Jean Francois Lyotard describes modernity as an era of irrevocable progress forward, a subtle movement onwards that is characterized by the centralization of authority and imposition of a teleological mentality, whereby every development is considered valuable from an evolutionary perspective. Associated with the industrial revolution to some extent, works such as T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Sherwood Anderson's Paper Pills epitomize the symptoms of modernity in an age that romanticizes the simplicity of the pre-modern. In Eliot's work specifically, the modern is represented as a dirty, unnatural and inhuman age; one characterized by the imposition of the urban environment and the disconnection one perpetually feels from the intricacies of the human condition.
Anderson's Paper Pills offers the reader a similar image of marginalization and isolation, both of which are commonly associated with modernity as an era. In the age of the industrial revolution, the emphasis was continually placed on the creation of a product through the implementation of a regimented order and the impediments afforded by the human condition were typically regarded as a form of displaced indulgence. Eliot and Anderson are consequently able to emulate the anxiety associated with the modern condition and vocalize a kind of loneliness that is simply a feature of the collective social unconscious. That is to say, both authors allude to a sense of isolation and marginalization that is a direct result of the disconnection one feels in the midst of a modern environment.
[...] It is this blind progression forward that is captured and so brilliantly conveyed in Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Anderson's “Paper Pills” as both authors offer their readers a story that represents the displacement of humanity amidst the fanatic urgency to progress that is so representative of the modern condition. The narrator in Eliot's poem is preoccupied with a sentimental conception of romantic love, yet this focus seems somewhat inappropriate or least incongruent amidst the backdrop of an urban cityscape characterized by yellow smoke, stagnant puddles and dirty chimneys. [...]
[...] Reefy is a character that shares a number of common characteristics with the narrator from Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Unlike Eliot's poem, Anderson provides the reader with a description of the story's primary figure, and as such, we are essentially provided with the very face of modernity: He was an old man with a white beard and huge nose and hands. Long before the time during which we will know him, he was a doctor and drove a jaded white horse from house to house through the streets of Winesburg. [...]
[...] This image of desolation and loneliness is reinforced in Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. As the narrator wanders through the empty city, somehow inexplicably preoccupied with intimations of romantic love, he vocalizes his romance against a representation of the cityscape that is decidedly modern and equally cynical: The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was a soft October night, Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. [...]
[...] Littered with puddles and stagnant water, the urban cityscape characterized by foggy windows and dirty chimneys, but seems completely devoid of people in a manner evocative of the setting in Anderson's “Paper Pills”. Both authors exude a sense of disconnection that pervades the content of both narratives. Both authors display a sentimental connection to the pre-modern age and demonstrate this affectation in very specific ways. For Anderson, the pre- modern age is epitomized within Dr. Reefy's one and only friend, who is effectively juxtaposed in this passage: Doctor Reefy was a tall man who had worn one suit of clothes for ten years. [...]
[...] While he expresses a very human desire to engage in sexual activity with this woman, it is as if the imposition of modernity has made him unfit for the task at hand, for all he can hear is the comments of others and presumes that such a union would be impossible. Yet even as the narrator attempts to convey his sense of frustration over his unrequited love, his humanity seems almost poisoned by the persistent backdrop of modernity. As he gestures to his lover, he suggests that they through the certain half-deserted streets / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” (Eliot, 4-6). [...]
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