The modern(ist) short form: Containing class in early 20th century literature and film
Kaplan, Stacey Meredith, 1973-
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Kaplan, Stacey Meredith, 1973-
My dissertation analyzes the overlooked short works of authors and auteurs who do not fit comfortably into the conventional category of modernism due to their subtly experimental aesthetics: the versatile British author Vita Sackville-West, the Anglo-Irish novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Bowen, and the British emigrant filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. I focus on the years 1920-1923 to gain an alternative understanding of modernism's annus mirabulus and the years immediately preceding and following it. My first chapter studies the most critically disregarded author of the project: Sackville-West. Her 1922 volume of short stories The Heir: A Love Story deserves attention for its examination of social hierarchies. Although her stories ridicule characters regardless of their class background, those who attempt to change their class status, especially when not sanctioned by heredity, are treated with the greatest contempt. The volume, with the reinforcement of the contracted short form, advocates staying within given class boundaries. The second chapter analyzes social structures in Bowen's first book of short stories, Encounters (1922). Like Sackville-West, Bowen's use of the short form complements her interest in how class hierarchies can confine characters. Bowen's portraits of classed encounters and of characters' encounters with class reveal a sense of anxiety over being confined by social status and a sense of displacement over breaking out of class groups, exposing how class divisions accentuate feelings of alienation and instability. The last chapter examines Chaplin's final short films: "The Idle Class" (1921), "Pay Day (1922), and "The Pilgrim" (1923). While placing Chaplin among the modernists complicates the canon in a positive way, it also reduces the complexity of this man and his art. Chaplin is neither a pyrotechnic modernist nor a traditional sentimentalist. Additionally, Chaplin's shorts are neither socially liberal nor conservative. Rather, Chaplin's short films flirt with experimental techniques and progressive class politics, presenting multiple perspectives on the thematic of social hierarchies. But, in the end, his films reinforce rather than overthrow traditional artistic forms and hierarchical ideas. Studying these artists elucidates how the contracted space of the short form produces the perfect room to present a nuanced portrayal of class.
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