The transition from the 19th century to the 20th century brought with it many big changes to world, especially within the western sphere. People became faced with a new reality, unimaginable one hundred year prior. Advancements in transportation such as the airplane and the first mass produced cars transformed the way people lived their lives. These improvements, coupled with the continued rise of capitalism and urbanization, brought with it just as many problems than it did solutions. This new society alienated its members into thinking primarily in terms of instrumental rationality.
This train of thought is especially damaging when applied to people’s relationships with one another; making people only interact in a mutually, beneficial fashion. By commodifying human interactions, communication between individuals becomes increasingly strained. This strain of communication is exemplified in William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, Franz Kafka’s story, The Metamorphosis and Virginia Woolf’s short story, “The String Quartet. ” Although the authors Faulkner, Kafka, and Woolf came from different backgrounds, they all noticed the decline of communication in their societies and took note of it in their works.
Through the use of unique first and third person narratives, these authors were able to portray the communication issues they perceived in their society and in turn depicted the arts as a universal language that is able to breach the walls built between us from society. A part of the transition into the twentieth century involved an increase of the use of first-person narration. Each of the aforementioned stories by Faulkner, Kafka, and Woolf break away from a typical third-person omniscient narration in an attempt to better convey the experiences of the members of their society.
Faulkner and Woolf use unique forms of first-person narration while Kafka uses third-person limited, only giving us insight into the main character’s viewpoint and thoughts. Because the narrator in the stories is not all knowing, the reader is limited to the perspectives and thoughts of one character. Not having an absolute guide telling us exactly what is happening in the story forces the reader to lean on the personal viewpoints given to us by the narrator and in doing so, the reader is never sure if things are actually how they appear; similar to the limitations of our everyday consciousness.
One of the most innovative applications of the first-person narrative was Faulkner’s use of multiple perspectives in, As I Lay Dying. Faulkner was able to fully relate the individual alienation of the characters by splitting up the story-telling between the various characters, giving a full range of perspectives. By comparing the overlap in the individual accounts of the characters, we are able to cut through the individual bias encountered from reading the story through one person’s eyes. Though the story does have a definite plot, the overall journey is seen differently from each character’s narration.
A prominent example of the differences between the characters’ perspectives can be seen in Anse Bundren’s reasoning for making the trip to Jefferson with his family. While the main reason is to honor the last wishes of Addie, Anse’s wife, to be buried with her family, the first-person narrative gives us insight to the real motivating forces behind the trip. As Anse is given the news of the washed out bridge ahead, he doesn’t persist on continuing in honor of his late wife. Instead he states, “But now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. ”(Faulkner, 111).
While Anse’s motivation for the trip is a new set of teeth, he keeps his plan to himself. Anse uses his unknowing children to help achieve Anse’s desire, effectively commodifying his children as tools. While not narrated in the first person, Kafka’s, The Metamorphosis still only gives frame to the perspective of only the main character, Gregor Samsa, and in doing so the reader can only relate to his experience. The single focus allows the reader to better empathize with Gregor as we can experience the events along with him. Through this view, the story becomes much more than Gregor simply waking up as a bug one morning.
The story instead becomes a battle for Gregor to communicate with his family that he is still a human on the inside. However, Gregor’s metamorphosis renders him incapable of communicating to his family at all, creating a barrier between them. As Gregor’s mother and sister try to help Gregor by removing the furniture, they are essentially removing the last remaining objects of his human existence. In a last ditch effort for his humanity, Gregor sticks himself to the picture he had hung on the wall; a previous expression of himself. This proves to be futile, however and he only manages to frighten them.
Once Gregor became nothing more than a useless bug, his mother and father immediately dismissed any affection toward him, almost not caring at all. The physically changed appearance of alienates him from his family, similar to the way urbanization and capitalization alienates people from each other. Using a single first-person narration, Woolf’s “The String Quartet” encompasses the consciousness of an audience member attending a concert. As the narrator listens to the music, they attempt to capture what they hearing through poetry of the images the music creates in the narrator’s head.
Capturing the sounds the narrator writes, “Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain”(Woolf 23). While the poetry is nice to read, it gives nothing more than an obscure impression of what the music actually sounds like. The lack in the ability to convey the sounds of the music is an example of how difficult it is to relate a memory to someone. While the memory might mean the world to the holder, it is meaningless to the recipient. Even though these three stories show the difficulties that their society has regarding communication, there is a solution to be found.
The arts prevail in cutting through the barriers people have put up in their instrumental thinking. In each story, the arts seem to be unaffected by the alienative society of capitalism and seem to serve as a light in a dark world Faulkner’s, As I Lay Dying uses the arts heavily throughout the novel. Darl, the second oldest Bundren son, has the ability to be extremely perceptive and tell his narration through elaborate poems. For instance, Darl elaborately describes his neighbor spitting by saying, “He spits with decorous and deliberate precision into the picked dust below the porch. ”(Faulkner, 16).
For a good portion of the novel Darl serves as the voice of reason, appearing to be the Bundren with the most common sense in midst of their mother’s death. Darl represents the arts in this story by upholding the representation of truth in the middle of his hectic family. Gregor’s transformation in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, can also be seen as Gregor becoming an artist. After he was no longer human, he ceased to be able to be understood by others. In fact, the story states, “It was true that they no longer understood his words, though they had seemed clear enough to him, clearer than before. (Kafka, 11). Before the metamorphosis Gregor’s life was his job, working a strict schedule set by the train every morning. After his change into an insect, however, he no longer fit into the world of the standardized workplace. Gregor’s change was a rebellion against his conventions of instrumental rationality, and an attempt to fully experience otherness, or art. Really capturing the arts, Woolf’s, “The String Quartet” does a superb job at really capturing the effect of music on the listener.
As the story begins, it starts off with the narrator’s scattered thoughts and bits of pieces of conversations from surrounding people that really are meaningless. However, when the music starts playing the writing changes, and the reader is given a rich depiction of how the narrator experienced the piece of music. You can see that whenever the music is playing, it overpowers all other thoughts in the narrator’s head making them go into their imagination, away from the standardized and commodified society. Here the art of music serves to provide an escape from the busy world of capitalism.
Without a doubt, the problems of communication between individuals has only further deteriorated as our society moved into the twenty-first century. With the addition of the internet, social networking, and smart-phones, face-to-face interactions are almost a thing of the past. Faulkner, Kafka, and Woolf were all very perceptive of these communication issues that affected them in their time, and almost a century later it is still applicable. The arts still prove to be an expression of the truth in the midst of our chaotic society.