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The Modernists’ Perception of Reality and Time

When talking about modernist writers, and particularly the high modernists, if such a term can be agreed upon, there is something beyond Pound’s famous make-it-new statement and idea that seems to dominate their writing. While the term literary Impressionism, much like Impressionism itself, has been historically problematic amongst writers and critics who have attempted to formulate a fully-formed definition, this quality of the modernist writers cannot go unnoticed, nor without remark. Jesse Matz has written extensively on this subject and notes that “For Proust, as we have seen, the impression is something that reality prints but that the writer must labor to decipher” (32). This is fairly true for modernist writers, but they go a step further and add characters as an extra layer of deciphering. The forces that drove the Impressionist painters during the late 19th century are the same behind modernist writers who try to represent a different view of reality.

This was, of course, a reaction to the realism that dominated 19th century European literature, and it aimed to focus on the individual. Literary Impressionism is the idea which resulted in modernist novels being almost plotless and resembling character studies rather than a dramatic series of events. By making this shift in approaching the writing of a novel, by highlighting to such a degree the importance of the characters’ perception of events, as well as trying to represent a more life-like perception of time, writers like Joyce, Woolf, and Ford paved the way for 20th century novels to be concerned primarily with compelling characters. Therefore, while a broad and flexible definition of literary Impressionism might be helpful in orientating discussions on the topic, the definition in itself is not as important to understand as the impact this movement had.

Various forms of literary Impressionism emerged during the modernist period, and it was part of that period’s writers’ attempt to not only detach themselves from, and counter, the 19th-century-style tradition of realism, but also to emphasize their focus on the self. Be it the stream of consciousness technique of Joyce’s Ulysses or the free indirect speech in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, these styles are mainly interested in exploring the human psyche in a way that was new to English literature up until that point. Stemming from the idea behind impressionist painters like Manet and Renoir, modernist writers attempted to present the world not as it is, which was the claim of realist writers, but as experienced by their characters. While critics have long contested various definitions of literary Impressionism, and in fact there are many who are happy to leave it undefined, with Max Saunders writing in Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature: “the vagueness that ‘Impressionism’ can connote seems integral to its signification as a critical term” (Saunders 263), this opposition between an objective reality and a subjective one, with the modernist being interested in the latter, is doubtlessly at the heart of Impressionism. In this case, a subjective reality stands for the constructed reality of a character based on their perception of events and how they personally interpret it. In discussing impressionistic aspect of Mrs Dalloway and The Good Soldier, another theme comes up: that of the perception of time. The characters of Dowell, Dalloway, and Septimus have very different perceptions of time: how it passes them by, how they interact with their memories, and how this shapes their character.

The aforementioned focus on the individual and the character’s perception of reality is the main driving force of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. The reason why The Good Soldier stands out among Ford’s other novels is his deliberate attempt to mimic the inner thought process of the main character. The technique he uses can be described as literary Impressionism, as the story reaches the reader not only through Dowell’s perception of the events he is describing, but also as he is looking back at them in retrospect after a conversation with Leonora Ashburnham. The very first sentence of the novel reveals the nature of the account: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” (Ford 11). This indicates to the reader not only that the narrator is unreliable, but also that the main focus is his perception of reality, as Dowell is describing events from his own life, yet he refers to them as a story he heard. This touches upon both aforementioned aspects of literary Impressionism: the construction of reality and the perception of time. Dowell has such a relationship with his memories that the Dowell that experienced those nine summers with the Ashburnhams and the Dowell that is telling the story, after having heard another version of it from Leonora, seem to be two completely different people. The Dowell who is telling the story to the reader in The Good Soldier represents the sum of his experiences and is trying to reconcile what he once thought as reality with the account which he has recently received. Therein lies the power of Ford’s writing, as the reader is placed in a position where they cannot say with conviction what has really happened, and thus the only way to interact meaningfully with the novel is not by trying to solve puzzles regarding the plot, but rather to try and understand the narrator and how he is struggling with time and memories. Ford became an advocate of literary Impressionism, and wrote to a significant extent on this subject in his 1914 essay “On Impressionism” (under the name Ford Madox Hueffer). He takes the main idea of Impressionism, which is the focus on the individual and their construction of reality, a step further by writing “[…] to tell the truth, I do not see how Impressionism can be anything else. Probably this school differs from other schools, principally, in that it recognises, frankly, that all art must be the expression of an ego, and that if Impressionism is to do anything, it must, as the phrase is, go the whole hog” (Hueffer 566). This idea of the ego is perhaps the more extreme version of what Impressionism was to do for the modernists. Ford’s essay goes on to cover other aspects of Impressionism, and his ideas can shed more light on the relationship between modernist and impressionist writers. Max Saunders reflects upon this by writing: “What [Ford] implies is that there is a marked continuity from writers generally labelled as realists—Stendhal and Flaubert—to those who developed realism into naturalism—Zola and Maupassant—to the turn‐of‐the‐century writers increasingly preoccupied with consciousness and form—such as James and Conrad—to those now seen as modernist, who begin to experiment with disjunctive forms (collage, time‐shift, epiphany)—such as Conrad, Ford himself, or Pound, Eliot, Lewis, and Joyce. Fordian Impressionism is thus not a granite monolith, but a spectrum. We should talk of Impressionisms, as we now do of modernisms” (270). This statement evokes the need for a broader or more flexible definition of Impressionism, but, at the core of it, it highlights the position of modernist writers within that spectrum. Modernism and literary Impressionism emerged slowly, roughly during the same period, and came together in an organic way in The Good Soldier and later in Mrs Dalloway, as well as in other works of the time, as responses to literary concerns spanning the better part of the 19th century.

