Perspective in European modernist literature: 1895—1914

Written over a two-week period in April 2014, this is an essay I wrote at University of Exeter about Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. As you can tell from the title, it focuses on the theme of the self and the its perspective on the surrounding world. If you like long-reads, I hope you might enjoy reading the essay as much as I enjoyed writing it:

‘The primacy of the individual consciousness as a source of all interpretations of the world’ has been described as ‘one of the central tenets of Modernism’ (Longhurst). To what extent do two novels support, or fail to support, this view?


Miguel de Unamuno (29 September 1864–31 December 1936)

In ‘The Name and Nature of Modernism,’ Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane define modernism as “a movement towards introversion, [and] internal self-scepticism” (26). Developing that definition further, they also categorise it as: “the art consequent on the dis-establishing of communal reality, and […] on the wholeness of individual character” (27). As modernism evolved at the turn of the 20th century across Europe, a period of “rapid industrial development […] and advanced technology” (Bradbury 57),[1] there was clearly a re-consideration of “objective reality” (Nagel 25) and self-knowledge—specifically individual consciousness. During this period, as Allan Bullock writes, “[modernists] believed, rightly, that they were developing new ways of looking at the physical universe […] and new ways of understanding man and society” (68). Through their protagonists, Jude Fawley and Augusto Perez, both Thomas Hardy and Miguel de Unamuno explore individual consciousness as a source of subjective interpretation—but not all interpretation—in Jude the Obscure (1895) and Niebla (1914), the two novels, or “nivola” (200), in Unamuno’s case, I shall discuss in this essay. Of course, in its most traditional sense, neither Hardy nor Unamuno were considered to be part of the original modernist movement.[2] In both texts, though, perhaps most noticeably in Niebla, Hardy and Unamuno explore individual consciousness—and explore the nature of reality’s professed objectivity—in a way that conforms to the modernist movement. Indeed, as Barry N. Schwartz writes about Jude Fawley: “[He] is one of the first anti-heroes of existentialism and able guide to the realities of twentieth-century life” (793).

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)*Woodburytype Photograph  *9 1/2 x 7 inches

Thomas Hardy (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928)

Towards the beginning of Jude the Obscure and Niebla, both Hardy and Unamuno portray their “hyper sensitive” (Murphy 79) protagonists as pensive, introverted characters, a deliberate ploy that establishes them to be removed from their surrounding world. In the first two chapters, Hardy describes Jude as “thoughtful” (2), “before his time” (3) and “crazy for books” (6). Later on, during a “leap of thought,” Hardy also writes: “[Jude] had become entirely lost to his bodily situation” (15). Unamuno, meanwhile, describes Augusto as “sin darse […] cuenta” (110) of what he is doing, his mind ruled by his “loca fantasía” (113). Discussing Augusto Perez, Mario J. Valdés categorises such self-containment as “[un] estado psicológico de ensimismamiento” (26), a “hollow” (Ilie 8), indefinite state of mind. In Niebla, demonstrated through Augusto’s remarks about it, Unamuno uses the “paraguas cerrado” (109) as a symbol of this introverted mindset. During the opening scene, for example, Augusto says: “Un paraguas cerrado es tan esbelto como es feo un paraguas abierto” (109). Two lines later, he then proclaims: “El uso estropea y hasta destruye toda belleza […] ¡Qué bella es una naranja antes de comida!” (109) Like Jude, who allows his mind to become “impregnated” (26) with thought, the umbrella serves to show how Augusto prefers introversion to extroversion and, as his remarks about the orange suggest, considers an inert, still-life object to be more beautiful than one immersed in the external world. However, as Paul Ilie argues in Unamuno: An Existential View of Self and Society, “Individuality alone is a brute state, unsocial and uncommitted. Personality […] knits the individual into a social and cultural fabric” (60). Ironically, then, categorised as an “embriogénico” (Valdés 25) mindset, the primacy of Jude’s and Augusto’s individual consciousness is initially too intimate to be considered a source of interpretation of the world. In order to develop a coherent sense of self, both Jude and Augusto must engage with their external environment. Their outlooks, until they do so, are only self-introspective.


