Trilling’s “Adversary Culture” in Modernist Literature

The era of modernism, or times of “high art”, were labelled by literary critic Lionel Trilling an “adversary culture” in his staple book Beyond Culture. This term on the surface presents itself ironically, as it the entity is comprised of two contradictory terms. Adversary can be understood as anything inciting/evoking a conflict involving people, places or concepts, and Culture is the coming together of beliefs, values and most importantly arts in any given societal group. If we combine these polar opposites, we arrive at “adversary culture” a culture (a coming together) of writers in the modernist era whom were engaging in conflicts associated with societal or cultural norms, constructs or values. There is a need for consideration though on the premise of what these “conflicts” in regards to culture were. Evident conflicts within modernist literature such as classism, religion, sexuality, and feminism rest evident in works by T.S Eliot, Hilda Doolittle and James Joyce. The scope of research will examine these conflicts within T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Dubliners and Hilda Doolittle’s Leda through analysis of deeper meaning in the works.

Classism, a conflict which arises in T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land, particularly within the first section “The Burial of the Dead” and the second section “A Game of Chess” is extremely convoluted due to the advanced nature of Eliot’s vocabulary. Classism is understood as anything concerning the social hierarchy led by the upper-class, followed by the middle-class and working-class. “The Burial of the Dead” and “A Game of Chess” differ in the ways that they present these socially constructed classes. “The Burial of the Dead” brings to attention the suffering and gaunt state of the middle and working-class. On the surface, the title of the work suggests that something deceased is to be buried, which could have implications upon the middle/working class being dead, and being buried underneath the oppression of the bourgeois. While describing “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant” (43), one of the cards which the clairvoyant describes is the “one-eyed merchant” (52) whom possesses a “card,/Which is blank” (52-53) which he “carries on his back” (53). This signifies classism, due to the nature that it may be interpreted. This merchant, a presumable member of the middle/working class carries around a blank card on his back, which illustrates the strenuous insignificance/nothingness that this class member possesses in the grand scheme of things through the eyes of the oppressive bourgeois. Most significant to classism though is the “Unreal city” (60) passage. This “crowd” (62) that “flowed over London Bridge” (62) are the frail members of the middle/working class making their way to “King William Street” (66), the industrial/financial district in London at nine in the morning to begin their day, “With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (68). The narrator personifies these people as dead, “I had not thought death had undone so many” (63) which again serves the purpose of classism, implying that the members of classes below the bourgeois have essentially died by acting as their slaves, doing grunt-work for major corporations, capitalism at its finest. A more abstract instance of classism is found when the narrator approaches one of these people, and begins questioning him about a ‘corpse’, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?/O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” (71-75).The motif of the buried corpse represents the manifestation of the underclasses anger towards the bourgeois, and the possibility of it sprouting/blooming into a revolution. This anger is disturbed by a “sudden frost” (73); and since winter in the first stanza was illustrated as “forgetful” (6), this sudden frost is associated to distractions provided by the bourgeois in an effort to mask the degree to which members of the underclasses are oppressed. The dog that will dig up the buried corpse represents a ‘hero’ figure, the salvation of the lower-class brought on by an instinctive member, whom will “dig it up again” (75), and initiate a revolution, “again” (75) is applied to cater to the French Revolution.

As mentioned previously, “The Burial of the Dead” and “A Game of Chess” differ in the ways they present classes, where “The Burial of the Dead” represents the suffering of lower-class individuals brought on by the bourgeois and “A game of chess particularizes the death of London in terms of three of its classes of citizens: upper, middle and working class” (Spurr, 59). This section however seems to be narrated by both sides of the social class spectrum, with the first being one of privilege, “The “closed car” (136) and the chess game indicate a certain level of privilege/placing this couple in the upper middle class” (Spurr, 59) and the second being from the lower-class. The aristocratic woman whom is indulged/surrounded by materialistic things grows increasingly paranoid and hysterical, and she seems to be communicating with a man whom she is in a relationship with in an extremely neurotic manner, “Stay with me./Speak to me./What are you thinking of?” (111-113). This alludes to the toxic relationship between the lower and upper class, where the bourgeois is paranoid of the lower class sparking an uprising. The second portion of the section is set through the eyes of the proletariat, and a group of friends are at the pub at last call, “Hurry up please its time” (141). The first speaker is inconsiderate, and downplays her friend because of the way her teeth look and suggests she needs to fix them before her husband returns “Now Albert’s coming back/He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you/To get yourself some teeth” (142-144). We find out that Albert has “been in the army four years” (148) and the first speaker implies that he will leave her if she does not change her appearance. This harsh portrayal is different in the way that the aristocratic woman is illustrated surrounded by material goods and in good health (not mentally though), whereas the member of the lower class s depicted having rotting teeth and five children. This implies a classist comparison, where bourgeois members are ever-prosperous, surrounded by material wealth and lower class members are left rotting away physically and metaphorically impoverished.

