Oral Storytelling in Modernism: Narration, Ideology, and Identity
Wellman, Jennifer Jean
MetadataShow full item record
Oral storytellers abound in modernist texts - from T. S. Eliot's inarticulate J. Alfred Prufrock to Djuna Barnes' desultory Dr. Matthew O'Connor, from Joseph Conrad's loquacious Charlie Marlow and other men of the sea to Rebecca West's dainty Harriet Hume. This project theorizes the construction of orality and the figure of the oral storyteller in early to mid-twentieth-century literature, with a focus primarily - but not exclusively - on the British Isles. While the prevalence of such constructions has been surprisingly under-examined by modern literary critics, early to mid-twentieth-century writers were fascinated with oral storytelling, and this fascination provides vital insight into literary modernism's all-important efforts to redefine self and community through art and artistic innovation. Modernist authors employ written representations of oral storytelling to explore and attempt to negotiate the relationship between cultural authority and the formation of modern subjectivities. I examine modernist representations of oral storytelling in works such as Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller" (1936), Joseph Conrad's <italic>An Outcast of the Islands</italic> (1896), Rebecca West's <italic>Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy</italic> (1929), Virginia Woolf's <italic>The Waves</italic> (1931), and Samuel Beckett's <italic>Krapp's Last Tape</italic> (1958). By exploring how authors contextualize ideas of orality and the oral storyteller within discourses of nationalism, literary tradition, and technology, I show that the figure of the oral storyteller presents a contact site for the contesting forces that inflect the formulation of self in the early to mid-twentieth-century. These forces include: ideologies of gender and empire; narrative itself as a culturally-inflected schema for understanding experience; and new and recently emergent communication technologies, like the gramophone and radio, which shift early twentieth-century understandings of language, presence, and the limits of the body. Moreover, as inherently self-reflexive moments within texts, scenes of oral storytelling implicitly engage with the defining modernist struggle to both undermine and appropriate the authority of earlier writers and contemporary literary and social traditions. The writers examined in this study use oral storytelling scenes to explore and delineate the relationship between dominant cultural narratives, the material world, and embodied identity.