Financial Despair in the Modern Era

December 20, 2020 by Essay Writer

Critic Bradbury states that “With light taxation, no inflation, cheap food, cheap labour, a plentiful supply of domestic servants, many ordinary middle class families with modest incomes lived full and comfortable lives. No wonder that so many who came from such families and survived the War, looking back, felt that there was a grace, an ease, a security of living then which has since been lost forever” (62). This statement clarifies the difference between the individual free from the modernist influence and the individual adversely affected by the modernist influence. It attests to the notion that the extreme physical and mental anguish suffered at the hands of the battles in WWI was not the only burden facing those under the modernist guise, those experiencing despair, ambivalence, and loss of meaning in existence, among other sentiments. These newly established financial burdens also served as a source of contention and despair for those families who made it through WWI. In Dubliners, James Joyce conveys this message in two ways. First he does so from a third person point-of-view, depicting lower class financial woes in “Two Gallants” through the characterization of Lenehan. Joyce also depicts middle class jealousy of the financial comforts afforded to the upper class in “The Dead” from a third person point-of-view. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf conveys the message of financial grief in several passages, primarily highlighting the differences between the “haves” and the “have nots” using characterization, irony, and symbolism. Security is directly related to the Modernist movement, and it is an issue that can be construed both financially and emotionally. According to Bradbury and McFarlane, “…the middle and upper classes of England and of Western Europe enjoyed a freedom and a security almost impossible to recapture today.” (62) As stated earlier, this security and freedom stemmed from “light taxation, no inflation, cheap food, cheap labour” and “a plentiful supply of domestic servants” (62), all economic concerns. Of course it was not only these increasing monetary burdens that lessened notions of security. The severe mental and physical toll that WWI took on several nations surely caused emotional insecurities. This being said, tangible monetary insecurity, manifested in Dubliners and Mrs. Dalloway certainly played a role, especially for the middle class. In “Two Gallants” from Dubliners, Joyce fully portrays this economic insecurity. He uses Lenehan, the seemingly average foil to the extraordinary, adventurous Corley to express financial strife. Upon witnessing Corley sooth-talk a woman, Joyce uses a third person narrative to objectively delve into Lenehan’s economic troubles: “This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit. He was tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by his tail, of shifts and intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own?” (51) Here we see longing that is strictly economic. He expresses despair about remaining as a middle class society member. It is learned from the notes on the story that “pulling the devil by its tail” is slang for “living on the brink of financial catastrophe.” (264)Joyce’s diction is carefully crafted in the above passage. The slang that Lenehan uses, or in this case internally conceptualizes, reflects his lower social status and the relatively feeble chance that he has of overcoming the barriers between the upper and lower classes. Lenehan is unable to identify means of autonomously breaking free from the lower class position, a primary source of his despair. Joyce does not allow Lenehan to feel personally responsible for resolving his plight, as that would suggest a personal misgiving on Lenehan’s behalf. Instead the financial crisis is one that the third person narrator suggests Lenehan might be able to solve by marrying a rich woman: “He might yet be able to settle down in some snug corner and live happily if he could only come across some good simple-minded girl with a little of the ready.” (52) Again Lenehan is only able to mentally construct his circumstance in lower class terminology. “A little of the ready,” is slang for “with immediate access to significant funds.”(264) Thus Lenehan longs to reverse his social status as fast as possible, and the only way that he views this as possible is to marry into wealth. He does not even consider taking it upon himself to earn a good living, or simply making the most of his current state of affairs. Lenehan’s exclusive concern in this passage is his future financial arrangement. Marriage, a supposed well-thought out, irreversible decision is reduced in his mind as merely a means to a superior financial end. He does not even consider the personal, emotional, social, or other implications that incorporating a woman into his life would entail. In this way, Joyce shows that security can sometimes be purely financially motivated. This case demonstrates that other factors are detached and for the sake of financial well-being. It has thus far been suggested that the bleak tenets of Modernism, namely ambivalence, loss of meaning, and despair were not solely caused by the physical and emotional battles of war, but were also caused by bleaker economic conditions. These economic conditions affected certain classes more than others. It can be argued that the middle class lost the most from the financial downturn after WWI. The poor did not have enough to lose, and