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Jeanette Walls, “The Glass Castle”




The development of literature in the 20th century was influenced consistently by different movements that led to the emergence of new styles and literary movements. In this respect, it is possible to distinguish the consistent change in the development of literature which has shifted from modernist toward postmodernism. The development of modernism in the early 20th century was determined by the development of new technologies, scientific discoveries, increasing role of rationalism and scientific knowledge. At the same time, the development of science and technology eventually ended up in the emergence of postmodernism in the late 20th – early 21st century which was provoked by consistent change in the society. The development of postmodernism was a kind of response to the dominance of science in modernism. In fact, it is possible to view postmodernism as the return to the dominance of spiritual values, which incorporated the concept of God, over material values and science. Such a shift is particularly obvious in literary works, which distract from realism and scientific accuracy typical for modernist works. Instead, postmodernist trends grow stronger in literary works of modern writers. In this respect, it is possible to refer to Jeanette Walls’ “The Glass Castle”, in which the author depicting the autobiographical story raises very important ethical issues and appeals to the return of moral values in the modern society.

Jeanette Walls conveys the autobiographical story of the girl raising up in a very specific family. To put it more precisely, the author conveys the story of the girl that was raised up in the family, where parents paid little attention to their daughter. In fact, the girl grew up on her own, while parents were focused on their own life. The mother of the main character was a frustrated artist, who was concentrated on her creative work, while the farther of the girl was alcoholic, who did not care about the girl and her upbringing. At the same time, the author reveals the suffering of the main character and the problems she faced in the course of her personal development. In such a way, the author shows that the main character of the book was raised up in the environment which was totally deprived of traditional family values. As a result, the author stresses that the main character could not acquire traditional set of values, being raised up in the world, where material values dominated over spiritual ones.

In such a situation, the author suggests to return to traditional values because she apparently views the family values as fundamental values of the society, which were neglected under the impact of modern society. The latter was influenced by the domination of materialism and modern technologies, which dehumanized the modern society and family of the main character of “The Glass Castle”. Therefore, it is only the return to traditional family values that can save the modern society from the total degradation. In such a context, it is possible to speak about strong postmodernist trends in “The Glass Castle” because the author is very critical about the modern society and cultural norms and traditions along with the dehumanizing effects of the technological progress and scientific development on ordinary people. At this point, it is important to dwell upon the essence of modernism and postmodernism to understand the shift from modernism to postmodernism which can be clearly traced in “The Glass Castle” when the author shows the degradation of the main character’s family and appeals to return to traditional family values.

On analyzing the difference between modernism and postmodernism, first of all, it should be pointed out that the principle differences between modernism and postmodernism are the result of the significant gap in historical terms of their development. To put it more precisely, the development of modernism had started in the late 19th century, while the development of postmodernism had started just recently in the late 20th century. At the same time, for many specialists the development of postmodernism symbolized the end of the epoch of modernism.

In such a situation, in order to better understand basic differences between modernism and postmodernism, it is necessary to briefly dwell upon the difference of epochs when they progressed. In this respect, modernism is obviously the product of intense industrialization and commercialization of art that affected practically all branches of art, including painting, literature, design, music, etc. Not surprisingly that modernists tended not simply to depict the surrounding reality but bring in a substantial degree of abstraction and symbolism attempting to evoke a profound interest to art and its originality from the part of wide audience.

Naturally, the new epoch affected art and design dramatically and the late 20th century stimulated the shaping of postmodernism as an independent movement, or a set of movements. Despite the fact that postmodernism is merely defined by specialists it still reflects the epochs when the rapid technologies of technologies and global changes of lifestyle and culture influenced dramatically art. As a result, some artists started to use new techniques and new trends appeared. For instance, Cindy Sherman amply used photography in her works rather than conventional painting that was quite unusual even for modernist art. At the same time, new trends appeared such as the green design as one of the most original and noteworthy postmodernist movements which focuses on such problems as transforming a house, which is perceived by modernist as “a machine for living in” into a machine that keeps you healthy and comfortable and does not need much money or maintenance or raw materials to keep running. In such a way, postmodernism turns out to be quite different from modernism.

Furthermore, it should be said that even though modernism and postmodernism basically refer to different epochs, it does not necessarily mean that the art and design of different styles could not coexist. In stark contrast, modernism proved to be a very influential movement and its impact could be traced in the late 20th century and even, today, modernism has not died out yet.

