The Gender of Modernity in Literature

In the early 1900s, the turn of the century was accompanied by rapid changes in attitude, shifting the way people thought about topics as varied as gender, war, and the arts. The changing nature of time and space introduced modernism, an effort to find new lifestyle and art forms appropriate to the newly changed reality. The movement included modernists such as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Modernism rethought gender roles, in particular, dissenting from the long-established stereotypes that had been in place for centuries before. Modernist works such as Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain, and Joyce’s “The Dead” shifted ideas about gender roles by challenging traditional “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors.

In Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain,” a wife is shown vying for her husband’s attention. After not being able to catch the cat she wanted, she attempts to instead capture her husband’s attention by discussing her appearance. Once she has his attention, the wife questions her husband by demanding different things: “I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles… I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes”. However, the husband shuts her down, ceasing any hope she has of having her “own” things. This story is a display of Hemingway’s comment on the early twentieth-century notion that women were their husbands’ objects and had to conform to whatever was envisioned for them. Hemingway comments on marital roles as he reversed traditional husband and wife interactions by making his character, the wife, make demands of her husband, rather than he from her. 

Although Hemingway’s stories often represent women in degrading or misrepresented roles, he aimed to call attention to the narrow-minded views of society in the early twentieth century, such as the notion that women had strict roles to conform to as it was taboo for them to participate in male activities. Hemingway engaged in a similar process as Joyce as they both show how sexist beliefs about masculine superiority limit their male protagonists.

On the other hand, James Joyce’s “The Dead” comments on the state of male dominance in the early 1900s. Joyce uses female characters to juxtapose the main character, Gabriel, as a critique of traditional gender roles that were imposed by Dublin society. Gabriel relies heavily on his female counterparts to justify his power and patriarchy. Joyce uses Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, as an affirmation of Gabriel’s self-righteousness. Gabriel’s only references to his wife have to do with her appearance, as to him, Gretta was a direct display of his accomplishments as a man. Joyce often depicts Gabriel admiring his wife’s appearance rather than her intellect, as Gabriel “saw that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining. A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart. To Joyce, Gretta is a symbol of what would now be called a “trophy wife” for the image of grace and class that she provides to him. Gabriel, in fact, “felt proud and happy then, happy that she was his, proud of her grace and wifely carriage” (Joyce 215). Joyce uses descriptions of Gretta’s beauty and character as a wife to comment on how men in the early 1900s looked upon their wives as a display of their manliness and personal success, rather than as independent women with temperaments of their own.

In addition to Gretta, Joyce uses other female characters to attest to Gabriel’s male superiority. When approached by Lily, Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia’s housekeeper, Gabriel says, “I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”. Joyce uses Lily as an example of the modernist nuance of feminism. Lily replies to him bitterly, “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you”. Gabriel “coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake… he was… discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort”. Joyce uses Lily as an example of feminist progress in the early twentieth century. Not only does Lily talk back to Gabriel and not give him the “proper” and well-mannered response that he was looking for, but she also discusses her unwillingness to find a husband just because it was what society expects of her. Gabriel has a specific expectation of how women should act, especially when it comes to treating men with the utmost respect. When he is not shown the reverence he is searching for in Lily, he is taken aback by her reluctance to conform to his, and society’s expectations. Joyce’s juxtaposition using Gabriel and various other female characters serves to comment on the unjustified patriarchal society that existed at the start of the early twentieth-century in Dublin and all over the world.

To summarize, early twentieth-century writers Hemingway and Joyce played prominent parts in the shift of long-established gender roles that were attached to the modernist movement. Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain serves to call out the male dominance that was glorified in the early 1900s, especially towards women attention. His work, although frequently including pieces that fell into the rhythm of society’s pattern, attempts to make light of the disproportionation that existed between men and women by using ironic characters and storylines. Joyce’s “The Dead,” similar to Hemingway, has the intention of commenting on the patriarchal society that existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Joyce strategically juxtaposes the male character of Gabriel with more than five female characters to highlight the superior attitude that men held which Joyce, through his writing, ultimately deemed unjustified. The modernist movement’s objective was to create new forms of life and art to fit a rapidly evolving society, and with it came impeccable literature that indefinitely changed the way gender was interpreted in the world.

07 July 2022
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