the rich did not feel the effects as much considering they had more to lose. The middle class, however, was forced to forgo some of the comforts. This being said, it is interesting to consider what determines social standing as this will be imperative in the interpretation of Woolf. Surely there are “rages to riches” stories throughout history, but in the early 1900’s, birth was the primary determining factor for class, as is identified by Bradbury and McFarlane in this passage: “If this picture of Europe before 1914 appears unattractive, it is because, in concentrating the main features into a few paragraphs, one distorts the cultural context. Much has been written nostalgically about la belle époque and the Edwardian peace, much of it exaggerated in reminiscence. But there is truth in this, especially if one was born into the right class” (62).Therefore satisfaction was a lot more difficult to come by after WWI, in large part due to the increasing economic sanctions mentioned at the beginning. While Bradbury and McFarlane do admit that some of the magnificence described prior to WWI may be hyperbole, the upper and middle classes certainly experienced less financial regulation from the government and lower prices on goods from private businesses, which in turn increased their financial standing as well as their quality of life. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf also depicts financial plight of a secondary character, one that is not the protagonist. However, the social scene is reversed from that of Joyce, and the narrative is in first person. Clarissa Dalloway, the narrator in this passage is of high social standing. As such, she criticizes Miss Kilman for being insecure about her personal finances: “…she was never in the room five minutes without making you feel her superiority, your inferiority; how poor she was; how rich you were; how she lived in a slum without a cushion or a bed or a rug or whatever it might be, all her soul rusted with that grievance sticking in it, her dismissal from school during the War- poor embittered unfortunate creature!” (11) Virginia Woolf employs irony in this passage to portray both the “have” and the “have not” perspectives. Clarissa Dalloway characterizes Miss Kilman’s insecurity about finances as a personal misgiving. Although a case could be made that Miss Kilman’s conversations and social nuances are empathetic and selfless insofar as they seem to compliment others at her own expense, Clarissa Dalloway clearly does not see Miss Kilman in this light. Clarissa’s characterization of Miss Kilman as a “poor embittered unfortunate creature” is highly ironic; from Clarissa’s view, the conditions that Miss Kilman faces, namely “dismissal from school” and “living in a slum”, do not warrant the sympathy that Miss Kilman seeks. Nonetheless, Miss Kilman’s longings are also chiefly financial. She characterizes the source of all her distress as being a part of the “have not’s”. As a result, Clarissa expresses disdain: “For it was not her one hated but the idea of her, which undoubtedly had gathered into itself a great deal that was not Miss Kilman; had become one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants; for no doubt with another throw of the dice, had the black been uppermost and not the white, she would have loved Miss Kilman! But not in this world. No.” (12)The dice in this passage seem to represent the life chance that humans face. In Mrs. Dalloway the life chance is the difference between being a “have” or a “have not”, the difference “had the black been uppermost and not the white,” or as Bradbury calls it “being born into the right class.” (62) Clarissa hates “the idea” of Miss Kilman because it represents someone financially consumed, but someone that is not wealthy. In the same way that Joyce expressed Lenehan’s discontent for his position in the world as an aging, poor man, Woolf expresses Miss Kilman’s insecurity in comparison with Clarissa. However, the tone that each author uses suggests a discrepancy between the ways that each message is received. In “Two Gallants,” the reader can somewhat sympathize with Lenehan as he seems trapped in a society that thwarts social mobility. In Mrs. Dalloway, the tone is critical, causing the reader to renounce the “have not’s” who complain of financial constraints. Whether or not financial worries should be lamented or sympathized, they clearly permeate both of these works as sources of insecurity for lower class characters who cannot achieve the success of the middle class, and for middle class citizens who cannot afford the comforts of the upper class. The comfort of life was severely reduced by the financial worries of the Modernist era. Recall that before WWI, economic conditions warranted “light taxation, no inflation, cheap food, cheap labour, and a plentiful supply of domestic servants,” (62) which allowed “many ordinary middle class families with modest incomes” to lead “full and comfortable lives.” (Bradbury, 62) After the war, the emotional loss not only resided in the toll taken from losing friends and family to battle; the financial toll also eliminated these economic conveniences that existed beforehand. Thus, while the lower class was faced with insecurity, the middle class was faced with inconvenience. The reassurances that people had before the war were replaced by financially stressful situations during the Modernist Era. In “The Dead” from James Joyce’s Dubliners, this clash between middle and upper classes created jealousy. “‘To be sure’, said Aunt Kate, What a comfort it is to have a girl like that, one you can depend on! There’s that Lily, I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all.”