence starts off in the middle of a line, meant to be underline the significance of the river’s loneliness: a lengthy, artistic sentence stopped abruptly by a short, laconic one.

Ernest Hemingway

Behind them there was a little bare space, and the bulls galloping, tossing their heads up and down. It all went out of sight around the corner. One man fell, rolled to the gutter and lay quiet. But the bulls went right on and did not notice him. They were all running together.

The master of terse prose is Hemingway, especially his unrivaled ability to deliver action in what may be considered to be a restrictive form. This excerpt describes a typical bull-run and in five crisp sentences, manages to convey all that is necessary to know about the event: “the bulls galloping”, then immediately going “out of sight around the corner”; the dangers of participating as one man discovered as he “fell, rolled to the gutter and lay quiet”; and the impassivity of the bulls, who “went right on and did not notice him.” The scene in real time would probably be over in thirty-five seconds flat. It seems unnecessarily violent, but Hemingway manages to insert a sort of passion into the description.  “They were all running together” especially portrays the beauty that can be found in watching the bulls. In a novel that was largely about heartache and expectations not being met, the fact that the bullfights were successful and enjoyed by all the characters is characteristic of Hemingway: finding joy in the small things even as one’s life is coming apart. This is not always immediately evident in his writing, since even personal monologues appear to be objective. It is the matter-of-fact style that makes it less like a reporter’s notes and more like a fast-paced diary.

Langston Hughes

A box-car some train
Has forgotten
In the middle of the

Langston Hughes’s style is very much influenced by blues and jazz, as seen in this excerpt which is almost lyrical, especially when read aloud. Hughes was also concerned with the “look” of his poems and thus was quite particular about line breaks. Here, it is long, short, long, short; perhaps mimicking the varied boxcars that a train pulls. The final word, “block,” stands out particularly, because it is alone, being the only word in the entire line. This then, could be the “box-car some train / has forgotten”. Most of Hughes’s poetry is short, in any case. Like Hemingway’s writings show, much can be conveyed in only a few words. Hughes could have elaborated more on the nature of the train and speculated as to why the box-car was left, but such detail is unnecessary. A lonely boxcar is a powerful image of isolation, which is another trope found in Hughes’s writings. This poem seems especially open to interpretation and imagination. This is largely due to his use of colloquial language; it is not particularly flowery nor does it contain cultural allusions to that which the average Joe may not understand, especially since blacks were severely limited in education opportunities.

Gertrude Stein

The Cezanne portrait had not seemed natural, it had taken her some time to feel it was natural but this picture by Matisse seemed perfectly natural and she could not understand why it infuriated everybody.

This excerpt from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is just one sentence, and a run-on one, at that. Gertrude Stein was not known for her love of punctuation; she even rants about it in the book. Stein was a non-conformist, a fact not only revealed in the book and by her peers but also gleaned from her writing. Punctuation was apparently very restrictive to her, though she obviously used it when necessary. Stein believed that comprehension was due on the part of the reader, not the writer, and if a few commas are missing, it is no skin off her nose. Her rebellious nature is described here, when she feels that “this picture by Matisse seemed perfectly natural and she could not understand why it infuriated everybody”. It is not so much that she likes the picture because of spite, but that the painting did not match traditional values, much like Stein herself. She was open about her romantic relationship with Toklas, and counted herself among the geniuses of her time. As a modernist, Stein was well aware of the futility of hiding behind strict traditions. The Cezanne portrait perhaps “had not seemed natural” because it was so normal. There was nothing to indicate a deeper meaning that the Matisse picture may have implied.

Works Cited

  • Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Eds. Richard Ellman and Robert O’Claive. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, Inc., 1983. Print.
  • Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.
  • Hughes, Langston. “Dream Variations.” PDF.
  • Stein, Gertrude. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Writings 1903-1932. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1998. 653-913. Print.



This hella lengthy essay was written as the midterm for my American Literature (1914-9145) college class in 2012. I debated for a bit about whether I should split up the two parts, but it’s easier to just read it altogether. Part I’s prompt was to answer this question: “How do these works express the feeling of modern alienation? What is the nature of this alienation and how is it represented in these works?”

And Part II’s prompt was to: “Explain how each of the following quotes is representative of its author’s style.”

Once again, I barely remember reading these books (very sad, I know), but I do recall some of Hughes and Hemingway, though probably only because I’ve read more of those two than Eliot or Stein.

Anyway, here is the feedback from my professor:

In the essay you focus on promising passages and have a strong general sense of modernism as a movement, but you tend to treat alienation as an unpleasant feeling rather than a state of being. Your introduction suggests where your understanding is a bit fuzzy. Modernism did not “cause alienation,” it expresses it; and there is no “normal society” to fall back on in these works. Think more about how the each work frames circumstances. How does love fail and why? How is the work written to make this so in ways beyond the character’s ability to define events? The “how” is in the writing not just the situation. For example, you narrate the section from The Waste Land without considering how the writing emphasizes and frames its meaning.

Essay B: 53

The short answers are excellent—you skirt a close reading of the features of the Stein quote, but the basic claims are right. 10/10/10/8

“Paris” by Cristian Bortes is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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