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Modernism, Responsibility, and the Novel
AuthorKoontz, Michael David
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Through formal innovation and experimentation—and through a renewed commitment to human subjectivity—many modernist writers consciously disrupted traditional modes of narration. In doing so, their writing simultaneously engaged ethical questions about responsibly representing the alterity of the other. With particular attention to narrative fragmentation, I claim that reading modernism in terms of responsibility yields an uncommon yet critical understanding of its practitioners as deeply invested in ethical problems related to representation. I argue that in the context of British modernism, particularly in the decade following the Great War, many writers developed narrative strategies that anticipated, welcomed, and responded to the irruption of “the new” into a world of repose, order, and complacency. This dissertation therefore explores the concept of ethical responsibility as it relates to representation and self-other relationships in the three British modernist novels: Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922), D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod (1922), and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924). I draw on the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida to show that while modernists mindfully broke with representational practices of the past, they also felt themselves beset by the terrible burden of “making it new.” I demonstrate that this burden, or anxiety, is experienced by modernist narrators, characters, and readers.