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The Concept Of Postmodernism English Literature Essay

In this essay I want to examine how postmodernism is used throughout Don Delillo’s White Noise and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. Although each of the texts are very dissimilar they both concentrate on restrictions in society, yet open up a whole new perspective to what these oppressive values really do represent. Postmodern novels are known to be published after the Second World War. It was after the 19th century that modernism was introduced, where the constraints from society’s values were rebelled against. However, in the last few decades, there is an evident change that had occurred. Modernism focuses upon values that are oppressing in society, such as class, politics, race and gender. Yet, postmodernism doesn’t focus on these aspects in a way that is challenging them; it focuses more on a utopian idea of the world. It is where these constraints are not just acknowledged, but disregarded as they shouldn’t seem to matter simply because boundaries in society shouldn’t be an issue. Don Delillo’s White Noise, was first published in 1984 and it looks into how the world is changing through the medium of popular culture, the media and most importantly, technology. The reader is exposed to this through the eyes of the protagonist, Jack Gladney who is a professor of Hitler studies in a university. A major theme that occurs throughout the novel is the subject of death. We see that Jack has a great fear of death. However, in one of Jacks lectures he unexpectedly confronts this fear by saying, ‘All plots tend to move deathward.’ [1] Here we can use postmodernism to understand the underlying meanings of this quote. In the majority of literary works, a plot is defined as a chain of events in which a character experiences to move to towards a final resolution or not in some cases, but it should lead to an ending. Yet, the reader discovers that Jack has a distorted view of the conventional plotline, and that everything will most certainly lead him to death, that death is the ultimate ending. It could be fair to say that this is why a plotline almost seems to be absent in the earlier chapters of the novel; that there isn’t the usual chronological order of a beginning, then a climax and a resolution. There is a sense that that Jack, instead of continuing forward in his life, is being held back by the mere thought of death. He often thinks about ‘who will die first?’ [2] , between him and Babette, his wife, and about the time of his own death. By using an anachronistic narrative technique, it goes against the conformities of society and may be thought as one of the many characteristics of postmodernism. The novel tends to drift back and forth creating a world of disillusion, demolishing any sense of direction. Another aspect on which Delillo concentrates on throughout the first five chapters of White Noise is how advertising, consumerism and popular culture have major influences on the characters. At the college where Jack is a lecturer, they have a department that is dedicated to popular culture. In the novel, Jack’s colleague Murray, discusses how he would like to launch a course that is all about Elvis Presley, a lot like the current subject Jack teaches about Hitler. Here it shows how something as trivial as these studies seem to be, they still matter to the professors at the college, even if other deem these subjects to be insignificant. It is also evident to the reader that Jack feels self image is important and essential to ones aura. When Jack was appointed as chair in the department of Hitler studies, he was told to change his image. Jack then begins to refer to himself at the college as J.A.K Gladney and wears dark glasses to create a more academic look. This change in appearance holds an utmost significance when considering Jacks character. Yet, as the reader sees, Jack becomes rather uncomfortable with the new identity that he had created and becomes somewhat removed from it, revealing that Jack possesses ontological uncertainty. ‘I am the false character that follows the name around’ [3] . When the novel progresses, a disaster happens, where a toxic gas is released in the air. When faced with the reality of death, Jack then longs to have his professional attire with him, almost to protect him from the reality. It is noticeable that the imagery is powerful here for the protagonist. When Jack is wearing his glasses and gown, his sense of security is heightened, in comparison to when he is casually dressed, his vulnerability is visible. In addition to this, simulacra is also present here because, the image that Jack tries to impose then becomes more important than his real self and in turn the representation of the image posses more importance than the image itself. When Jack is exposed to the toxic chemical, we see a plotline line starting to emerge as Jack uncovers his vulnerability when he is faced with the notion of death. In the novel, Jack is given a gift from his wife’s father. The gift is a gun. The gun is a powerful symbol, that Jack may be handed the idea of death to him at the concluding part of the novel. This then results in him shooting Willie Mink and him staring death in the face. Another technique Dilillo often uses in White Noise is irony which is a fundamental component when considering postmodernism. An example of this would be the humorous proceedings that happen before Willie Mink is shot. Additionally, when Jack repeats the name of Hitler’s dog over and over during his lecture, it brings a light sense of humour to a subject that should not be taken lightly. Thus, giving the false impression that the novels plot was not going to conclude in inevitable death and destruction.

