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DO THE INTERESTS, CONCERNS AND EXPERIENCES OF WRITERS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY STILL HAVE RELEVANCE TO HUMAN NEEDS IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?

To answer this question we should consider what interest, concerns and experiences these 20th Century writers had and how universal they are. If so, they are still completely relevant to the human needs of the 21st Century. Modernism might have become definitely historic today, even post-Modern has become a worn cliché. If interests, concerns and experiences are universal; they will be far more ancient than Modernism, as well as more modern than the latest blog post.

We will look at the contrasting issues wealth and poverty, partying and mourning and life and death, the latter now in a peacetime context.  We have already looked at the work of Great War writers Erich Maria Remarque, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, etc.  Now we will look at two Modernist writers, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, and see how they look at these issues post-War.

We shall look at Katherine Mansfield’s story The Garden Party, with its universal themes of rich and poor. The wealthy Sheridan family hosting the party compare with the poverty stricken and bereaved Scotts. The scene here was early 20th Century Wellington, where Mansfield grew up, but it could easily be a story for a city of today, where the mansions of the affluent are down the street from the homeless and welfare dependent.

“The little cottages were in a lane to themselves and the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. . .True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all.” {Mansfield 2587}

The underclass Scotts could be helots, serfs, peasants – or maybe today’s slum dwellers or housos. We all know an area like the cottages they lived, or existed, in. The contrast between the Edwardian working class and today’s indigent, is that the family would suffer more from the father’s death, financially anyway. “The chap was married too. . .Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.” {Mansfield 2589}

In contrast the Sheridan family is depicted living on the hill, geographically above them. Even today, developers and real estate agents can add a few digits to the prices in a suburb, if they tack Heights onto the name.

Only Laura sees anything bourgeois about going ahead with the garden party. The rest of the family dismiss the deceased as a drunk or say at least it didn’t happen in our garden. Only she is sensitive to the human needs of the Scotts.

The party could still go ahead in those circumstances today, with the green-coated band replaced by incessant 21st Century dance music.

Virginia Woolf looks at the same issues in Mrs Dalloway.  The two opposing characters are the wealthy politician’s wife Clarissa Dalloway, hosting a party, and the shell-shocked, depressed war veteran Septimus Smith and his desperate Italian milliner wife, Lucrezia.  She organises a medical intervention for him, but Septimus jumps to his death before they can take him away.

Later his doctor, Sir William Bradshaw, attends Clarissa’s party and mentions the case, which he no doubt still saddened about. “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.”{Woolf 2258}  She shows some concern, but it is overshadowed by selfishness, that he and they were spoiling the party somewhat.

“What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?  A young man had killed himself. . .And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!” {Woolf 2258}

Also in Mansfield’s story, any concern for the experiences of the bereaved Scott family, is as cold as the little charity that they offer, after the party is over. Laura does make an effort, however.

The experience of death and grieving is universal, in any century which we remain mortals. “Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible.” {Mansfield 2590} What can really done for the human needs of a Mrs Scott, or a Lucrezia Smith, now that their husbands are beyond all cares?

WORK CITED

Greenblatt, Stephen Ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After.  New York & London: WW Norton & Company, 2012.

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