The Modernist movement and the Harlem Renaissance were both times of extreme change. Both movements came out of the horrific events of WWI, and were products of the shifts that occurred, which changed how people saw literature, religion, history, and even their own identities. It’s no surprise that the literature of the period, written by authors who strove to find ways to cope with the tremendous shifts, contain incredible stories of characters attempting to find stability in their identities. In both the Modernist movement and the Harlem Renaissance, this need for stability and security shone through as something essential: a need to reinvent oneself, a need to make meaning of the tragedy of war, and ultimately, a need to find solid ground among the chaos. Through a close analysis of the Modernist piece by T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the Harlem Renaissance novel by Nella Larsen, “Passing,” we can see how the need for personal security was an essential common need during these two movements, and ultimately, the one thing that individuals were inherently searching for.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” written by T.S. Eliot, is a poem from the perspective of Prufrock himself, an indecisive, emotionally confused, yet educated man. Prufrock seems to be contemplating his own indecision in this piece, and remarks that because of his indecision, he will be damned. Prufrock is incapable of making decisions, stating: “’Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’”, and because of this constant rethinking, he is afraid he will become old—have “a bald spot in the middle of [his] hair”—before he can make a decision. The thing he is procrastinating on doing seems to be to talking to a “you,” who we can either conclude is a woman who he is having issues talking to, or, because of the medium of the poem, the reader. Either way, Prufrock brings us through each setting, layered almost like the layers of Hell from Dante’s Inferno: “half deserted streets,” “one-night cheap hotels,” “the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” the street covered in yellow fog, etc. Prufrock continually asks himself unsure questions, including questions about his own clothing or what he should be eating. He then changes his tone after the line break on line 70, shifting his message to be regret about the things he should have done—he says “it would have been worth it” to have talk between himself and the unknown “you.” But, since his indecision provoked no action on his part, he laments that he will grow old having not made any decisions, and that he will ultimately drown, or die, not having made any moves to further his own interests. What Prufrock is ultimately saying in this piece is that he needs answers to these questions—he needs to know whether he should be doing these things, and if he can, and what he should be doing to succeed. Prufrock, more than anything else, needs a sense of stability in his own actions, and he needs to be affirmed of his own identity. Since he’s constantly asking himself whether or not he should be dressing a certain way, or whether his hair needs to be done a certain way, we see that he is unable to give us a firm answer to who he should be or what is actual identity is. Prufrock needs to find answers to these questions, and needs to be sure of his own answers, or he feels he will suffocate under the waves of insecurity.
In Nella Larsen’s Passing¸ Irene goes through a more covert mission to find security in her identity. Where Prufrock tells us directly what his issues are and what questions he’s asking himself to try and feel stable in his decisions, Irene’s objective in the novel seems to be to cover up any mention that she’s unsure of her identity. Before the introduction of Clare into her life, Irene was secure in all her institutions. Irene, a woman of color, is able to “pass” as white because of her lightly colored skin, and she fully believes that she is “absurd” for someone else to suspect her race, because “they always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy” (150). Additionally, she has a successful home life with her husband and children, who both identify as black in public and private. However, when Clare enters Irene’s life as a woman who not only passes as white, but who is married to a white, bigoted men, and is actively leaning into her life as a white woman, Irene’s identity is threatened. Irene needs to feel secure in her racial identity, and the danger that Clare is in interrupts Irene’s ability to conceal herself. Irene believes that Clare needs to stop the “charade” for her own personal safety, but Clare refuses, which forces Irene to try and cut Clare off in order to protect herself. Irene, insecure in her own ability to pass as white while Clare is in such danger, blames Clare for her insecurity, and ultimately kills Clare in order to feel secure in her passing. The tragic ending of this novel stresses that security in one’s identity is the most important part to someone’s mental health and ability to thrive. Irene killed Clare in order to protect her own identity—a dire action that was driven by a need for security in her life. This novel underscores what we learned about in Eliot’s poem—that without security in your identity, you are damned, either by your eventual death, as we see in Prufrock’s case or through sin—namely, murder.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was written by a Modernist author, Eliot, whereas “Passing” was written by the Harlem Renaissance writer, Nella Larsen. As we can see, however, both pieces heavily talk about the importance of security in one’s identity. The Modernist movement and the Harlem Renaissance are both characterized by the massive shifts in culture that occurred after World War One, and both movements—and the authors that are featured in them—had different ways of coping with the aftermath of the war. Modernism’s chief ideology was that there was an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness, and the way to cope with that meaninglessness was to try to find meaning through artistic expression that focused on reclaiming the prewar past. In the Modernist movement, there was a sense that meaninglessness had become the norm. Many people felt that, since there was a chaotic lack of meaning, the only way to find personal and universal meaning again would be to go back to a time where there was meaning—before the war. Ultimately, the search for meaning became linked with the idea that meaning was in the past—and so many individuals tried to call back to an earlier time, forgetting their present selves to try and live in the past. We can see this with Prufrock—he says he has “known the eyes already, known them all—” and he has “gone at dusk through narrow streets / And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes.” Prufrock is calling back to an earlier time where he used to know what he saw, but now, in all the chaos and meaninglessness, he cannot even tell himself decisively that he will “dare to eat a peach.”
The Harlem Renaissance, meanwhile, also looked to the past for answers, but in a different way. The center of the Harlem Renaissance’s movement was the idea of the “New Negro,” posed by Alain Locke. “The New Negro” stood in contrast to the “old,” and became a way of defining how modern people of color would recreate their identities to function in the changing world. It became the job of the black artists of the community to define just exactly how that would happen—and writers like Nella Larsen strove to create media that would define how people of color during this time interacted with the new society brought about by the Harlem Renaissance. Irene is thrust into this world of change and newness when Clare comes into her life, and she struggles to redefine herself in the chaos. Irene’s identity, once strong, becomes blurry in the face of the Harlem Renaissance, where she is supposed to redefine herself in new ways. Stubborn in the face of change, Irene’s identity becomes obscured, and to protect herself from change—she lashes out and commits murder.
A central theme of both movements dealt with the change of identity and how to stabilize it. Modernism, through a search for personal meaning in a meaningless society, promised that the stabilization of identity could be found through revisiting your past self to find some meaning there. The Harlem Renaissance, in the meantime, gave people of color hope that they could redefine their identities. Both movements, then, deal with the question of identity. This question is the heart of both movements. The indecisiveness of Prufrock and the insecurity of Irene both coalesce into a single issue: the issue of sureness in oneself and one’s identity. The fact that both of these texts, which are from different movements, deal with the same question of personal security and identity proves that both movements are connected by a sense of overwhelming personal insecurity. People during this time sought to recreate themselves and to distance themselves from the horrors of war, but recreating one’s own identity in the middle of so many societal changes proved difficult. People during these movements both acknowledged the meaninglessness of the time as well as the need to recreate oneself using fragments from the past. These two texts also provide us with the consequence for not having a stable identity—Prufrock, unable to make any decisions about his identity, ultimately drowns after he cannot do any of the things he wants to do. Irene, thirsting for stability, ultimately kills the source of change and chaos in order to try to bring her identity back into the past. Not only do these two different movements provide the question: “What happens if you do not have a stable sense of your identity?”—but they also provide the answer: “death.”