Aftermath of Relics and
Grasping for stability on the face of a chaotic universe, modernist writers believed that the traditional assumptions about family, war, society, and religion were no longer valid. Before, during, and after World War I, the modernists displayed the influences of scientific revolutions, familial upheaval, social reform, and philosophical questions. Religion was particularly decimated by the ravages of questioning. This central motivating factor of not only the United States, but the entire world, was intensely scrutinized and oftentimes abandoned by the modernists, and criticism, abandonment, and reconstruction of religion are evident in selected works of Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and Wallace Stevens. Frost flippantly scoffs at doomsday predictions in "Fire and Ice." In contrast to Frost’s assertion of the power of the individual against scientific prediction and religious prophecy, Harold Krebs folds under his family’s religious pressure in Hemingway’s "Soldier Home." Alienated from both her family and society, Granny Weatherall tries to use Roman Catholicism as a ticket to Heaven in Porter’s "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," but she realizes the pointlessness of this goal on her deathbed. As a culmination of the underlying implications of modernist thought, Wallace Stevens embraces a new religious order in "Sunday Morning." As opposed to a transcendent and unseeable yearning for the afterlife, Modernism presents the option of a new faith in the power of natural and secular reality.
In a few succinct and profound lines, Robert Frost alludes to two predominant theories of world destruction in "Fire and Ice." The first apocalyptic theory involves a violent, passionate, and abrupt destruction of the world. Frost writes, "From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire" (3-4). With this brief phrase, Frost combines the perspectives of scientific dogma and traditional Christian tenets, and he asks the reader to imagine the implications of both the "Big Bang" and "second Coming." Frost finds no comfort in either postulate. Quickly shifting to another "end-of-the-world" theory, he dually evokes ideas about a subsequent "ice age" and a cold disunion of humanity by hatred. Frost nonchalantly states:
But if it had to perish twice,
Both multi-interpretational elements, fire and ice, are more than adequate to initiate world destruction without God’s assistance. Although Frost amalgamates Henry Adams’s ideas of scientific sanctity developed in "The Dynamo and the Virgin" with Christian principles of Revelation, he finds no redemption in either of these beliefs, but his reception of "I" subtly hints at the only stability that a person can find in an assuredly destructive universe. A blazing of freezing apocalypse is a debatable point; however, Frost only knows the power of an isolated individual against universal forces.
Though he attempts to break with his family’s religious values, Harold Krebs cannot escape the constant pressure of a false and lying society in Hemingway’s "Soldier Home." He has returned home after World War I only to find that he is unable to connect with society. Expressing Krebs’ sexual and social frustration, Hemingway writes, "But the world they were in was not the world he was in" (1160). Krebs’ firm religious indoctrination is exceedingly apparent because of his Methodist college attendance and his mother’s repeated Christian slogans. By the insinuated instigation of Krebs’ father, his mother places Christian societal obligations on him. Instead of universal love and compassion, he feels hollow and cold. He clearly enunciates his condition after he tells his mother that he does not love her: "‘I don’t love anybody,’ Krebs said" (1163). But Krebs is forced to retract his bold statements when his mother begins to cry; she tries to prod him into prayer. By kneeling beside his mother as she prays for him, he has symbolically and literally acquiesced to his parents’ wishes. He is unable to overcome religious authority, and he deeply resents this nearly unconquerable force. Hemingway tersely conveys Krebs’ thoughts: "He had felt sorry for his mother and she had made him lie. He would go to Kansas City and get a job and she would feel all right about it" (1163). Krebs’ defeat stands in harsh contrast to Frost’s assertion of an individual’s capacity to surmount a hierarchical religious society.
