Ezra Pound summed up modernism in three short words: “Make it new.” It is an imperative that his fellow writers applied to their own works, severing with the realists, whose concepts of narrative were less radical and more reader-friendly. Whether consciously or not, writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf applied Pound’s dictate by breaking with convention and applying a variety of innovative techniques. Two of the most telling methods are among those described by postmodernist writer John Barth, who noted “the radical disruption of linear flow of narrative” and “the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character” (278). Both of Barth’s descriptions apply to Joyce’s Ulysses and stories from Dubliners and to Woolf’s “Mark on the Wall” from her Monday or Tuesday collection.
Radical disruptions to chronological time are amply evidenced throughout the famous — and famously frustrating — Ulysses, but nowhere more than in episode 18, a long stream-of-consciousness piece from the perspective of Molly Bloom. Almost any excerpt from the section suffices to demonstrate Bloom’s observation about modernists, as Molly’s thoughts jump radically from topics as disparate as cooking, sex, and religion in a long diatribe marked by only eight sentence breaks in forty-two pages. Barth’s point is proven by these closing lines from the novel:
… he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. (682)
These lines would seem to indicate a traditional happy ending that would negate Barth’s assertions about modernist writers. However, the lines are actually part of a free-association flashback by Molly to the day when she accepted Leopold’s proposal. While the flowers, breasts, and perfume combine to create a heady mixture, readers must remember that present-tense Molly has just consummated an affair with Blazes Boylan, one of several paramours she has taken to bed during her marriage. She has also ruminated on Leopold’s indiscretions, which indicates their marriage is less than ideal. Even the line “as well him as another” undercuts any romantic intensity in the scene, indicating that Leopold was merely in the right place at the right time and is not, in fact, her soul mate. Joyce’s disruption of linear time comes to a head in these closing lines, as he uses asynchronous storytelling also as a way to frustrate any expectation of closure, even as he provides an ending that would, under other circumstances, provide exactly that.
Joyce scales back the stream-of-consciousness technique considerably in Dubliners, but still confounds traditional concepts of unity and coherence in plot and character throughout the...