Intimate Modernities: British and Irish Literature, 1922-1955

Doctoral Dissertation


My dissertation examines the literary representation of intimacy, reconsidering the assumption in critical discussions of modernist fiction that loneliness, isolation, and alienation constitute the inescapable conditions of modern life. I argue that these conditions, while genuine, also foster new intensities of human intimacy, on view for us in the novels of Virginia Woolf, Patrick Hamilton, Elizabeth Bowen, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. Intimacy here is characterized by a practice of empathy and a relation of knowing familiarity. While some critics have accused modernism of colluding with alienation by presenting the human subject as self-absorbed and cut off from meaningful relations with other subjects and objects, my dissertation explores how modernism reveals historical changes in the experience and representation of love and empathy. The modernist protagonist, far from dispensing with other human beings, longs for intimacy (and, in fact, often achieves it) both to escape the confines of ego and to reestablish selfhood on the basis of relations with others. In the urban milieu of modernity — particularly in times of war — overcrowding, mobility, transience, and the breakdown of familial domesticity increase the opportunities for sudden intimacies to develop between strangers. In these conditions, a sense of deep mutual knowledge may arise from spontaneous self-revelation rather than from years of shared personal history. Intimacy does not eradicate the feelings of isolation, but neither does that isolation preclude human connection. Rather, the alienating circumstances of modernity alter the terms and practices of intimacy.

The notion of intimate knowing also operates at a stylistic level, as narrative form in the texts themselves appeal for intimacy with their readers. The stylistic crafting of points of view, and the omissions and insinuations in both dialogue and narration, have the double effect of alienating the reader and at the same time inviting the familiarity of assumption. My analysis of a text’s “intimate aesthetic” demonstrates that formal choices both facilitate and limit the reader’s access to the textual world, recreating the dialectic between alienation and intimacy that is operating at the level of character. Thus this project looks at both narratives of intimacy and the intimacy evoked through verbal and formal narrativity.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04172009-152044

Author Siân Elin White
Advisor Maud Elmann
Contributor Maud Elmann, Committee Chair
Contributor Seamus Deane, Committee Member
Contributor Luke Gibbons, Committee Member
Contributor Barbara Green, Committee Member
Contributor Mary Burgess-Smyth, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline English
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2009-04-09

Submission Date 2009-04-17
  • United States of America

  • sympathy

  • gender

  • modernity

  • modernism

  • intimacy

  • empathy

  • aesthetics

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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