Hilda Doolittle, or ‘H.D’ was an imagistic poet within the modernist era. Her poem Leda, is a poem which re-enacts the rape of Leda, mother of Helen by Zeus in the form of a swan which is derived from ancient Greek mythology. Gender is the main conflict evident here, as this was written during a time of mass oppression to women, and the conflict can be understood along the lines of first-wave feminism as the avocation of equal rights amongst men and women. To provide further context, critics “sought to expose H.D’s lack of literary ‘greatness’, comparing her ‘Leda’ unfavorably to Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’, asking H.D’s poem to meet criteria derived from Yeats’ poem” (Hickman, 12), which emphasizes the down-playing of a woman’s work brought on by these patriarchal reviewers in contrast to a man’s. We begin the work by immediately creating the setting as, “the slow river/Meets the tide” (1-2), a state of tranquility, which is disrupted by the “Red swan” (3) who “lifts his Red wings” (3). This is indicative of a disruptive, angry force that has just presented itself as a ‘red alert’; a man disrupting the calm, tranquil and peaceful scene. Leda “focuses on the male figure and presents the rapist as attractive, however the poem recognizes female vulnerability and stresses the predatory nature of Leda’s attacker which is masked by his sexual appeal” (Graham, 116). Based on the notion of this swan possessing a “darker beak” (4) which foreshadows the attackers intentions, we would assume that the swan is subject to evil aspirations. This is contradicted immensely when H.D used words such as “soft breast” (6) and “warm quivering” (33) to describe the attacker. This is done to “draw attention to the sexual violence against women that is presented casually in Greek myth” (Graham, 116), which is significant to gender conflict since H.D is presenting the rape of Leda in a different, more erotic manner by choice. Since Yeats provided us with a more forceful, violent account of the rape, H.D seems to be changing the way that the rape is presented. This on its own signifies cultural conflict, as H.D manipulated the poetic perspective of an extremely renowned poet (Yeats) to one of a woman, and to do this as a woman in the way that H.D did is spectacular. The most interesting way that H.D arises gender within her poem however is the representation of women as flowers, “flowers represent women, as they often do in H.D’s poetry” (Graham, 116). This personification takes place during the rape, as the “warm quivering/of the Red swan’s breast” (34) is still taking place, and the Leda “lies ‘beneath’ the ‘red swan wings’, rendered invisible and powerless” (Graham, 116). Leda is presented as a “gold day-lily” (29), which personifies our protagonist as beautiful but also “Stresses the impact of rape on women” (Graham, 116) by representing the docile and beautiful nature of womankind being taken advantage of by sexual attackers, or in the grand scheme of things, the patriarchy. This represents gender conflict because it brings about new perspectives from a woman upon her oppression by the patriarchy when all she is trying to do is relax by the “slow River” (1) that “Meets the tide” (1).

James Joyce, a prominent figure in the realist movement in the modernist era in his novel, Dubliners portray life realistically set in Dublin at the turn of the early twentieth century. Realism influenced the work of Joyce in ways which were very conflictive to social values of his time, which is evident within the novel when he challenges religion and sexuality. In terms on content, two particular stories stand out in premise of these conflicts, “The Sisters” and “An Encounter”. “The Sisters” is a narrative taken from the point of view of a boy whom has been extremely integrated into the Irish Catholic Church, and there are questions as to what the role of the priest who took him under his wing really was, a molester or an influence in his choice to become clergy at some point in the future. In “The Sisters”, “Joyce wars with religion, not to mention the conventions of emotional, especially sexual, repression adhered to by his forefathers” (Fussell, 583-585) which is an example of the “acculturation of the anti-cultural” under the influence of modernism in literature” (Escoffier, 160). This anti-cultural portrayal of Catholicism is distinguishable during the passage where our protagonist is drifting off into sleep and is paralyzed by Father Flynn’s dead face. Particularly, the narrator says that he “drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas.” (Joyce, 3). This is done by Joyce to convey a defence mechanism known universally in children that transpires when they are faced with terror, hiding under the blankets and going to a happy place. This indicates that the priest has committed a traumatic act (presumably sexual assault) upon the child, and he is taking safety measures to act as an aversive behavior. This is conflictive due to the fact that it represents Joyce’s narrator hiding from the priest, which symbolizes the church/clergy and implies that the Catholic Church is one to be feared for good reason. This theory of molestation is strengthened when the dead priest’s lips are “moist with spittle” (Joyce, 3) which implies the priest has an appetitive desire upon seeing the narrator. The narrator again seems immersed within the Irish Catholic Church, and as a result “learns more about the Catholic doctrine and the gravity of sin from the sick priest” (Mata, 158). However what does the word “sick” represent in this sense? Is it a representation of the ill-minded priest (Joyce, 10) enacting in despicable acts with the boy, or is this to be taken literally? This subjects religion to conflict due to the questionable nature of the clergy’s intentions with young boys, where traditionally priests were not to engage in coitus with anyone but their wife, let alone a small boy. A final example of the conflictive nature Joyce brings about religion is when the narrator is kneeling beside the older woman praying beside the “coffined” (6) priest. The narrator describes the womans prayers as “mutterings” (6) which “distract” (6) him. This is significant to cultural conflict because the narrator is equating holy prayers to distracting mutterings, implicating that the old lady’s prayers are insignificant to him, and distract him from mourning. This could also imply that the narrator is distancing himself away from traditional Catholicism methods and offering his condolences in a different matter, disengagement which implies a separation of ideals. From the same passage, the narrator seems to ponder his faith, but not due to the surface details of the old woman praying next to him, “what distracts him are not these physical details themselves but their suggestion of the way this old irish catholic woman’s life has gone” (Beck, 59). This is conflictive because is suggests that the woman’s life has gone to waste by association in the long-term to the catholic church, and is clearly something he does not desire for himself when he uses distasteful words to describe her appearance, “clumsily” (6), “trodden” (6), “muttering” (6).

