Woolf and Mcewan: How the Modern Became Postmodern

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Ian McEwan’s Atonement draws inspiration from and alludes to a vast number of 20th century modernist authors and works, both stylistically and thematically. For a novel to be considered a successful culmination to the reading of a large body of works, however, it must not be content with merely echoing the themes, styles, and forms of the past. Rather, it must extend them, add to them creatively, and attempt to pull them into contemporary readership. While his thematic and stylistic allusions to 20th century greats such as Virginia Woolf show his intellectual knowledge of and debt to 20th century modernist writing, it is McEwan’s ability to transform these stylistic and thematic elements and mold them into a postmodern classic that makes Atonement a more than adequate culmination to the readings of a 20th century British Literature course.

Stylistically, McEwan draws most heavily from the works of Virginia Woolf for the opening portion of Atonement. The slow pace of the opening, allowing for the painstakingly detailed description of nearly every scene, in addition to the examination of the psychological motives of multiple main characters, closely mirrors the style of Virginia Woolf, which she incorporates into the majority of her works. To quote a characteristically slow paced, though psychologically enriched, passage from the opening of Woolf’s Between the Acts, “Mrs. Manresa bubbled up, enjoying her own capacity to surmount, without turning a hair, this minor social crisis—this laying on of two more plates. For had she not complete faith in flesh and blood? and aren’t we all flesh and blood? and how silly to make bones of trifles when we’re all flesh and blood under the skin” (Woolf 39). The passage, to one unfamiliar with the stylistically innovative style of Woolf, seems to meander under the weight of an overly descriptive narrative and, more prominently, under the psychological musings of a character that, until a few pages previous, was nonexistent to...
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