Compare and contrast the ways in which the theme of isolation is presented and explored by Sebastian Faulks and T. S Eliot in ‘Engleby’ and ‘Selected Poems’. Throughout both ‘Engleby’ and ‘Selected Poems’ there is a prevailing sense of ‘apprehension of the tenuousness of human existence’ which is evident in the protagonists’ confining inability to communicate with the world around them, as seen in Prufrock’s agonised call, ‘so how should I presume? . ‘The Wasteland’ was written by Eliot to ‘address the fragmentation and alienation characteristic of [contemporary] culture’, questioning mankind’s ability to move forward into cohesiveness despite the ‘more pronounced sense of disillusionment and cynicism’ which came about as a ‘direct consequence of World War One’. Similarly ‘Engleby’ questions the advancement of humanity: ‘something happened to this country, perhaps in the 1960’s.
We lost the past’ indicating his thematic disappointment with the world around him because ‘significant things happen so slowly that it’s seldom you can say: it was then – or then’; his lack of impact on the world leading to self-isolation. Both ‘Engleby’ and ‘Selected poems’ emphasise their protagonist’s isolation through a confining inability to reconcile themselves with the futility of their existence.
It has been said that ‘in both texts there is a choice of both engaging with and accepting the world in which [the protagonists] live, or finding some way of transcending it’ yet it is evident neither is an option, with the only comfort found in ‘religion and death’ for Eliot, or ‘blue pills’ for Engleby. In ‘The Waste Land’ Eliot creates a ‘dead land’ recovering from the effects of world war one; ‘a heap of broken images’ in ‘stony rubbish’- the barren landscape reflecting the war-torn, disintegrating society in which it was written.
It mirrors the meaninglessness of human interaction and lack of inspiration emphasised through repetition in ‘Prufrock’: ‘In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo’. Engleby is similarly uninspired by conventional arts: ‘classical music will die before Tamla Motown, because it has no tunes by which it can be remembered’. The Waste Land’ is often read as ‘a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation’ yet it also deals with Eliot’s own confining ‘treatment for a break-down in Lausanne, Switzerland’ which inspired ‘the mountains’ which offer hope for Marie despite her own continuous isolation: ‘In the mountains, there you feel free,’ ‘implying that when she is not in the mountains, on a sledding adventure, she does not feel free’.
Marie therefore feels trapped, just as ‘humanity feels trapped in its own waste land’ which is why Engleby finds solace in ‘hash’, one of his few effective methods of escapism despite the resulting ‘memory loss’. Despite Engleby’s escape from the harsh realities of humanity through ‘memory loss’, his ‘ritual’ ultimately fails as he begins to remember the past: ‘the past was suddenly rushing in on me in a way I found hard to fight’.
The failure of his methods hauntingly similar to Eliot’s failure to find satisfaction in other religions, seeing the failure of the ‘fisher king’, referring to a myth from ‘From Ritual to Romance’, in which Weston describes a kingdom where ‘the genitals of the… Fisher King, have been wounded… This injury which affects the king’s fertility also mythically affects the kingdom itself… the kingdom dried up and turned into a waste land. In order for the land to be restored, a hero must complete several tasks, or trials. It is these trials which Eliot later attempts to overcome in ‘Ash-Wednesday’, yet ultimately can only ‘[waver] between… the dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying’ highlighting his inability to transcend the mortal plane. In contrast Eliot presents death with a clear finality- ‘the drowned sailor’ has his ‘bones picked apart’ whilst the Christ figure experiences no resurrection, leading to a contrast in critics’ opinions of whether death represents a ‘confinement from the interactions of the living’ or ‘an escape from the turmoil of day-to-day life’.
Faulks uses Engleby to highlight the tenuousness of death: ‘I never for a moment considered killing myself, because it wouldn’t have achieved anything… within a few days it would be forgotten’, some critics suggest Faulks ‘idealises the need to have an impact on society for life to be worth living’, whilst others reflect that ‘despite his lack of desire for death Faulks continually reminds the reader of the insignificance of each individual in the ‘grand scheme of things’’.
