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Death, Men, and Modernism

Trauma and Narrative in British Fiction from Hardy to Woolf


Ariela Freedman


Literary Criticism and Cultural Theory Series

London: Routledge, 2013

Hardcover. 155 p. ISBN 978-0415867115. £90.00


Reviewed by Wendy O’Brien

Deakin University, Melbourne


Freedman’s text ruminates on the centrality of male death in British modernist fiction. Her thesis is that the sacrificial status accorded the male figure in early to mid-twentieth century fiction usurps the iconic role of the beautiful dead female of nineteenth-century literature. Freedman makes deft use of this shift to reflect on several themes. First, she is interested in the twentieth-century crisis of meaning, rendered in literature through sterility, passivity, and the fatalist death-plot. The deaths that interest Freedman are accidental or terrible, and highlight the male subject as a figure who fails, ultimately, to achieve mastery. The male subject’s passivity, loss of control and/or death, gives rise to female narrative authority, an argument that Freedman makes with respect to Mrs Dalloway and ‘The Garden Party’ in particular. She reads this as signalling not only a crisis in masculine subjectivity, but also a crisis in modernity. For Freedman, the modernist novel reads as an attempt to reassert mastery, over subjectivity, narrative, and meaning.

To explore this in detail, Freedman offers detailed analyses of several British novels of the modernist era. In five chapters, she explores the sacrificial male figure in key works by Thomas Hardy, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Ford Maddox Ford, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. She also devotes a chapter to exploring Sigmund Freud’s contribution to narratives of trauma and mourning.

Yet, to frame her literary analyses, Freedman opens by contemplating the gendered discourse used in public accounts of the deaths of two British monarchs: King Edward and Queen Victoria. Freedman’s interpretation of the Times’ preferential post-mortem journalism establishes the structural motif found in her subsequent literary analyses. Freedman argues that the gendered discourse of the Times celebrates Edward as a ‘sovereign’ and a ‘man among men’. Victoria, on the other hand, is portrayed as a ‘the true mother of our people, a solitary and pathetic figure’, her unfinished memorial shrouded in scaffolding, and overlooked by throngs of mourners eager to venerate the King. Comparisons are odious, but it seems that the Times did, in fact, explicitly evoke comparison by noting the superiority of the ‘spectacle’ that marked the King’s passing:

The mourning for King Edward will be deep and wide. It will not be like the mourning for Queen Victoria, the true Mother of our people, a pathetic and solitary figure, our reverence for whose wisdom and devotion was mingled with a tenderness inspired by the sad loneliness of her long life. It will rather be the mourning for a sovereign who did much for his country at a critical time . . . the mourning for one who was essentially a man among men.

The Times, May 7, 1910

The differential treatment given the dead male and the dead female underpins Freedman’s literary analysis. Arguing that the Times contributes to a paradigm that privileges male death, Freedman nonetheless identifies Victoria’s spectral role, claiming that “Victoria seems to haunt the account of Edward’s death” [3]. Freedman’s literary analysis maintains this theme. She argues that in early to mid-twentieth century novels “tragedy wears a male face” [3], particularly in the context of wartime Europe. The novels Freedman studies are exemplars of a paradigm that privileges male death, yet just as the spectacle following Edward’s death could not efface Victoria’s significance, the privileged sacrificial role accorded the male figure in modernist fiction cannot fully eclipse the role played by female characters. Indeed, Freedman argues that in the novels under study the sacrificial male death makes way for the female character/s, structurally facilitating female narrative agency. The narrative power of speaking subject position, conventionally masculine, is increasingly female in the novels that interest Freedman. Providing readings of Jude the Obscure, Howards End, Women in Love, The Good Soldier, Mrs Dalloway, and ‘The Garden Party’, Freedman sees the male sacrificial figure as symptomatic of the crises of masculinity, and modernity.

The density of Freedman’s text marks the readership as academic literati and, with this in mind, her contribution to the scholarship on literary modernism and the modernist crisis in subjectivity is noteworthy. Academic texts such as this tend not to fall into the hands of the general reading public, which is sometimes a shame. There is much in Freedman’s text that could usefully inform broader ruminations on death, and on the gendered assumptions associated with tragedy, trauma, and mourning. Her work gestures to debates that are as relevant today as they were in the modernist era, and such questions are not relevant to only literary scholars. To what extent do our cultural assumptions about death influence the way that we value life? Is there glory, of any kind, in death? Importantly, in an era in which war continues to rage, is there any sense at all in which our understandings of wartime death might give cause for reflection on social decay and the futility of the human quest for mastery? These questions sit at the core of modernist literature and at the core of Freedman’s work. Given our shared confusion about death’s significance, these questions continue to resonate profoundly with scholars and general readers alike.


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