In this regard, the postmodernist literature starts to change the traditioanl, modernis view on science as the uultimate value which defines the works of designers. Instead, the literature of the postomdernist writers becomes more experimental in relation to the form and function. Speaking about the principle differences between modernism and postmodernism, it is necessary to dwell upon the basic points which distinguish both movements. For instance, the concept of ‘self’ is treated differently in modernism and postmodernism. The former admits the existence of stable, coherent ‘self’, independent of culture and society, while the latter interprets ‘self’ as a myth and largely a composite of one’s social experience and cultural contexts. Furthermore, reason and science provided accurate, objective and reliable foundation of knowledge that stimulated the development of such modernist movements as cubism, while postmodernism perceives reason and science as myths created by man that results in the trend to higher level of abstraction and symbolism and attempts to escape from rationalism and objective reality.

Also it is worthy of mention that science was perceived by modernists as the paradigm of all true knowledge while postmodernists are more skeptical about it and treats science as ideology which is not really trustworthy. At the same time, it is necessary to underline the difference of views of modernists and postmodernists on language both verbal and non-verbal. Basically, modernists stay on the ground that language is transparent and there exists a one to one relationship between signifier and signified. In stark contrast, postmodernists emphasize that language is fluid and arbitrary as well as meaning is that results in the belief that meaning is ‘messy’.

Another important point that differentiates postmodernism from modernism is their attitude to truth. Postmodernists estimate that there are no eternal truths, no universal human experience, no universal human rights, overriding narrative of human progress. In general they believe that truth may exist independent of human consciousness but there is no objective means of nailing it down. Instead, modernists are more resolute in this respect, and definitely emphasize that truths does exist independent of human consciousness and can be known through the application of reason. Moreover, modernists believe that the application of reason leads to a progressive movement towards civilization, democracy, freedom, scientific advancement. On the other hand, postmodernists stay on the ground that there is no objective means upon which to predicate morality and just governance.

Also it is noteworthy that modernists and postmodernists have different views on such phenomenon as feminism. To put it more precisely, according to modernists, women are oppressed by patriarchy and can use reason to achieve both independence and regain their ‘authentic selves’. As for postmodernists, they believe that the categories of feminine/masculine, male/female are themselves cultural myths and gender roles are culturally relative in all cultures and contexts.

In this respect, Jeanette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” is a remarkable literary work which shows the shift from modernism to postmodernism and postmodernist trends are very strong in this book. To put it more precisely, the author challenges the admiration of modernist with the scientific and technological progress. Instead, she shows that the modern world, technology and science lead people to moral degradation and dehumanization. In this regard, the family of the main character is a symbol of degradation of traditional family values. The author stresses that modern people have lost traditional values under the impact of technologies and scientific progress. In response to the dehumanization of the modern society, the author suggests to return to traditional family values and focus on spiritual values, which she juxtaposes to the material ones. Such a postmodernist view on the modern society dominates throughout the book and clearly reveals the actual position of the author. At the same time, the book “The Glass Castle” reveals the major trend of the postmodernist literature to the development of new view on the world and human life, which becomes less materialistic and more spiritual compared to modernist view on the world and human life.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Jeanette Walls created a remarkable piece of literature, “The Glass Castle”, which may be viewed as a postmodernist work, although, it is  possible to trace the shift from modernism toward postmodernism. The development of the 20th century literature was characterized by the emergence of modernism which later gave way to postmodernism. The latter tends to become the mainstream trend in the late 20th – early 21st century design. At the same time, it should be said that the difference between postmodernism and modernism is quite significant and art and design only reflect the profound change and shift that have occurred in human values, lifestyle, and ideology during the last century. Obviously, both modernism and postmodernism are the ‘products’ of their epochs and are equally progressive and advanced but modernism rather symbolizes the development of art, culture and society at large in the 20th century, while postmodernism reflect the ideas and recent trends of the late 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. In such a way, by the early 21st century, the postmodernism becomes mainstream in literature and other arts.

Works Cited:

Alloway, L. (ed.), Modern Dreams: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Pop Art, New Publishers, New York, 1988.

Art in theory 1900-1990. LA: McGraw Hill, 1997.

Bockris, V. The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, Bantam, New York, 1989.

Crichton, M. Jasper Johns, Touchstone, New York, 1978.

Harvey, David The condition of Post Modernity New York: Routledge, 1995.

Hiesienger, K.B. and G.H. Marcus. Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Design: An Illustrated Handbook. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993.

Leslie, S. “This Typeface is Changing Your Life.” In The Sponsored Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Stanizsewski. M.A. “Introduction: Installation Design.” In The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Stanizsewski. M.A. “Preface.” In The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Woodman, Jonathan. Twentieth-Century Design. New  York: Random House, 1998.



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