The Thoroughly Modern Spectator: Women, the City, and the Marketplace, 1900–1939

Elizabeth Foley O'Connor, Fordham University


The city in modernist literature has long been depicted as a hostile labyrinth filled with nameless, faceless automatons rushing through grimy streets before retiring to even dingier rented rooms. While several masterpieces of high modernism—Joyce's Ulysses, Eliot's The Waste Land, and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises—feature a walker in the city who is invested with critical agency, this figure is invariably male. Women in modernist urban narratives are more often shown as unthinking consumers, domesticated wives and mothers, or prostitutes. Only older protagonists past their sexual prime are accorded the same freedom, anonymity, and capacity for pleasure as their male counterparts. However, through an analysis of works by James Joyce, Kate O'Brien, and Jean Rhys, I show how the streets, shops, cafes, and cinemas of the major cities of Europe become transformative spaces that open up new opportunities for female characters. In these urban spaces, women successfully negotiate the shocks of the modern metropolis and both look and are looked at, rather than simply functioning as objects for male consumption. Furthermore, I argue that as colonial writers, Joyce, O'Brien, and Rhys view the metropolis from a new, marginalized perspective. I begin with Joyce's depictions of Lizzie Twigg and Gerty MacDowell in Ulysses in order to highlight how modern men like Leopold Bloom were both drawn to and repulsed by 'smart' women who exhibit visual agency. Strongly influenced by Joyce, O'Brien's deceptively traditional first novel Without My Cloak critiques the repressive Irish Free State's positioning of women as valuable if unseeing 'packages' and posits that true visual and personal freedom for women is only possible outside of Ireland. Finally, my chapters on Rhys explore how she uses different forms of commodity culture to offer her female protagonists the means to achieve at least a fleeting sense of power and control over their lives.

Subject Area

Modern literature|Caribbean Studies|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

O'Connor, Elizabeth Foley, "The Thoroughly Modern Spectator: Women, the City, and the Marketplace, 1900–1939" (2012). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3542752.