‘Mist,’ the Spanish-English translation for Unamuno’s title

In a letter to the English poet Edmund Gosse, Hardy describes Jude the Obscure as an attempt “to show the contrast between the ideal life a man wished to lead, & the squalid real life he was fated to lead,” (qtd. in Taylor xxvii). This notion of reality’s “cruelty” (294) oppressing individual desire or “vision” (288) is demonstrated best in the novel through Jude’s subjective vision. With “his dreams […] as gigantic as his surroundings were small” (14), Jude longs to escape the “hamlet of Marygreen” (3) for Christminster, the city in which Jude imagines himself studying at the University. Perceiving Christminster as “a city of light” (17), Jude becomes “romantically attached” (16) to the city, giving him “something to anchor on, to cling to” (17). Evidently, through the use of “anchor,” Hardy portrays Jude’s consciousness as more externalised, and the reader thus begins to observe Jude’s surroundings through his individual consciousness. In Chapter III, for example, once “the mist” (13) has risen over “the topaz points” (14), Jude finally sees for the first time the city’s “vanes, windows [and] wet roof slates” (14). Shortly after, Jude then concludes: “It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere” (14). However, described as a possible mirage, what Jude sees is not “unquestionably” Christminster. Indeed, before it becomes “veiled in mist” (14) again, the city is even described as “vague” (14). In the case of Christminster, then, Jude’s individual consciousness becomes a source of interpretation. With the intrusion of an omniscient narrator, though, who undermines Jude’s subjective vision, the reader can justify questioning Jude’s subjective perception. By using two contrasting narratives, this scene is a prime example of the “multiplicity and incongruity” (qtd. in Murphy 58) that lies behind Hardy’s narrative in the novel.


Thomas Hardy’s signature

Shortly after Augusto’s remarks about the umbrella, Unamuno embarks on one of Niebla’s most critiqued scenes: Augusto’s stream of consciousness, a modernist technique—utilised most famously in James Joyce’s Ulysees (1922)—that draws parallels to Hardy’s use of subjective vision. Strolling along the pavement, Augusto notices a child “tirado de bruces en el suelo” (110) prompting him to ask himself: “¿qué hará allí?” (110). Continuing to observe his surroundings, Augusto also sees: “[un] gandul que va ahí, a paso de carga, codeando a todos aquellos con quienes se cruza” (110). Once Augusto spots them, both the child and the beggar immediately enter Niebla’s narrative through a “cadena de asociaciones” (Valdés 27). In these observations, linking the mind’s activity directly to the external world, Unamuno captures the spontaneous, chaotic pattern of individual consciousness. As William James, a pioneer of stream of consciousness, writes: “It is nothing joined; it flows. […] Let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life” (qtd. in Stevenson 39). Like Hardy with Jude’s subjective vision, then, Unamuno suggests that reality could be purely subjective, a concept that Immanuel Kant discusses when he categorises “our successive states of mind as perceptions” (Scrutton 20). In turn, this notion of perception links with the Kantian theory “that the mind does not passively receive information” (Murphy 61). In this sense, then, Augusto’s individual consciousness is central to his interpretation of his external world. Indeed, although his subjective perspective is limited, it is arguably the means through he constructs his entire sense of reality. Relating to Unamuno’s interest in “the consciousness of self […] and of God” (Ilie 9), this portrayal of the external world thus questions the basis of reality’s objectivity as Augusto’s construction of it is purely within his mind.


James Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941), a pioneer of the stream of consciousness technique