Katherine Anne Porter’s "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" fuses Frost and Hemingway’s divergent ideas about religion into a surreal and complex short story. Granny Weatherall has tried to live a good, dutiful, and hardworking life despite being rejected and left alone on her wedding day by her first bridegroom. Although she claims the guise of religious motivation for her actions, she is persevering and thriving in order to spite her first lover. After her husband dies, she further asserts her role as an independent woman. Porter details the stream of Granny Weatherall’s thoughts: "Digging post holes changed a woman. Riding country roads in the winter when women had their babies was another thing: sitting up nights with sick horses and sick negroes and sick children and hardly ever losing one" (1058). Granny Weatherall makes hollow prayers to God, for she truly believes that she is responsible for the order and success of her life. She is an example of a strong female figure that would fight for women’s suffrage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and thus be feared and resented by a white male protestant dominated society. While Granny Weatherall denies the eminence of her death, she makes provisional prayers just in case she will die soon, but these prayers are to an unresponsive God and ineffectual saints. As her eyes close and the light grows dim, she seeks a sign from her third bridegroom, Christ. Upon not receiving a sign, she faces death on her own terms: "She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light" (1062). Rebelling against a submissive social and religious role, Granny Weatherall takes a firm, iconoclastic step that Harold Krebs is unable to accomplish.
Delving into a philosophical exploration of the implications of religious critique and abandonment, Wallace Stevens lays the foundations of a new religious alternative in "Sunday Morning." By depicting tremendously vivid and sensual scenes, he draws the reader’s attention to the life style of an agnostic woman on a Sunday morning. She gleans no contentment from the religious ceremony that is taking place near her home, but she does savor her late breakfast. While she is enjoying her habitual Sunday activities, she cannot neglect the questions that linger in her mind:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
Her answer to these questions is that she finds no pleasure in dilapidated, stale myths which revolve around unseen people, places, and events; she has assurance in her own godlike character. In the midst of her rejection of Christianity, she still longs for an eternal paradise, but not the immutable Christian ideal. Stevens juxtaposes his redefinitions of blood, heaven, beauty, death, worship, and life with the ancient Christian paradigms. For example, Stevens proclaims, "Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desire" (63-65). The natural cycle of life and death is beautiful, for all things that die will reorganize to form a future creation in a paradoxical universe of constant change; no God is essential to an earthly flow of being. After giving a blatant Nietzschean declaration of the death of God, Stevens reaffirms his new natural religion with majestic earthly scenes, and the agnostic woman provides an archetype for current and future believers in personal divinity.
Against the backdrop of the apparently chaotic universe, the modernists severely criticized a deeply rooted American institution, religion. World War I shattered the unrealistic concept of continual progress, and the modernist writers explored the implications of scientific revolutions, familial upheaval, social reform, and philosophical questions. By reading and analyzing the selected works of Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and Wallace Stevens, a person experiences the tension that these writers create as they criticize, abandon, and reconstruct religion. An attentive and receptive reader will not overlook or disregard the religious criticism that is presented in "Fire and Ice," "Soldier’s Home," "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," and "Sunday Morning," for the relevance of the these works has not diminished over time. With profound insight and acute introspection, the modernists urge the reader to question the validity of traditional religion, and their disillusioned, alienated, and experimental voices do not soothe the individual into complacency and stagnation. Unsettled and possibly uprooted, a reader must then reevaluate his or her own spiritual odyssey.
Frost, Robert. "Fire and Ice." McQuade 2: 1256.
Hemingway, Ernest. "Soldier’s Home." McQuade 2: 1159-63.
McQuade, Donald, et al. ed. The Harper American Literature. 2nd
ed. 2 vols. New York:
Porter, Katherine Anne. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." McQuade 2: 1056-62
Stevens, Wallace. "Sunday Morning." McQuade 2: 1273-76.
"Aftermath of Relics and Shards" is an essay written by Jeremy Headrick in Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131 class in Spring 2001. At the time of this writing Headrick was a senior majoring in English. To his credit, he was awarded the Bill Jump Biology Award, Logic Award, and the Outstanding Scholar of Dalton State College in 2001.