“The Sisters” does a fabulous job of representing the conflictive nature of Joyce’s writing in regard to organized religion, and also lays down sexual undertones which are additionally conflictive. However, “An Encounter” is the best representation of Joyce’s representation of a sexuality conflict unique to his time when two young boys are faced with a pedophile in a field. This realist portrayal of sexual nature in Dublin at the time is “a growing estrangement from mass society” (Singal, 8) due to the fact that sexual attacks on children were “repressed by their forefathers” (Fussell, 585) when in reality they were explicit and overt. This conflictive sexual portrayal is articulated both when the man leaves to masturbate after speaking about “hands” (Joyce, 18) and “nice soft hair” (Joyce, 18) of young girls and also when the “queer old josser” (Joyce, 18) returns to where the two boys are sitting and states that he would engage in a “nice warm whipping” (Joyce, 19) when a young boy acts too kind. This proposes an odd tone, and suggests a paedophilic nature in members of Dublin society in the early twentieth century, which is conflictive because it was a time of religious devotion and where the sexual assault of children was far from a quality virtue.

To conclude, modernism, in regards to Trilling’s “adversary culture ”“should be properly be seen as a culture- a constellation of related ideas, beliefs, values and modes of perception” (Singal, 7), where this culture is made up of “twentieth-century artists/artistic theorists who has decided to declare war on the received, the philistine, the bourgeois and the sentimental” (Fussell, 583). T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land represents conflict of classes because Eliot guides our attention to the socially constructed divisions of mass society and how it affects members of each class differently, where the bourgeoisie seem to suffer from neuroticism which is much outweighed by the anguished representation of the lower-class physically and emotionally. Hilda Doolittle utilizes gender in Leda to contribute additional conflict within the period by changing the perspective of a sexual assault from that of a man to one of a woman, and by doing so also creates a conflict in pretense to what we know about mythology based on what we have been offered in literature. James Joyce combats religion and sexuality within the twentieth century in his novel Dubliners where underlying sexual features of Catholicism are arisen and so are indications of perverted sexuality within Dublin at that time. Interestingly enough, these conflicts are uniquely seen in generality within the autobiographies of each of these authors. In this regard, “adversary culture” can be considered an accumulation of authors/artists whom battled conflicts significant and unique which influenced their lives personally, which implies that there is an intention to combat contemporary social issues that have impacted them. In the words of Lionel Trilling, “adversary intention, the actual subversive intention characterizes modern writing” (Trilling, XII).

Beck, Warren. Joyce’s Dubliners: Substance, Vision and Art. Durham: Duke UP, 1969. Print.

An interesting point that Beck makes is in regards to the way the narrator in “The Sisters” analyzes the effects of Catholicism on the lives of people in the long term is “what distracts him is not these details themselves but their suggestion of the way this old irish catholic woman’s life has gone” (Beck, 59) which is significant to the adversary culture because it entices the young narrator whom is immersed in Catholicism to ponder and contemplate his association to religion in the long run. This means that the young boy is already beginning to push away and distance himself from the religion, a conflictive action in the eyes of the church.


Escoffier, Jeffery. American Homo: Community and Perversity. Berkley: U of California, 1998. Print.