Something else that should be taken into consideration when looking at White Noise is, that it seems to be satirical of the pursuit to find the meaning of life. Murray is a prime example of this as he questions and analyses every commonplace thing, especially when referring to any form of technology that surrounds him. In his basket in the supermarket, there is ‘generic food and drink, non-branded items in plain white packages.’ [4] This suggests that Murray does not conform to the consumerism that surrounds him, but challenges it. Another example is how Murray perceives the television to be a powerful thing within society. Paranoia within this text also specifies that this is postmodern literature. Linking to the obsessions with the notion of death, many questions like ‘Who will die first?’  or ‘When  will  we  die?’ [5]  , indicate that paranoia is present in almost every chapter. The final postmodern idea that is laced throughout the novel is the concept of the technological culture and the presence of hyper-reality within the consumer society, a society in which Jack is a part of. The title itself is referring to the continuous drone of the technological world that surrounds Jack, which is something he hears frequently and links it to the notion of death. It is because of budding technology that the artificial world and reality become merged and it is unclear to see where reality stops and fantasy begins. This is evident in chapter, when the simulated evacuation takes place. What happens here is a real-life emergency is treated as a preparation for the real thing. So, the simulation has replaced the real event. Therefore, the representation of the simulation has become more important that the real event itself. Noel King states in the article ‘Reading White Noise: Floating Remarks’ that the novel is postmodern because it shows how ‘we inhabit a historical moment where the “ficto-critical” replaces the binary opposition of the “fictional” and the “critical”’. [6] Delillo also uses the image of the supermarket as one of a secure nature. In the fifth chapter, Jack feels somewhat complete after shopping there. It could be said that the supermarket is the central place that allows an individual to feel a sense of completeness in a consumer society. However, we see that this is not the case for all the people that visit the supermarket. The older generations, such as the Treadwells, are intimidated by the supermarket. So, because of this inconsistency, this suggests that the supermarket is only the illusion of security rather than actually being a safe place. In the last chapter of White Noise, the reader learns that customers become disrupted when supermarket is rearranged and that it puts them in a state of agitation and panic...’ [7] It could be said that the consumers here, are being consumed themselves simply because they are consumers. The characters relationship with technology also plays a large part when considering postmodernism in this novel. It, like the supermarket, provides an artificial impression of what security is. Examples include when Jack is watching television with Babette on a Friday night, he feels that this is a form of bonding for the family. Also, after withdrawing money from an ATM machine, Jack feels in control. The last example of this is where Babette begins to take medication, which is intended to ease her fear of death. However, it has quite the opposite effect and she becomes inward and subsequently is unfaithful to Jack. Jack is then taken over with revenge against the manufacturer of the medication, Willie Mink. Yet, when he feels he is ready to kill Willie Mink, Mink begins to lose his sanity. He finds himself addicted to watching the television and commercials while taking the medication. He almost becomes one with the television, being unable to distinguish between the advertisements and what they stand for. Again, here reality becomes intertwined with the artificial world. It could be said that Mink is the biggest victim of the consumer society in this novel. However, in Top Girls, the postmodern ideas come to light through a totally different medium. Caryl Churchill uses gender roles as a way of confronting these issues in the play. The play adopts the concerns that society posses about modern feminism. It concentrates on the conformities that today’s society struggles with such as: class divisions, gender stereotyping, ageism and many others. The events that occur throughout the play highlight these concerns through the way they are depicted on stage and how they are performed. The protagonist in Top Girls is Marlene. She represents the stereotypical myth of a career woman as being an uptight female who lacks maternal instinct. Here, Churchill uses this stereotype to challenge this myth, so as to mislead the audience into being critical of the feminist hero and it does this unconsciously. The opening scene in Top Girls is set in a restaurant. There is a celebration happening as Marlene has got a promotion to be a managing director for the employment agency ‘Top Girls’. There are five ghost characters that join Marlene which are drawn from paintings, history and fiction. There is a 13th century courtesan, but now a nun, Lady Nijo; Isabella Bird, a Scotish 19th century traveller; Dull Gret; Patient Griselda, who ironically arrives late; and finally, Pope Joan who was the head of the church in the 9th century and is disguised as a man.

