Date of Award

5-2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Major

English

Major Professor

Thomas F. Haddox

Committee Members

Urmila Seshagiri, Allen Dunn

Abstract

Contemporary readings of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf typically situate these canonical authors within their historical contexts as exponents of the material conditions of modernity or as the literary precursors of postmodernism, as writers of indeterminacy and linguistic play. In this thesis, I argue for a mode of reading Woolf and Faulkner grounded not in history or language, but in consciousness as the irreducible basis of human experience. That is, by invoking the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, I claim that both authors attempted to engage more fully with not simply a historical moment called “modernity,” but a human reality characterized by flux and existential anguish by attempting to reconcile individual experiences of difficulty and despair through artistic creation. I contend that Woolf and Faulkner move beyond individual despair by evoking a communal phenomenology. Such an aesthetic springs forth from experience and assimilates the minutest details and desires of individual experiences into a powerful collective voice that refuses to erase individuality and arrests the motion of life so that the reader may, at least for a moment, witness humanity on both the minutest and grandest of scales. I begin by analyzing Faulkner’s desperate but ultimately failed attempt to fashion such an aesthetic in The Sound and the Fury. I then juxtapose his aesthetic, which I contend fails to convey a sense of intersubjective unity, with Woolf’s in To the Lighthouse, which acknowledges a human existence characterized by isolation and chaotic flux, but offers art, through Lily Briscoe’s Künstlerroman and a dialogic narrative consciousness, as a mode of evoking communion. I contend that such an aesthetic as Woolf’s presents a vision of art and the world in which humanity need not despair at the condition of its own existence nor throw caution to the wind and embrace such amorphous concepts as “play.” In sum, I contend that such a reading of modernism is necessary because a communal phenomenology acknowledges that experience occurs on both an individual and collective scale.

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