Houses on fire: Late modernist subjectivity and historical crisis

Jennifer Lynn Gilchrist, Fordham University


Houses on Fire: Late Modernist Subjectivity and Historical Crisis explores how late modernist experimental novels react to, inherit from and rework the aesthetic and thematic concerns of high modernism. The primary texts of my dissertation—Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea—use modernist narrative techniques to represent a crisis of subjectivity from three distinct historical perspectives. Under the Volcano responds to the Holocaust with a guilty self-indictment of modernist solipsism and its complicity with Fascist ideology. Invisible Man refracts African-American history through the form of an antibildungsroman, undoing institutional configurations of American literary and racial consciousness with narrative fragmentation. Offering a very different kind of antibildungsroman, Wide Sargasso Sea depicts a white female Creole whose inability to achieve subject formation both decries the Emancipation of Slavery and its European, liberal, humanist underpinnings and asserts a reactionary modernist subjectivity based on natural, violent and sexual instincts. Each novel's understanding of subjectivity can be seen to pivot on the depiction of a burning house, as a modernist symbol of modernism itself. Projecting the culmination of a broader historical crisis, the burning home sets the coordinates for narrative subjectivity, whether the house on fire is imagined or objectively represented as part of the plot, whether enacted within the text or outside of the narrative, and whether ignited by external forces or by the home's inhabitants. Houses on fire figure the reality of the historically-defined self that the novels construct only to incinerate. If Lowry's burning house announces a tragic end to modernist narrative, Ellison's and Rhys' project, albeit in very different ways, the persistence of modernist aesthetic subjectivity in the formation of narrative postmodernism.

Subject Area

Literature|Caribbean literature|American literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Gilchrist, Jennifer Lynn, "Houses on fire: Late modernist subjectivity and historical crisis" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3314561.