In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), one of the most influential works in philosophy’s history, Immanuel Kant introduces the theory of the “thing in itself” (49), a concept that both Hardy and Unamuno employ in Jude the Obscure and in Niebla. In a letter, Kant explains this theory as: “All objects that can be given to us can be conceptualised in two ways: on the one hand, as appearances; on the other hand, as things in themselves” (qtd. in Scrutton 48). As this summary suggests, Kant’s concept of appearance, like Jude’s subjective vision and Augusto’s stream of consciousness, relies solely on the subjectivity of individual consciousness. In Section One, for example, Kant argues how “a rose […] is taken by the em-pirical understanding for a thing in itself, though to every different eye, in respect of its colour, it may appear different” (49). With Jude the Obscure, Jude’s subjective vision of Christminster undoubtedly corresponds with Kant’s example of the rose. On one side, the omniscient narrator provides an insight into Christminster’s actual appearance, the thing in itself, which possesses “an estranged look” (162). Jude, conversely, is so prejudiced in his outlook that he sees a “faint halo” (63) rising above the city and, whenever he passed objects “out of harmony” (69) whilst walking through it for the first time, “he allowed his eyes to slip over them” (69). As Norman Prentiss writes, “Jude’s subjective vision creates a harmony where it does not exist” (183). His subjective perception highlights how each individual can ignore or distort the reality they perceive, and that the mind can only process objects as appearances. Indeed, as Hardy himself writes: “We don’t always remember […] that we get only at the true nature of the impression that an object […] produces on us, the true thing in itself being still beyond our knowledge, as Kant shows” (qtd. in Murphy 62).


Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804)

In Niebla, the same philosophy applies to Augusto’s relationship with Eugenia, “la garrida moza” (110) that, during his stream of consciousness, “se dio cuenta” (111) he had been following. Initially, Augusto only sees her eyes, which leads him to conclude that, since he barely saw her face, “tuvo que figurársela” (114). Shortly after this moment, Augusto declares: “La vida es una nebulosa,” and Eugenia “surge de ella” (115). Akin to Jude’s attachment to Christminster, Augusto also says: “[Con Eugenia] ya tiene mi vida una finalidad […] Por lo menos, mi Eugenia, ésta que me he forjado sobre la visión fugitiva de aquellos ojos” (118) With Eugenia, Augusto perceives an alternative version of her, and, unlike Jude with Christminster, he seems to acknowledge doing so. In Augusto’s mind, relating to Kant’s rose, this alternative Eugenia appears to be just as valid as the ‘actual’ version. Indeed, as she is the product of his individual consciousness, Augusto even suggests his imaginary version is unattainable to anyone else, evident when he lays claim to “mi Eugenia” (119). Like Jude’s Christminster, then, there are two possible versions of Eugenia: Augusto’s version of her, with the “resplandor” (117) of her eyes, and the omniscient narrator’s version, the thing in itself, which reveals Eugenia had “adivinó […] que [Augusto] la había seguido” (117). As in Jude the Obscure, there is a contrast between Augusto’s perspective and his external world: outside his individual consciousness, his version of Eugenia does not exist—yet he still considers her to be real. Instead of perceiving the external world, Augusto seems to be become fixated with his own concept of it. As Orfeo, Augusto’s stray dog, says about mankind’s perception of reality in Niebla’s epilogue: “En cuanto le ha puesto un nombre a algo, ya no ve este algo, no hace sino oír el nombre que le puso, o verle escrito” (297).


Oxford, the real-life setting for Hardy’s Christminster

Curiously, in both texts, between these subjective and omniscient perspectives, one can discover the image of mist. Whilst reflecting on Eugenia’s eyes, for instance, together with the cited example of her rising out of mist, Augusto describes them as: “[dos] refulgentes estrellas mellizas en la nebulosa de mi mundo” (116). When Augusto, ironically, fails to spot Eugenia walking past him due to being engrossed in thought about her, Unamuno also writes: “La niebla [en su alma] era demasiado densa” (19). In Jude the Obscure, “the mist” (14) could simply be pathetic fallacy, a symbolic representation of Jude’s anxiety. Indeed, when Jude says: “a cloud has gathered over [Sue, the children and me]” (284), Hardy provides an example of this technique. Equally, though, it could also be a symbol of the ambiguity between Jude’s subjective vision of Christminster and, to use Kant’s terminology, the thing in itself: the Christminster described by the novel’s omniscient narrator. In Niebla, the same argument applies to Augusto: is he simply besotted by his own imagined Eugenia, or the actual version of her? In both cases, Hardy and Unamuno fail—and do so deliberately, in all likelihood—to provide a definitive answer, and the inconclusive image of mist thus becomes a symbol of this existential conundrum. Essentially, it embodies Hardy and Unamuno asking: does individual consciousness construct reality, as Jude’s subjective vision and Augusto’s stream of consciousness suggest? Alternatively, does an omniscient narrator construct it, a Providence-like figure that sees and knows everything? Frustratingly, whilst both Hardy and Unamuno both want their readers to ask those questions, to choose between them would be simplifying what the writers try to achieve. Instead, as Victor Goti declares in Niebla, they are attempting confuse everything “en una sola niebla” (272).

