The Girls of Slender Means

April 26, 2010

Modernism and Epistemology.

The period of literature we will now be looking at is called postmodernism, running from 1945 until now. In modernism after World War I, the literary temper was what you might call epistemological: authors generally tried to understand the world and to create meaning. Particularly following the catastrophe of World War I, authors wanted to make sense of a seemingly meaningless world. The questions they asked tended to focus on traditional metaphysical questions (although in non-traditional ways): how does this world tick? Who am I? What is a self?  What is meaning and how do I make sense of things?

Postmodernism and Ontology.

World War II was a war that was, in many ways, more horrific than the first one. World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars,” and there was a sense amonst the West that none of them ever wanted something on such a scale to happen again. Oh well. World War II involves so many ghastly issues concerning genocide, maga-death, extermination, that it is not difficult to agree with many authors who believed that Western civilization was no longer human, that there was no poetry left in the world.

Post-modernist literature, coming after the spectacle of World War II, responds to the world much differently than modernist literature. Instead of looking at the world and trying to create order and meaning, most of the major authors looks at the world and decide that there is no meaning. The world is absurd, and it does not make sense to try to create meaning, at least not in the traditional, metaphysical manner. Postmodernist literature tends to be ontological as opposed to epistemological. Instead of making meaning out of the world, postmodern authors attempt to create their own meaning. Instead of trying to order a confused world, postmodernist tend to embrace absurdity. A common motif amongst postmodern authors is to leave the so-called real world, and to create new, different and possible worlds. This accounts for the great rise in surrealist literature, fantasy, science fiction, phantasmagoria. As we will see, Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five discovers a “new world” on his “pilgrimage,” and it is not on the planet earth.

The Girls of Slender Means.

The first thing that always throws students when they start to read this novel is the radically different sense of point-of-view, or, perhaps, the lack of point-of-view. Whereas Fitzgerald’s novel evolves from a very specific, first person point of view, and Woolf’s from many different third- person points-of-view, you cannot discern a distinct perceiving consciousness in The Girls of Slender Means. Spark, as she does in most of her novels, writes using the “omniscient” point-of-view. The voice does not derive from any of the characters–we never see anything through their eyes, and we no little to nothing of their thoughts. Instead, we see everything depicted from a voice that comes from above. In a sense, the author is the point-of-view, telling the story from a detached position. It is almost as if we see the events of the novel unfold on a stage-set.

Omniscient point of view is popular amongst postmodernists, particularly those who depict humans reduced to characters, mirroring the post-war sense of de-humanization. Because of this, character tends to become less important than plot in Spark’s novels.

The novel takes place during a very specific and distinct period in history: between the end of the European war, and the end of the Pacific war, May – August, 1945. The opening of the novel is significant. Spark describes the typical destruction in London as a result of the Blitz. Londoners endured sometimes months on end of German ariel bombing, particularly in 1940. It left vast areas of London, and many other cities and towns in England, destroyed, and killed hundreds and thousands of civilians. A great many of the population became homeless, many living in the subways in lieu of bomb shelters. As traumatizing as having bombs falling on top of you was, it also became, after a period, a way of life for many at the same time.

You find the “girls” of the novel beginning to emerge from this stupor of the Blitz. The novel takes place in the May of Teck Club, which is one of many hostels for young women of limited financial means during the war in London. It is sort of like a dorm, where women who worked in London but could not afford an apartment lived. As you read the novel, pay particular attention to Spark’s narrative structure. Notice that most of the novel is a flashback. Jane Wainwright, a writer for a women’s magazine, is making telephone calls to other past members of the May of Tick Club in the present, trying to find information about their friend, Nicholas, who just died a “martyr” in Haiti. Surrounding the phone calls is the story of the late war period, and what happened to Nicholas that may have inspired him to convert to Catholicism, become a monk, and sacrifice his life.

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