This group are supposed to represent women who are courageous and successful. However, because of the topics of conversation, it is evident that the overlapping narrative monologues, suggest that each have different independent ideologies. This scene is the most exceptional throughout the play as it is the only scene where all the characters are present at one time and that it is an unrealistic occurrence. Looking at the whole play, it displays many devices which are significant. Like the supermarket in White Noise, in Top Girls, the central image of the play is the employment agency, a company that finds profitable work for its clientele. The actual state of employment is also a central theme to the play. Each of the characters involved when assessing their own work. For example, Angie’s is unsuitable to work, Joyce’s work is unpaid as a mother and wife and Marlene’s promotion. All these aspects of work (money, labour, success) crop up in conversation between the characters throughout the play. The audience see that real change for women within the existing work system isn’t really possible when the three interviews are carried out by Marlene, Win and Nell. We see in Act One that the secretary, Jeanine, is looking for better prospects, however, Marlene is only able to recommend other positions of the same work. Yet, Jeanine wants better money and a higher status, but Marlene advises her to reduce her aspirations. The most significant and apparent technique Churchill uses in the play is that all the actors are women. Theatre analyst and playwright Micheline Wandor states that the ‘single-gendered play may be 'unrealistic' in the sense that we all inhabit a world which consists of men and women, but it does provide an imaginative opportunity to explore the nature of the gendered perspective (male or female) without the complexities and displacements of the 'mixed' play.’ [8] So, by excluding the use of male characters, ironically, this enables the play to break away from the sexist conventions. Thus, ‘tricking’ the audience into thinking the class struggle is actually a battle of the sexes, which is the mistake that Marlene, Nell, Mrs Kidd, Win and Angie make. This suggests that the feminine perspective is also competent of examining class divisions, and implementing a matriarchy that is like patriarchy based on these divisions. This is where feminism materializes in the play. It is also important to examine the different natures of women in the play. First, there are the real actresses, performing the roles that are also female characters - fictions and dramatis personae. It would be fair to say that Top Girls can be referred to as a women’s play simply because all of the actors and characters are female, and initially, the central focal point seem to be gender. However, this notion is removed from being the main concern in this play, almost as soon as it begins. As stated previously, the very first scene we see many different women from separate historical times and cultures come together in celebration for Marlene’s promotion. Each of the six women represents the diversity of cultures and attitudes within the societies of their time about gender, class, religion, thus proving this is a postmodern text. This then dramatises absence of unity between people of the same gender, who are affected by the lack of ideological unity. Throughout the course of the play, we see that Marlene’s bourgeois style of feminism is culturally conditions. This means that her promotional success does not challenge the patriarchal society, but conforms to the existing hierarchy. The argument between Marlene and Joyce in ending scene highlights this point:

‘Marlene: And for the country, come to that. Get the economy back on its feet and whoosh. She's a tough lady, Maggie. I'd give her a job. / She just needs to hang in there. This country

Joyce: You voted for them, did you?

Marlene: needs to stop whining. / Monetarism is not stupid.

Joyce: Drink your tea and shut up, pet.

Marlene: It takes time, determination. No more slop. / And

Joyce: Well I think they're filthy bastards.

Marlene: who's got to drive it on? First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces.

Right on. / You must admit. Certainly gets my vote.

Joyce: What good's first woman if it's her? I suppose you'd have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina. / Great adventures.

Marlene: Bosses still walking on the workers' faces? Still Dadda's little parrot?

Haven't you learned to think for yourself? I believe in the individual. Look at me.

Joyce: I am looking at you.’ [9] 

By the use of Marlene’s dialogue, the play shifts the audience’s perception of the obvious separation between male and female, to the underlying theme of the separation between the oppressed and the oppressive. Even though in the society of the play only has women in it, domination is still present throughout as there are women in the play that assume more powerful roles than others. So, it would be fair to say that the title ‘top girls’ is therefore ironic because if there are ‘top girls’ there also must be ‘middle’ and ‘bottom girls’ revealing that there is apparent class oppression and hierarchy. Thus, making it evident that this is a postmodern novel. So, to conclude, postmodernism is a vast and loose term that can be applied to many different things, such as literature, art and history. Whereas Don Delillo is fascinated with the continuing escalation of modern technology and the strong influences of the media, Caryl Churchill focuses more on the gender and class oppressions that are faced in life. After examining both texts, postmodern literature homes in on the relationships, conformities and values that exist in everyday society and is enthralled by the oppressions of contemporary bourgeois culture.

Word Count – 2,945


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