Inglesby, Elizabeth Cain
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During the course of their literary experiments in the modern period, Elizabeth Bowen, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf redefined both the reality of place—the concrete details of scene that mold consciousness—and the place of material reality in fiction, elevating to a new significance the everyday objects scattered throughout their texts. Their work shows a marked new attention to the things with which we live and interact on an intimate and interdependent basis. These authors were practicing a form of literary animism, in which they considered the possibility that objects, buildings, and landscapes have lives and a share in the realm of consciousness. All three authors approached this aspect of their work with an awareness that some of their literary predecessors, Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats, had vigorously explored the extent to which the non-human and particularly the natural world seemed to be animated by sublime forces and to interact with human consciousness. For these poets, objects both natural and synthetic took on significance largely because they could be made to serve as reflective props, but in modern fiction, everyday items begin to occupy their own plane of existence. Joyce, Woolf, and Bowen re-examine the interface between the physical and the spiritual in the form of narratives in which things, far from merely reflecting the writer’s emotional or mental state or acting as evidence of God’s or Nature’s ingenuity and grace, sometimes come to resemble fellow actors in a vast and complex drama or mute but compelling counterparts in a world from which God has receded. These writers approach their romantic inheritance concerning objects with varying degrees of skepticism about the capacity of the non-human world to connect and communicate with the human. They share a strong suspicion of disconnection at this juncture, and all three seek to delineate the exact nature and degree of the separation between consciousness and the material world. This study examines not only the ways in which these authors animate inanimates, but also the means they used to keep a critical distance between such objects and their counterparts, the characters.