The gender of belief: Women and Christianity in T. S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes
Pollard, Jacqueline Anne
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Pollard, Jacqueline Anne
This dissertation considers the formal and thematic camaraderie between T. S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes. The Waste Land 's poet, whom critics often cite as exemplary of reactionary high modernism, appears an improbable companion to Nightwood 's novelist, who critics, such as Shari Benstock, characterize as epitomizing "Sapphic modernism." However, Eliot and Barnes prove complementary rather than antithetical figures in their approaches to the collapse of historical and religious authority. Through close readings, supplemented by historical and literary sources, I demonstrate how Eliot, in his criticism and poems such as "Gerontion," and Barnes, in her trans-generic novel Nightwood , recognize the instability of history as defined by man and suggest the necessity of mythmaking to establish, or confirm, personal identity. Such mythmaking incorporates, rather than rejects, traditional Christian signs. I examine how, in Eliot's poems of the 1920s and in Barnes's novel, these writers drew on Christian symbols to evoke a nurturing, intercessory female parallel to the Virgin Mary to investigate the hope for redemption in a secular world. Yet Eliot and Barnes arrive at contrary conclusions. Eliot's poems increasingly relate femininity to Christian transcendence; this corresponds with a desire to recapture a unified sensibility, which, Eliot argued, dissolved in the post-Reformation era. In contrast, Barnes's Jewish and homosexual characters find transcendence unattainable. As embodied in her novel's characters, the Christian feminine ideal fails because the idealization itself extends from exclusionary dogma; any aid it promises proves ineffectual, and the novel's characters, including Dr. Matthew O'Connor and Nora Flood, remain locked in temporal anguish. Current trends in modernist studies consider the role of myth in understanding individuals' creation of self or worldview; this perspective applies also in analyzing religion's role insofar as it aids the individual's search for identity and a place in history. Consequently, this dissertation helps to reinvigorate the discussion of religion's significance in a literary movement allegedly defined by its secularism. Moreover, in presenting Eliot and Barnes together, I reveal a kinship suggested by their deployment of literary history, formal innovation, and questions about religion's value. This study repositions Barnes and brings her work into the canonical modernist dialogue.
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