American modernism's fading flowers of friendship.
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I examine friendships between major characters in modernist novels written by four American writers: Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. My examination will reveal that the friendships they portray largely fail due to a symptom of modernism, namely that people cannot agree upon the purpose of a human being’s existence. If the purpose for human life, and therefore the criteria by which to judge whether a human life is lived well, are uncertain, then people cannot selflessly assist one another to live life well; this assistance lies at the heart of my definition of friendship, which I have adopted from Aristotle. The depiction of friendship by these four novelists indicate the immense difficulty of individuals living in the culture of modernism to look past themselves and help those closest to them progress toward a fulfilling, meaningful way of life. My concern with friendship in modernist novels is cultural and philosophical. I approach the novels as artifacts of the modernist culture in which they were created to see how these writers artistically perceive friendship. This emphasis implies that broad, philosophical trends infiltrated the communities of which these writers were members and affected their perceptions of friendship, both in their personal lives and in their art; my focus for this project happens to be the latter, rather than the former. I then want to compare the writers’ modernist-steeped view to a philosophical notion of friendship that was understood in Western thought for two thousand years but that until recently was almost completely forgotten—Aristotle’s conception of friendship and its role in a flourishing, communal life. Through this comparison, I will show that the cultural forces of modernism prompted these authors to create both enfeebled friendships and, on occasion, hopeful ideals of friendship that one might pursue against the alienating forces of modern life. The goal of my study is to reveal that the modernist period is a rich source for understanding the dynamics of and human need for friendship.