Imagen 073

An artist’s sketch of a younger Miguel de Unamuno

Conventionally, by creating a fictional world, any third-person narrator automatically becomes empowered with an “unconditioned” (Ross 144), God-like perspective. As Gustave Flaubert writes, “the author of his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere” (qtd. in Lee 50). Despite Hardy’s and Unamuno’s portrayals of individual consciousness, their third-person narrators are undoubtedly omnipresent—and arguably the only source of all the world’s interpretations. In Jude the Obscure, one can detect the omniscient narrator via the portrayal of “a middle-aged man […],” Richard Pilloston, Jude’s old schoolmaster, “dreaming a dream of great beauty” (145). Later on, at the Great Wessex Agricultural Show, the reader learns about “the smouldering maternal instinct” (268) of Arabella, Jude’s (at the time) estranged wife. In both quotes, there is an insight—an intrusive one—into the characters’ state of mind. Naturally, through his individual perspective, it is not an observation that Jude could possibly make. Unlike Jude’s subjective vision, the omniscient narrator can portray, to quote Kant, “the world as it is” (qtd. in Scutton 52). Indeed, as Scrutton writes, “it is the ultimate premise whose truth is derived from no other source” (53). In his preface to Jude the Obscure, Hardy describes the novel as: “an endeavour to give shape and coherence to a series of seemings, or personal impressions” (qtd. in Murphy 59). However, besides Jude’s individual consciousness, Hardy does not recognise his use of the omniscient narrator. Demonstrated when the novel continues after Jude’s death, it is this omniscient perspective that gives the widest interpretation of Jude the Obscure’s world. On this occasion, then, Hardy establishes why Linda Shires describes him as a “proto-modernist” (qtd. in Murphy 58). As a nineteenth-century century writer, despite Jude’s subjective vision, he cannot break fully away from literary tradition.


Gustave Flaubert (December 12 1821 – May 8 1880)

In Niebla, written a decade after Jude the Obscure, Unamuno displays a far more modernist approach towards the omniscient narrator’s objective perspective— notably when Augusto decides to visit Antolin S. (ie., Sanchez) Paparrigopolus. In the Cátedra edition, Antolin’s character is given a detailed description for almost seven pages, the longest passage without dialogue in Niebla. In contrast to Augusto, whilst he also boasts an “austero amor a la santa Verdad” (236), the third-person narrator describes Antolin’s mind as “sin nebulosidades ni embolismos” (233). On one hand, the length of this passage may be satirical, a possible means of reflecting Antolin’s egotism,[3] demonstrated through his belief that “era de los [hombres] que van a alguna parte” (237). On the other hand, it represents the traditional narrative form that, mainly through his exploration of individual consciousness, Unamuno generally subverts in Niebla. Evident via “su honda fe en la ignorancia ambiente” (238), Antolin’s outlook on his external world is old-fashioned. Likewise, with the omniscient narrator and little dialogue—the latter regarded as how Unamuno captures “la realidad del mundo” (Valdés 19) in Niebla—so is the passage’s narrative. When discussing Antolin, however, by writing: “este hombre, quiero decir, […] este erudito” (238) Unamuno undermines his omniscient narrator’s objectivity. Suddenly, the previous seven pages, which originally appeared as facts, become subjective: a product of the narrator’s individual consciousness. Later on, when he interrupts the narrative, proclaiming “yo soy el Dios [de mis personajes]” (252), Unamuno identifies himself to be the source of this individual consciousness. Unlike Hardy in Jude the Obscure, then, Unamuno recognises his own consciousness as the source of all interpretations of Niebla’s world. Realistically, within literature, Unamuno shows perhaps the only way that individual consciousness can become omnipresent.


