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Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development by Jed Esty (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 375-379 | 10.1353/jjq.2012.0018

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The crux of Jed Esty’s new book is the following paradox. In a variety of early-twentieth-century novels, characters experience continuous change, which, because it promises to be ongoing, amounts to no change at all. All development all the time equates to narrative stasis. Among Esty’s examples of this literary phenomenon is Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which he describes as “the clearest example of a metabildungsroman in which the central, most indispensable device—developmental time” transforms into “infinite narrative with no closure” (146–147, 146). Stephen is stuck in a “narrative of endless becoming” (158). Neither the introduction of new characters nor changes of scene and setting alter his status as a figure with potential. “Arrested forever at the threshold of flight,” Esty writes, the end of the novel captures “Stephen . . . interred in his diary, not self-actualized by it or in it” (159).

This condition is typical: novels by Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen and Joseph Conrad, filled early-twentieth-century bookshelves with perpetual adolescents. Scholars understand their appearance as indicative of modernism’s tendency to disrupt the genres of Victorian realism. Esty is among those who think that practice constituted less an aesthetic revolution than a literary reform movement. In this regard, Unseasonable Youth differentiates itself from Marxist narrative theory à la Georg Lukàcs or Fredric Jameson and from the literary history of bildungsroman provided by Franco Moretti.1 “I read novels like Lord Jim and The Voyage Out,” Esty writes, “as something more than the disjecta of a postrealist age in which the bourgeois novel, folded in on its own subjectivity, could no longer synthesize the inner and outer world, no longer project the true shape of history” (37). Esty concedes that “it becomes difficult to imagine, at the turn of the twentieth century, a realism that could in any straightforward way conform to evolutionary or teleological models of world history,” but he also argues that “it is not impossible to imagine a critical realism—call it modernism—that registers a heterochronic model of world-historical temporality” (37). Thus, Stephen Dedalus’s stalled story must be read as having a geopolitical corollary: “The fissile logic of Stephen’s coming of age, always happening and thus never happening, corresponds quite exactly to Joyce’s vision of Ireland as a radically unfinished project” (147). While nineteenth-century national fiction helped to “contain and naturalize the problem of uneven development by appeal to a common culture, language, and destiny,” Esty shows that modernist fiction exacerbated global unevenness (26). Victorian fiction allegorized the imagined community of the nation by providing details of the individual progress of a protagonist, a “representative soul” (26). Early-twentieth-century novels behaved as if the soul-nation allegory could not be extended to contain Britain’s “baggy empire” (26). Or, as Esty puts it, “colonialism introduces into the historicist frame of the bildungsroman the form-fraying possibility that capitalism cannot be moralized into the progressive time of the nation” (17). Unevenness, Esty contends, found narrative expression in warped bildungsromans. This claim puts an intriguingly ambivalent spin on the familiar story of how modernism remade the Anglophone novel. It also challenges scholars invested in understanding modernism as a global phenomenon to consider how canonical works by Joyce, Woolf, and company portrayed the globe in terms of uneven development.

As its narrative certainties broke down, the bildungsroman acquired a new function. Instead of providing a mechanism for locating personal development within the nation, modernist fiction reformulated the terms for correlating person with population and for understanding what made one population different from another. Where “nineteenth-century historical concepts of progress” placed people on a ladder of development, Esty shows that “the temporally static concept of cultural difference” became the “major frame of reference” for modernist novels (193). Character by character, early-twentieth-century novels populated the globe with subjects whose inability to grow up made them appear comparable, but whose particular ways of getting stuck in perpetual bildung made them appear distinct.

Unseasonable Youth surveys the variety of ways developmental narratives break down. The first two chapters of the book introduce Esty’s argument and provide a...


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