How Duffy and McEwan Use Characteristic Postmodern Techniques in “Love Poems” and “Atonement”?

January 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

In both McEwan’s Atonement and many of Carol Ann Duffy’s love poems, the use of postmodernist devices such as self-reflexivity and intertextuality aid in the exploration of their ideas and the pertinence of questions their work raises. James Wood decrees, for example, that Atonement is certainly “a novel explicitly troubled by fiction’s fictionality- its artificiality- and eager to explore the question of the novel’s responsibility to truth”. This draws upon the novel’s focus on a search for the ‘truth’ and for ‘atonement’ whilst reminding the reader of the ultimate lack of any subjective truth in fiction, due to an absence of reality in the face of modernist realism. Similarly, Elizabeth O’Reilly declares Duffy “explores the way in which meaning and reality are constructed through language” which is apparent in many of her poems, for example, Anne Hathaway, which exploits metaphorical use of poetic devices: “my body now a softer rhyme/ to his… assonance; his touch/ a verb dancing in the centre of a noun” to convey the sensuality of their love.

Self-reflexive techniques often hold the underlying message that fiction is a mere illusion whilst creating worlds within worlds to construct a sense of reality that the writer gently reminds the reader is false. In Atonement, Briony ‘plays god’, yet McEwan makes it apparent that she is in her own reality, and the novel is just fiction, with characters without real lives and therefore no known or ‘real’ fate: towards the close of the novel, Briony contemplates how “can a novelist achieve Atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?”, deciding there was “No Atonement for God… it was an impossible task… the attempt was all.” This portrays how the novel’s purpose (for Briony to achieve atonement) is rendered useless in the narrator’s eyes by the fictionality of her writing. Likewise, in Duffy’s Words, Wide Night and The Love Poem, the speaker ultimately decides that to put love into words is a futile objective, and no amount of literary finesse can do so, hence one can only acknowledge the difficulty of love’s articulation.

Fiction’s ‘fictionality’ is an idea that relates to self-reflexivity. Towards the end of Atonement, as Briony reflects back on her fifty-nine year “project”, she decides that “as long as there is a single copy,… then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical price survive to love.” This conveys how characters are immortalised in literature, linking to the play within the novel (The Trials Of Arabella) in her characterisation of Cecilia and Robbie. McEwan even provokes the reader to believe that there was no love affair at all, writing “the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum.” In the novel’s Acknowledgements on the following page, McEwan thanks the “staff of… the Imperial War Museum for allowing me to see unpublished letters… of soldiers and nurses serving in 1940.” This creates a sense of ambiguity over what in the novel is truthful. He teases “what sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from that account?” which nods to the escapism of books. Similarly, In Duffy’s Mean Time, she writes “and, of course, unmendbale rain/ fell to the bleak streets”. This lightly humorous line plays on the predictability of her use of pathetic fallacy. Duffy says Mean Time focuses on “the different ways in which time brings about change or loss”, highlighting that the dramatic nature of the rain emulating her mood is purely a poetic device, again drawing on the writerly-ness of writing.

Critic Brian Finney explains that Atonement is “a rereading of the classical realist novel of the nineteenth century, just as it is a displacement of the modernist novel , particularly as influenced in the fiction of Virginia Woolf and D.H Lawrence”. It could therefore be said that Atonement parodies the modernist conventions of Briony’s writing contemporary to the setting of the times of the drafts. Briony admits that “The earliest version (of Atonement was written in) January 1940, the latest, March 1999, and in between, half a dozen different drafts. The second draft, June 1947” which constructs an idea that there are layers to the narrator’s story; there is the modernist storyline of the early drafts, with a post-modernist lens sandwiching the modernist storyline between an intertextual epigraph (taken from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey,1818) and the penultimate scene by the window, in which she admits a complete lack of reality in fiction. Duffy uses the same characteristic devices of postmodernism in The Love Poem, where she parodies an endeavour at creating the greatest love poem in an attempt to articulate love, through the collaging of famous poems throughout the ages that have themselves attempted to articulate love, yet ultimately decides that the expression of love is intangible.

In Atonement, the idea of being self-aware is also penetrating for Briony’s character- she is coming of age and questioning herself in the past tense of Part One, whilst also looking back on herself as she grows older in Part Three and realising her faults of naïveté. ‘Young’ Briony’s character is presented as pensive, with a fantastical imagination and childish tendencies, whilst attempting to mount the bridge into adulthood: “It is hard to slash nettles for long without a story imposing itself”, “Her childhood had ended… The fairy stories were behind her”. This shows a yearning for adventure, perhaps foreshadowing the catastrophic events that follow the rumination of her unsettled imagination, as she seems to grasp onto the concept that “in a story you only had to wish, you only had to write it down, and you could have the world.” The impressionability of her young mind and fascination of stories leads the reader to be evermore suspicious of her narrative voice.

Throughout Atonement’s ‘modernist’ narrative (if it can be labelled as such), McEwan uses the modal verb ‘would’ to express to the reader a sense of this self-reflexivity: in Part One, McEwan interjects into the narrative that “six decades later she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature” and “she would be well aware of her self-mythologising and she gave her account a self-mocking, or mock-heroic tone.” This brings focus to the narrative structure and the personal bias Briony would have on the storyline, whilst inducing a sense of foreboding at her disagreeable “self-mythologising” lens, warning the reader to take her own ‘facts’ perhaps with a ‘pinch of salt’, as it were. This spotlight on truths and reality is apparent in Duffy’s Valentine, in which the conceit of the presentation of love as “an onion” contends with the clichéd, commercialised images of love and compares them with reality; how love, like life, is changeable and imperfect.