Escoffier makes a good point when he implies that Trilling initially “introduced the notion of an adversary culture in his dismay with his students willingness to engage in/ “the acculturation of the anti-cultural” under the influence of modernism in literature” (Escoffier, 160). This has implications upon Modernist literature being resilient to culture in the way that it battles it, shown in Dubliners; particularly “An Encounter”, “Araby” and “Eveline”.

Fussell, Paul. “Modernism, Adversary Culture, and Edmund Blunden.” The Sewanee Review 94.4 (1986): 583-601. JSTOR. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.

This article by Paul Fussell gives an excellent definition of what it means to be a true modernist in his own words, “A modernist is a late nineteenth- or twentieth-century artist/artistic theorist who has decided to declare war on the received, the philistine, the bourgeois, the sentimental, and the democratic” (Fussell, 583) which right off of the bat sets modernism up as an adversary culture. Fussell clarifies also that James Joyce and D.H Lawrence together battled religion, which will be demonstrated in my analysis of religious conflict in Dubliners. A quote which was included within the work by Trilling himself states that “The modern self is characterized by certain habits of indignant perception” (Fussell, 585) which is equitable to a modernist possessing a perception guided by anger, conflict.

Graham, Sarah. “Hymen and Trilogy.” Ed. Polina Mackay. The Cambridge Companion to H.D. Ed. Nephie J. Christodoulides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 116. Print.

Graham analyzes Leda and suggests that the work “draws attention to the sexual violence against women that is presented casually in Greek myth” (Graham, 116). This encompasses what H.D.’s main objective of this work was, and makes an interesting observation to how “flowers represent women” (Graham, 116) within H.D’s works which symbolizes core beauty which transcends the conflictive nature of gender.

Hickman, Miranda B. “‘Uncanonically Seated’: H.D. and Literary Canons.” Ed. Polina Mackay. The Cambridge Companion to H.D. Ed. Nephie J. Christodoulides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 12. Print.

Hickman provides contextual information on premise of how H.D’s Leda was received by literary critics in contrast to how Yeats’ Leda and the Swan. These critics “sought to expose H.D’s lack of literary ‘greatness’, comparing her ‘Leda’ unfavorably to Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’, asking H.D’s poem to meet criteria derived from Yeats’ poem” (Hickman, 12). This represents the intentions that H.D. possessed when she was writing this changed account of the event, and this is conflictive in nature due to how she presented the perspective differently than did Yeats, very significant to early wave feminism and gender.

Mata, Francisco José Hernández. “JAMES JOYCE, ROMAN CATHOLICISM AND ITS PRESENCE IN DUBLINERS.” Repertorio Americano.17 (2004): 154-61. ProQuest.Web. 16 Nov. 2016.

Mata suggests that the young narrator seen in “The Sisters” in James Joyce’s Dubliners has learned “more about the Catholic doctrine and the gravity of sin from the sick priest” (Mata, 158). This notion of a “sick” priest teaching “the gravity of sin” to the young narrator suggests that there is room for an abstract and a literal interpretation. Literally, the priest was sick and it resulted in his untimely death however metaphorically this “sick” priest may have also engaged in distasteful and morally wrong actions with our narrator.



Singal, Daniel Joseph. “Towards a Definition of American Modernism.” American Quarterly 39.1 (1987): 7-26. The John Hopkins University Press. Web.

Singal does a good job here of suggesting that modernism “should be properly be seen as a culture- a constellation of related ideas, beliefs, values and modes of perception” (Singal, 7) which adds onto the notion of modernism being an adversary culture. Another insight from Lionel Trilling proposes that modernism is also “a growing estrangement from mass society” (Singal, 8) which emphasizes again that modernism should be seen as a culture built on the escape of culture.

Spurr, Barry. “Religions East and West in The Waste Land.” The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land. Ed. Gabrielle McIntire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 54-69. Print.

Spurr in his essay titled “Religions East and West in The Wasteland” makes a few points in response to classism within T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land. He states that the section, “A game of chess particularizes the death of London in terms of three of it’s classes of citizens: upper, middle and working class” (Spurr, 59), where we can see the transcendence of different suffering unique to different social classes. Most interestingly though is how he interprets the place of privilege in the opening speaker in the section, “The “closed car” (136) and the chess game indicate a certain level of privilege/placing this couple in the upper middle class” (Spurr, 59) which aids in our association of which side of the social hierarchy begins the section.

Trilling, Lionel. Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning. New York: Viking, 1965. Print.

The official work where Lionel Trilling labels modern literature an “adversary culture” also contains an insight as to how modern artists/authors intended on the disruption and distance away from mass culture, “adversary intention, the actual subversive intention characterizes modern writing” (Trilling, XII). Subversive intention is otherwise understood as disruption in culture found in literature characterizes writing in the era. This is significant especially in regards to conflict culture where an artist has to intend on disrupting popular culture in an effort to contribute to the adversary culture.


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