As well as being an Anglophile, Unamuno developed almost obsessive interest – curiously – in origami

In ‘The Language of Modernist Fiction,’ David Lodge argues: “modernist fiction eschews […] the use of a reliable, omniscient and intrusive narrator. It employs, instead, either a single, limited point of view, or multiple viewpoints” (481). To varying degrees, both Hardy’s and Unamuno’s handling of multiple, conflicting narrative viewpoints applies to this definition of modernist fiction. Through Jude’s subjective vision and Augusto’s stream of consciousness, both authors explore the mind’s interpretation of a conditioned reality. Doubting the notion of “objective truth” (Solomon 73), they recognise the impossibility to know the world, as Kant categorises it, “in its unconditioned totality” (qtd. in Scrutton 55) and they subsequently raise the following issues for their characters: “Who am I? What do I believe in? What is my relationship to that which is not me?” (Ilie 5).[4] Whilst Hardy and Unamuno both give “explicit emphasis […] to the supremacy of subjective thinking” (McFarlane 76), though, there is a clear transition from the Jude the Obscure’s proto-modernism to Niebla’s fully-fledged modernism. Through Jude’s subjective vision, in relation to Longhurst’s quote, Hardy may well capture the primacy of individual consciousness—or “experience from within” (Murphy 64)—and question the objectivity of God’s “stern reality” (364). However, Unamuno’s subjective-omniscient narrator—a construction that relates to his “well-known fondness for paradox” (Olson 12)—shows perhaps the most emphatic example of individual consciousness as a source of all the world’s interpretations. Essentially, both Hardy and Unamuno explore the modernist concept of individual consciousness and its interpretation of the external world. Ultimately, though, Hardy’s omniscient narrator means that Jude the Obscure—unlike Niebla—cannot be considered to be a modernist text in the conventional sense. Paradoxically, having said that, the fact Jude the Obscure was originally published in the earliest phases of the modernist movement in 1895 “exemplifies Hardy’s modernity” (Murphy 61) as a Victorian-period writer.


Found in Dorset, the house where Thomas Hardy lived between 1881 and 1883


[1] In Europe, between 1895 and 1915, technological and scientific advances questioned “the whole picture of the physical universe” (Bullock 66). To select a few, these advances included: electricity, X-rays, the discovery of electrons and isotopes, and, perhaps most importantly, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (Bullock 59).

[2] After the public “hysterically attacked [the novel] as immoral” (Bloom 63), Jude the Obscure, published in 1895, was Hardy’s last novel. Following such a negative reception, Hardy wrote: “the experience completely [cured] me of further interest in novel-writing” (qtd. in Bloom 63). Unamuno’s Spain, meanwhile, with “its failure to match the industrial revolution of other Western European countries” (Herr 28), was failing to “adapt to modern civilization” (Herr 28). Throughout the same period, contributing to the “anxiety over Spain political instability” (Herr 28), the country was also engaged in the Spanish-American War until 1898—which culminated in El desastre: when Spain lost Cuba, the last of the Spanish Empire’s remaining colonies.

[3] According to Paul Olson in Niebla: Critical Guides to Spanish Texts: “Lópes-Morillas has pointed out [Antolin’s] similarity to satirical figures in [Unamuno’s] earlier novels, such as the poet Hildebrando F. Menaguti in Amor y pedagogía” (59).

[4] In Hardy’s Victorian society, whilst Hardy was well-known as “as the village atheist” (qtd. in Taylor xx), individuals were beginning to ask such questions; in Unamuno’s post-imperialism Spain, they were ones that Unamuno himself, a man “who profoundly disliked the establishment of any rigid categories” (Olson 9), publicly addressed as a key member of the Generación del 98. Published in 1912, for instance, Unamuno wrote in Del sentimiento trágico de la vida: “La fe no se siente segura […] ni con la tradición, ni bajo la autoridad” (qtd. in Arredondo 224). Evidently, Jude the Obscure and Niebla, there is a wider significance to Hardy and Unamuno’s portrayals of individual consciousness and the perception of reality.

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