If a comparison is drawn between Ford’s The Good Soldier and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, many of the same themes and concerns, from the point of view of the writer, arise. Woolf is at least just as interested as Ford in the way characters are explored in fiction and how they might affect the narrative. In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” she writes: “everyone in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practised character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (96). This expressed concern about character understanding in life is ever-present in her fiction. She does not use the first person technique of Ford, but rather opts for a third person narrative style which allows her to explore a larger scope of characters. In the opening scenes of Mrs Dalloway Woolf starts looking at the world from the titular character’s point of view and as that character and her world starts taking shape, she switches briefly to Septimus’ and Lucrezia’s perspective before returning to Clarissa Dalloway. This jumping back and forth between various characters is a less focused exercise than Ford’s, but in some ways more ambitious. Later in the novel, Septimus’ character is as fully fledged as Clarissa’s, and his mental condition is not diagnosed but rather explored from a very intimate position. Woolf’s approach to Impressionism is in the function of character psychology; reality and the way it is represented is highly dependent on the character perceiving it. Again in the opening pages of the novel, different people perceive the car in the street or the writing in the sky differently, and since the objective reality is changing and the subjective reality of each character is consistent, this approach reveals less about the events of the novel, or the plot, and instead becomes an active and in-depth character study. This psychological aspect of literary Impressionism is closely related to another major interest of the modernists’: time. Again, this is a feature that was prominent in The Good Soldier as well, but Woolf experiments a lot with this idea of perceived time in other novels as well, like To The Lighthouse. In Mrs Dalloway, when Peter comes back and visits Clarissa before the party, with the narrative shifting again between the thoughts of the two characters, she asks him if he remembers the lake and “under the pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said ‘lake.’ For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them grew larger and larger in her arms until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, ‘This is what I have made of it! This!’ And what had she made of it? What indeed? sitting there sewing this morning with Peter” (Woolf 43). The memories of Clarissa Dalloway live within her and are not events of the past that is behind her in a linear perception of time. Time has a more cyclical quality when approached from a point of view that mimics the perception of, in this case, Mrs Dalloway. Therefore instances like the one mentioned above, which are recurrent in the novel, have characters coexist in both the past and the present. Max Saunders, while discussing Jesse Matz’s book Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics, refers to Proust’s ideas of time and impressions, writing: “He begins with Proust, showing how he poses moments of intensely visual sensation and pictorial prose, only to reject them in favour of another kind of impression: the classic moments of involuntary memory in which a present impression recalls a past one. It is this structure connecting impressions across time, and thereby ‘regaining’ or appearing to transcend time, that constitutes Proustian Impressionism (264-5). The above passage from Mrs Dalloway describes one of those “moments of involuntary memory”, and if Proust’s ideology can be applied further, his idea of extensively using memories of the past for the purpose of self-discovery, or self-exploration, in the present can add to the argument that Impressionism works primarily towards exploring and portraying characters on a psychological level.

When looking at modernist works through the lense of Impressionism, it is important to set aside, at least temporarily, the need for a definition of the movement and points for or against proposed definitions. What inevitably emerges from these works – of which The Good Soldier and Mrs Dalloway serve as two different examples – is a conscious approach to concerns regarding representation of reality from the characters’ point of view, their interactions with memories and how their perception is affected by the nature of time as an artificial construct. In these examples, Clarissa, Septimus, and Dowell experience a different reality from other characters who are experiencing the same events. In Mrs Dalloway, the Big Ben stands for an equalizing force, or a means to connect the characters in the novel, to each other as well as to the rest of the people in London, but it highlights the differences of perception of the individuals in the narrative. It is this notion of the individual that bring together all manifestations of impressionist writing. The focus on the individual has become a basic discussion point when talking about modernism, and it is important to note how it stems from the impressionist movement.

Works cited

Ford, Ford Madox. The Good Soldier. London: Penguin, 1946. Print.

Hueffer, Ford Madox. “On Impressionism.” Modernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Rainey. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 566-77. Print.

Matz, Jesse. Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Saunders, Max. “Literary Impressionism and Impressionist Autobiographies: Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford.” Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” The Captain’s Deathbed and Other Essays. London: Mariner, 1973. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin, 2016. Print.