The literature of the beginning of the 20th century was heavily influenced by the major changes that were reshaping the world at the time. The First World War was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of mankind and resulted in millions of casualties and devastation across Europe. In addition to the Great War, urbanization, immigration, and the rapid progress of technology led to the general feeling of uncertainty due to the rejection of old, traditional ideas.
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This identity crisis is explored in the works of many notable modernist authors, including Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Eliot. The characters of Nick Adams and J. Alfred Prufrock are representations of the modern man, fractured and lost after the devastating consequences of the First World War.
Nick Adams in the main character of more than a dozen stories written by Ernest Hemingway. The character is largely autobiographical, with many similarities to Ernest Hemingway. Nick Adams’ father is also a doctor, and he, just like Hemingway, enlists as an ambulance driver to work on the Italian front during the World War I. In each of Hemingway’s stories, Nick Adams is confronted with some traumatic event, and the author explores the consequences this event has on Nick Adams.
In one of the stories, A Way You’ll Never Be, Nick Adams is shown suffering recurring nightmares and hallucinations in the aftermath of the traumatic head injury inflicted during his service on the Italian front. Nick Adams returns to the place where he was injured with a hidden motive – to understand the reason behind his hallucinations. However, in spite of the fact that Nick Adams learns some information about his trauma, he fails to understand the underlying cause of these nightmares – the crisis of personal identity (Quick 30). He is self-conscious and restless, and his hallucinations seem jumbled and unrelated, just like Nick Adams’ anxious thoughts about his sense of self.
The post-traumatic shock Nick is suffering from in the aftermath of the events on the Italian front is the allusion to the general anxiety which grew its roots in the minds of people living in the 1920s. A number of Ernest Hemingway’s works touch upon physical wounds, but it is this story that focuses on mental trauma, the destructive psychological result of the Great War. Nick’s search for the meaning of life continues in Big Two-Hearted River, where he returns to Michigan from the Italian front.
In this descriptive story, Nick, unable to find a place for himself, leaves urban environment and turns to the healing power of nature to lessen his burden, which was “too heavy […] much too heavy” (Hemingway par. 6). The feeling of anxiety stays with him even there, and although he tries to avoid it, he seems preoccupied with it. In the aftermath of World War I, Nick Adams, just like many other people of that time, is suffering from the loss of the orientation, which makes him the archetype of that time (Burke 2).
Like Nick Adams, the main character of Thomas Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock J. Alfred Prufrock is also avoiding something, an overwhelming question. Prufrock, an average middle-class man living in an urban setting very similar to London, also suffers from unspoken psychological conflict. A variety of allusions, used by Elliot, seem to suggest that Prufrock is an educated man. However, he is very self-conscious and seems unable to confront the overwhelming question.
Throughout the novel, which takes place in an urban setting, Prufrock seems to be confused what time of the day it is and where is past and where is future: tenses are frequently confused throughout the poem. In contrast to Nick Adams, Prufrock does not leave the city but gets lost in its sinister streets instead. The urban setting allows the reader to see rooms full of people mindlessly drinking tea all day, joined by Prufrock himself.
The author presents a picture of a wasted existence, hindered by indecisive paralysis. Prufrock is ready for “a hundred indecisions […] before the taking of a toast and tea” (Elliot 10-11). Elliot captures the image of a typical young man unable to find his place in a world, fractured by the Great War. The juxtaposition of scenes, texts, and thoughts are used to show the chaotic state of Prufrock’s mind and the society in general. It is not entirely clear if Prufrock actually leaves his room or whether the narration is the result of his disturbed mind.
The characters of Nick Adams and J. Alfred Prufrock both struggle with challenges typical of people of “the lost generation”. In the first half of the 20th century, the old world has been shattered and was undergoing dramatic transformations. The aftershock of the World War I left many questioning what the meaning of their existence was. A common trait of both characters is that they are lost in the new world. However, while Elliot’s character seems to never leave this state of paralysis, Hemingway’s’ protagonist turns to nature and seems to find his inner self.
Burke, William. Hemingway ‘s Nick Adams Archetype of an era. Web.
Eliot, Thomas. (n.d.). The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Web.
Hemingway, Ernest. (n.d.). Big Two-Hearted River. Web.
Quick, Paul. “Hemingway’s “A Way You’ll Never Be” and Nick Adams’s Search for Identity” The Hemingway Review. 22.2 (2003): 33-44. Web.