Both McEwan and Duffy use intertextuality to create an enhanced sense of realism (McEwan) and love (Duffy) in their work, yet purposefully using this heightened realism/love to convey the irony of their attempt, and the writerly quality of their work. Duffy’s Anne Hathaway reflects the fact that the titular character was Shakespeare’s wife; through the use of sonnet form and dramatic monologue, Duffy exploits the stereotypes of Shakespeare’s plays: “The bed we loved in was a spinning world/ of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas/ where he would dive for pearls”, “Romance and drama played by touch, by sense, by taste” in an attempt to convey Duffy’s imagination of their epic, sensual love, whilst their guests “dozed on, /dribbling their prose”, again portraying the couple’s marital prestige. Likewise, McEwan peppers references to other novels and books throughout the text: in Part One, Cecilia and Robbie passingly discuss Richardson’s Clarissa, a tale of rape and atonement. In addition, Robbie realises the letter he gave Briony was the wrong draft, with the words “I want to kiss your sweet, wet cunt” printed on it, and the letter he was supposed to present to Cecilia was a “handwritten letter (which) he had rested on the open copy of Gray’s Anatomy, Splanchnology section, page 1546, the vagina.” Not only do these intertextual references often have an underlying insinuation, the references to real texts aids the reader’s blind acceptance of the apparent truth of the events which unfurl, tricking them into trusting in Briony’s narrative. From this, McEwan uses one postmodernist device to enhance another- again highlighting the ‘fictionality’ of the text.

This intertextuality apparent in Atonement is mirrored in Duffy’s The Love Poem, through the explicit lifting of famous love poems dispersed within its form. This conveys how other poets have also failed at expressing love: names like Percy Shelley and Shakespeare, even referencing the ‘Song of Solomon’ from the King James Bible. The poem’s conclusion emulates this idea: all poets attempt to express their love with the “desire of the moth for the star”: highlighting that attempting to articulate love is intangible and unattainable, self-destructive, possibly. McEwan considers love in a similar way: for instance, in Part Two of Atonement, comparing Cecilia and Robbie’s love affair with the romance, drama and tragedy of literature throughout the ages: “All those books, those happy couples they had never met to discuss! Tristan and Isolde, the Duke Orsino and Olivia (and Malvolio too), Troilus and Criseyde, Mr Knightly and Emma, Venus and Adonis. Turner and Tallis.” This portrays the greatness of their love, but also foreshadows their love’s tragic, yet undeniably unremarkable end- despite Briony’s attempt to create an epic love affair between the two in order to atone for her sins, their love story is left open-ended, with no clear resolution and therefore no forgiveness.

In The Love Poem, Duffy writes “my mistress’ eyes/ to lie on a white sheet, at rest/ in the language”, “shrink to a phrase like an epitaph” ,“love’s lips pursed to quotation marks”. She references things with writerly qualities in poetic devices like similes and metaphor: “a white sheet”, “a phrase like an epitaph”, “quotation marks”, which remind the audience of the form of expression that poetry is. The relevance of Duffy’s use of post-modernist devices like self-reflexion is that she is writing love poems in an attempt to express herself, and therefore exploring the difficulty of articulating love by drawing on the nature of writing. Equally, in Words, Wide Night, she also presents the internal conflict of her expression: “This is pleasurable. Or should I cross that out and say/ it is sad?” “In one of the tenses I singing/ an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear”, by highlighting literary techniques such as the use of “tense(s)” and the physical depiction of pensive, emotional conflict: “cross(ing) out”. This is emulated by McEwan’s transparency about the nature of writing, and the highlighting of literary techniques throughout Atonement. In Part One when Briony attempts to process the explicit language of Robbie’s letter, foreign to her young ears, McEwan describes how the word “danced through (her thoughts) obscenely, a typographical demon, juggling vague, insinuating anagrams”, and in Part Two, as Robbie walks feverishly across fields in France, McEwan plays upon literary forms: “He walked/ across/ the land/ until/ he came/ to the sea. A hexameter. Five iambs and an anapaest was the beat he tramped to now”- he makes use of poetic devices to portray not only the nature of Robbie’s journey but also his confused mind. In both Parts, the characters seem to use writerly techniques in an attempt to articulate themselves.

Deryn Rees-Jones says Duffy uses “distrust of language as a mediator between idea and object” which shows how Duffy’s conclusion that love cannot be articulated links the purpose of her poems to the pieces themselves. It has been established that in Duffy’s Words, Wide Night, she draws attention to the nature of the text, conveying the futility and inadequacy of words to express love, as in Cecilia and Robbie’s letters whilst he is in prison. Robbie’s narrative in Part Two portrays to the reader their need to speak in code, recounting that when she wrote “I went to the library today to get that anatomy book I told you about. I found a quiet corner and pretended to read”, he knew she was referencing their sexual intercourse in the library; memories that “consumed him every night”. In addition, Cecilia could never write explicitly “that she loved him… But he knew it.” This conveys that where explicit articulation may fail, knowledge and understanding between two characters can still prevail, shown by the clear accomplishment of their motives.

McEwan declares Atonement a “conversation with modernism and its dereliction of duty.” This is fitting to say about both Atonement and Duffy’s love poems as they discuss how postmodernism highlights the neglect modernist writers have to their “duty”- which is arguably fiction’s ‘fictionality’. Through the prevalent use of self-reflexivity and intertextuality, both Duffy and McEwan convey to the audience the difficulty of articulation. For Duffy, this difficulty is in expressing love through language- the translation of emotion and sensuality to a page- whilst for McEwan, it centres upon Briony and her narrative voice, stressing the lack of any truth to her story, despite the reader’s preempted dissatisfaction.

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