The Breakdown of Belief in Modern Fiction by Shah Bano

The paper will examine the breakdown of the belief of what was significant in human experiences. This paper will explore the dilemma faced by the characters in the modern fiction. Novels like To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway will be used to evaluate the points such as failure in marriage and life, diseases and deaths, moments of solitude and alienation, and yearning for some kind of comfort and solace. The idea of unpredictability of life, dilemma and confusion leads to the loss of meaning and to the sense of prevailing chaos.

The narrator in the novel To the Lighthouse speaks in the third person narrative and gives an insights into the minds of the characters which is a common feature in the writings of modern writers, known as ‘stream of consciousness’. The characters are struggling with some sort of dilemma in their life. The dilemma that they collectively faced was to bring meaning and order into chaos of life. Virginia Woolf has worked on the internal conflict of the characters. The characters in the novel seem unable to connect with the outer world rather they seem to be living in an alienated state. Their ideas and perception are conflicting with those of society’s which leads to the loss of meaning. Ruth Webb said that Woolf “recognized that she occasionally contradicted herself, and she consciously gave this tendency to characters in her novels” (6).

The evident theme in the novel is ‘death’ or in other words the shortness of human life. The human life is so insignificant that it can slip at any moment. As Mrs. Ramsay says about the briefness of human life, “things got shabbier and got shabbier summer after summer. The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it.” (Woolf 19). Despite the brevity of human life, Lily with the help of her paintings was trying to make something that could last the temporary nature of human life, “a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses.” (Woolf 119). With the help of her epiphany moment she realized that her job is to make something permanent in the midst of impermanence of life. The idea of unpredictability of life can also be seen in the scene where the sudden death of Mrs. Ramsay occurs, “Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.” (Woolf 90). She went to sleep the night before and did not know that she would never wakeup again. The unpredictability of life adds to loss of meaning in life. This also created a sense of wanting to know more and a sense of incompleteness among readers.

Lily Briscoe seems to be fighting with her dilemma where her thoughts and perceptions are contradicting with the society. As the society expects her to be married and have a domestic life but she opposed such expectancies. Charles Tansley in lieu of this says to Lily that, “women can’t paint. Women can’t write.” (Woolf 137). But Lily with her art and creative side struggle to defies this statement. Being a woman she is struggling to come up with her own identity. The woman is not allowed to live independently as an active member of the society but rather the patriarchal decisions are forced upon her. From Lily’s statement, “What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come.” (Woolf 112) the readers can see the struggle that she was facing in order to find the meaning of life which has been lost.

Mrs. Ramsay’s opinion on married life is, “he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors” (Woolf 114). From this statement the readers can see traditional views of woman being confined to the four walls of the house. Lily’s views on marriage are quite contradicting of what Mrs. Ramsay thinks as she says, “she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution.” (Woolf 71). The role of the woman in 19th century is always influenced by the demands of the society and what they wanted them to be. At that time the woman was characterized as an ‘ideal woman’ because her circle revolved around her husband, children and her home and was not allowed to question. These contradicting ideas in the novel lead to the sense of prevailing chaos.

In some instances in the novel the readers can feel Mrs. Ramsay’s exhaustion towards the requirements that are imposed over her being a married woman. She is in a dilemma and questions her role as a mother and as a wife. Having fixed gender roles assigned by the patriarchal setup; man’s role is to take decisions and women are confined behind the four walls, results in the doom of marriage. Mr. Ramsay has egoistic visions and fix things in some kind of philosophical conformities, according to Lily, “He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant” (Woolf 17). Woolf here is highlighting male superiority which results in the breakdown of institution of marriage.

Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Sun also Rises talks about the futility and meaninglessness of life and as Gertrude Stein speaks in the epigraph of the novel that, “You are all a lost generation.” The characters in the novel are deeply affected by the World War I which traumatized them either physically or emotionally. Jake Barnes, the protagonist of the novel, is struggling with his physical injury from the War that made him impotent. As Georgette says, “Everybody’s sick. I’m sick too” (Hemingway 8) this statement shows the helplessness of the characters in one way or another. The novel explores the theme of alienation faced by the characters and impermanence of life. “A bottle of wine was a good company.” (Hemingway 121). From this quote the readers can see the isolation of the characters. The characters have indulged themselves into dancing, drinking and playing games but this also shows their emptiness and meaninglessness in life. The brevity of human life can be seen from this quote, “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.” (Hemingway 6)

Hemingway in this novel shows failed relationships. No character in the novel practiced marriage except for Robert Cohn’s disastrous experience in marriage. The characters have moved from on relationship to another. The characters have been restless and avoid ‘love’ in their life. This shows the breakdown of institution of marriage as it was considered significant part in human experiences. This leads to the ultimate chaos as characters were restless and have no sense of meaning. They did not have a relationship in order to provide them with a sense of comfort and solace. They were yearning for some kind of comfort.

Joseph Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness portrays Africa through the viewpoint of colonizing Europeans. Conrad dehumanized Africans by giving them animalistic characteristics as Marlow says, “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, … in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair… they were nothing earthly now— nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, …” (Conrad 25). Labeling them as ‘shadows’ and ‘black shapes’ shows how the natives were belittled. Thus, they were not considered as humans and were alienated by the society from the society. The ‘darkness’ that is present throughout the novel symbolizes the darkness that lies within the colonizers.

The alienation can be seen in the character of Kurtz when he tries to mix up with the native in order to become one of them. His cut off from the civilized people shows his isolation. Living in a liminal space shows his conflict and loss of meaning. He seems to be in a dilemma because of his European upbringing with that he was trying to mix up with the savages which resulted in chaos.

To conclude, the three novels To the Lighthouse, The Sun also Rises and Heart of Darkness shows the conflicts and confusion faced by the characters. The characters struggle in the midst of futility, brevity, meaninglessness and hopelessness of life. Thus, the breakdown of the belief of what was significant for them leads to the loss of meaning in life and to the sense of prevailing chaos.











Works Cited:

Conrad, J. (1983). Heart of darkness. London: Penguin books.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. 1926. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006.

Webb, Ruth. Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Brace &, 1927. Print