Helpless humanity

Keeping consistent with a major theme of modernist literature, both Joyce’s “Proteus” and Ben Hecht’s “Nocturne” present the reader images of humanity as a helpless, desperate race. In “Proteus,” much of this imagery is connected with the sea. As Stephen is walking along the beach, cracking shells under his feet, he briefly thinks of them as “Human shells” (line 158). A bit later in the episode, Stephen wishes “his life still to be his, mine to be mind,” (lines 327-328) “his” referring to a drowning man, whose “human eyes scream to me out of the horror of his death,”  (lines 329-330). Neither of these images conveys a particularly pleasant picture of humanity. In the first example, humans are nothing but empty shells, as fragile and hollow as those that Stephen crushes into the sand. They have no substance allowing them to withstand the force exerted against them. The second, equally bleak image presents a man trapped in the horror of losing his life and unable to save himself. He is just as helpless as the shells that Stephen crushes.

Ben Hecht’s “Nocturne” paints a similar picture of humanity as helpless. The narrator repeatedly characterizes the sleeping humanity as “the little greedy half-dead” (45). He also fixates on the thought of people sleeping naked, saying that in this environment, “they lay in fantastic imitation of their sincerer brethren packed away under the earth, (46). For this narrator, those who are physically alive are not really living. The living’s state is so pathetic and hollow that he considers the dead more “sincere.” Like Joyce, Hecht seems to think that the general masses of humanity lack vitality and a sense of meaning. In these writings, humans are a helpless race, plodding inevitably toward death. 


2 thoughts on “Helpless humanity

  1. Will Boogert

    I think it’s hard to avoid that sense of emptiness that Modernism is intent on describing and combatting. But I think in those dreary thoughts, there might possibly be some absurd kind of humor, which Joyce exploits. It’s a dark humor, so it’s not an entirely positive thing. I guess the helplessness you describe also reminds me of Ireland as it relates to England. Your post was so depressing, though…I hope the novel gets a little bit happier as we go on.


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