(181) In a way, this passage resembles Miss Kilman resenting her position as a “have not”, but not quite to the same extent. Whereas Woolf’s tone posits Miss Kilman as a nag or a pest to Clarissa Dalloway, Joyce’s characterization of Aunt Kate is less critical. She is described as lively and healthy, and it does not seem as if she continuously admonishes her social position and praises a higher social position as a means of complaining about financial burdens in the way that Miss Kilman did. This one instance of Aunt Kate expressing approval of Mrs. Conroy having Bessie, “a girl like that, one that can be depended on,” highlights an inconvenience of the middle class. This is different from the way in which Mrs. Kilman dwells on her financial misgivings. Whereas Miss Kilman mourns the discrepancy between “the haves” and the “have nots”, Aunt Kate mentions in passing the convenience that Mrs. Conroy is afforded at the hands of a respectful, subservient daughter. While the source of contention for Aunt Kate’s daughter Lily is not revealed in this passage, surely part of it can be attested to the jealously of the higher class. Whereas Bessie is afforded the comforts of the Conroy family, Lily’s family is not as financially well-off. To reiterate, the contention among the middle class concerning the upper class is not something that many people were faced with prior to the Modernist era. After the war taxation, inflation, higher expenses, and fewer available servants all triggered an inconvenience placed upon the middle class that often resulted in jealousy towards the upper class because of their ability to maintain “the comforts of life.” (62) Woolf presents many symbols of grandeur that separate the middle and upper classes in a similar manner. The rich seem able in almost every circumstance to afford the prized possessions, while the middle class does not exert the same life comfort. One symbol that Woolf uses depicting the comforts of the upper class is in the practice of feeding babies. First, Woolf suggests that breast feeding is a sign of lower social status with this image: “The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young.” (7) In the notes accompanying the story it is revealed that Pimlico is “home to persons of more modest income than the Dalloways.” (193) Thus, the prevalence of breast-feeding in a financially inferior geographical area suggests that this natural practice is associated with lesser classes. This being the case, feeding newborns with baby formula, then, is evidence of more financial resources and a higher social status. Later on, when a faint airline advertisement passes in the sky, Mrs. Coates guesses that it is an advertisement for “Glaxo, a brand name for a babies’ formula milk product.” (199) The imagery that Woolf employs in this scene further portrays baby formula as a status symbol. As a part of a group of non upper class citizens flocking around a busy place near the Mall, Mrs. Coates views the advertisement almost as a majestic sign from the above. “Glaxo” as a superior company and the notion of superiority regarding baby formula in general are so engrained into her experience that she is “strained” and “awe-stricken” (20) by an airplane advertisement that she even erroneously construes; the advertisement did not even read “Glaxco.” Woolf’s distinction, however, between the practices of breast feeding and feeding with formula serves as an example of a symbol she exercises as a means to highlight the comforts of the upper class and the inconveniences of everyone else. These inconveniences, for everyone else, were large sources of burden. Thus, through the lens of Bradbury and McFarlane and using examples from James Joyce’s Dubliners and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, we see there is a substantial difference between individuals before and after the Modernist movement. To generalize the difference between the pre-modernist individual and those affected by Modernism, one can say that the external conditions were remarkably dissimilar, and as a result the internal feelings or sentiments of the people also varied tremendously and were often the precise antithesis of one another. WWI is widely viewed as a turning point in this matter. Certainly the physical and mental impairments suffered at the hands of this catastrophic event must be considered a primary contributor to the Modernist sentiments of ambivalence, despair, internal strife, and others. However, the Modernist plight cannot be solely relegated to this realm; the financial stresses during the time period also played a major role in the matter. The taxation, inflation, food and labor expenses, lessened availability of servants, and other fiscal inconveniences that were non-existent prior to WWI, soon became bitter realities. In both Mrs. Dalloway and Dubliners, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce use characters, themes, point-of-view and symbols to convey the ever-present realities of emotional, physical, and financial losses. Works CitedBradbury, Malcolm. Modernism : A Guide to European Literature ,1890-1930. Ed. James McFarlane. New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 1991. Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2000. Woolf, Virginia, and Bonnie Kime Scott. Mrs. Dalloway. Ed. Mark Hussey. New York: Harvest Books, 2005.

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