- Modernist Literature: Challenging Fictions
Vicki Mahaffey’s Modernist Literature: Challenging Fictions vigorously defends difficult modernism—not by attempting to smooth over its difficulties but by arguing for their usefulness, a usefulness that Mahaffey finds primarily ethical. One reads “challenging literature,” Mahaffey claims, because “such literature forces readers to face and make interpretive choices that narrators used to make for them” (7). In contrast to earlier and traditional fiction, then, modernism presents something different for readers; Mahaffey posits that modernism
erodes the sharp distinction between writer and reader, and in so doing presents readers with interpretive ethical dilemmas. If ethical action is only possible as the result of a deliberate, thoughtful choice between fully imagined alternatives, then a literature that confronts us with more difficult interpretive challenges offers a socially relevant discipline.(7)
Challenging Fictions offers an important and refreshing apologia, premised on modernism’s separation from “the continuing popular preference for books with a conventional narrative structure and a strong moral message,” works which the author thinks provide too much moral direction, and which become “necessarily reductive; they inevitably delimit and tame the flux of the real” (4). In Mahaffey’s reading, then, modernism is a record of resistance, and modernist difficulty is emancipatory.
In her first chapter, Mahaffey argues analogically for modernism’s ethical efficacy. Extensively citing three different psychological/sociological studies (Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments; less thoroughly, Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men, a study of German police atrocities in Poland during World War II; and Philip Zimbardo’s mock-prison scenario of guards and prisoners1), she argues that people tend passively to accept believable authorities and, in doing so, find themselves increasingly enmeshed in reprehensible activities. Mahaffey’s point about authority is central also to modernism, which, in its fictions, pulls away the crutch of authority. But in trying to show how important modernism’s break from narrative authority is, Mahaffey overstates the apparently contrasting experience of reading classic or traditional texts: “reading—especially reading literary classics—often comes to seem like a pointless and rather boring exercise that requires us not to challenge and rethink our perspectives, but to disqualify our actual responses in favor of more ‘reputable’ ones” (24). Is this really true of, say, George Eliot? [End Page 608] More nuance here would have been helpful, as would a more rigorous engagement with modernism’s own flirtations with authoritarianism.
Mahaffey’s second chapter begins a series of close readings exemplifying the issues of modern difficulty. Her first example is more than a little tricky and less than convincing. George du Maurier’s Trilby was popular fiction of the kind she critiques, and so it is inventive but labored and unconvincing to have it do the work of modernist difficulty.2 To me, the novel still aligns itself with some standard reflexes of the time: British genteel archness, a cloying take on male camaraderie, and a fairly straightforward anti-Semitism. More believable is Mahaffey’s use of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which, she argues, solve their mysteries and engage with difficulty not by going to the familiar “but by focusing on what doesn’t make sense” and in so doing “encourage readers to exercise greater interpretive authority” (80, 79). Joyce’s Dubliners, particularly as a collection of short stories, similarly encourages imaginative reading, which challenges readers both to take on and to abandon different roles and, in particular, “to abandon a moral position that renders us judgmental and rigidly consistent, in order to find a readerly stance that allows us to move from sympathy to critical distance to contextual framing and back again” (105). This is the same tack Mahaffey takes with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play that nudges its audience out of passivity and that “encourages its blind and dumb auditors to partner differently with the actors, to experiment with more than one role in an excruciatingly repetitious life-script” (120).3
Chapter 3 further explores the idea of modernist texts as promoting an unstable, conversational interaction between reader and text. This interaction...