Throughout the novel, Engleby is shown to be dissatisfied with society and rather than participating feels ‘numb’ to the extent he is called ‘Prufrock’ by his classmates. Eliot describes the unattached nature as ‘like a patient etherised upon a table’, signifying the complete lack of control over the surrounding situations experienced by either protagonist. Engleby’s detachment is sensed as he views his own lucrative job interviewing ‘Margaret Thatcher’, ‘Jeffery Archer’ and ‘Ken Livingstone’ with a casual disinterest, ironically a good ournalist because of his desire to understand humanity such as when he asks Thatcher ‘What’s your favourite book? ’ Perhaps his perceived distance to his job is due to his removed sense of self: ‘our sense of self is merely a by-product of our nerve synapses’, following psychological and scientific advancements in contemporary times. In contrast to the ‘unattached nature’ of Engleby’s character, he does try to fit in to society on various occasions, however when he is acknowledged ‘you’re welcome here’, he becomes ‘disturbed’ because he ‘like[s] to be invisible’.
This suggests his isolation yet the reader cannot be certain whether this is his own disinterest in involving himself in social life, or whether it had been due to his childhood and conditioning by others ‘I tried to join in the communal joke once. But only once. ’ The narrative style makes it difficult to find the reason why Engleby only attempted to join in the joke ‘once’. This theme of isolation is continued throughout the novel with his ‘cowboy tie’ at the dinner with Stellings, in contrast to his music obsession: ‘Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ten orchestral tunes. Prufrock finds himself in a similar situation, questioning ‘Do I dare/ Disturb the universe? ’ the alliteration emphasising his feeling of isolation and uncertainty on what action he should take. It is suggested that Engleby ‘has a tremendous fear of reincarnation which suggests that to some extent he does see death as a form of escape’. This idea has some merit due to his belief that the ‘brief stint in humanity’ is ‘pointless’, and is almost as terrified of the idea of living forever as he is of dying young.
This is parallel to Sybil in ‘The Burial of the Dead’: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’, Eliot implying that eternal life is not something to be longed for but to be apprehensive and fearful of due to the isolation and loneliness which would come with outliving relatives and friends. Following the First World War, it is possible that such a fear was founded on reality, with Eliot feeling survivors’ guilt following the loss of friends in the war.
A method of presenting isolation throughout both texts is the display of the breakdown of communication presented through the narrative styles of Faulks and Eliot. It is suggested this inability to communicate is reflective of the many varying fragments which make up the shattered post-war society in Britain and the ‘crash of a culture’ in the seventies. The unreliable narrator of Engleby raises questions of ‘normality’ and ‘difference’ within the reader.
Michele Roberts states ‘[Engleby’s] views of women as mysterious Other beings, alternately idealised and cosily patronised, seem apt for the times. Weren’t most blokes from single-sex schools in those days like that: unable to see women as human like themselves’? Therefore indicating the perspective of normality in the contemporary times of when the novel was set. In contrast Phil Hogan described Engleby as ‘at the fringes, watching, being there – volunteering fetching and carrying – but his airy assertions of friendships are imaginary.
He is; we come to realise, a weirdo, a gate crasher, a loner’. The contrast of opinions would assumedly result from differing levels of acceptance of Engleby and his world perspective so different from the ‘norm’- he seeks out social situations like ‘parties’ yet is not pressured into conversing with others around him, such as when he sits on a ‘barstool’ to observe the club whilst not feeling pressured to engage with those around him.
The breakdown of communication in ‘Selected Poems’ is similar to the difficulty of integration evidenced in Faulks’ narration style in order to convey that ‘the masses in their unintelligible drone, drown out the voice that has something real to say’, indicating Eliot’s difficulty in voicing his true thoughts.
The use of foreign languages is at times used to inspire the reader: ‘Frisch weht der Wind/ Der Heimat zu’- ‘Fresh blows the wind from the homeland’; yet is contrasted with more destructive phrases from ‘The Inferno’: ‘ed io sentii chiavar l’uscio di sotto/ all’ orribile torre’- ‘locking up and I heard the door below / all ‘horrible tower’. These differing phrases leaves the reader confused as to how the unknown poetry should be interpreted, the mystery of each making it more powerful.
This is supported by a modern audience: ‘The original unity of language, as simply a form of communication, has become diverse and expanded’ yet the lack of ‘original unity’ implies the true inability to relate to the entirety of the work, similar to the reader’s inability to truly relate with Engleby’s situation. The thematic intertextuality of Eliot’s poems is described as ‘[suggesting] no overarching paradigm but rather a grab bag of broken fragments that must somehow be pieced together to form a coherent whole. Using a wide range of existing characters and situations such as ‘Tiresias’, whose experience as both a male and female reflect Eliot’s desire for perfection despite attempts to convey his feelings on religion and the tenuousness of seeking perfection. Yet it is argued that he has attempted to ‘provide a mimetic account of life in the confusing world of the twentieth century’, perhaps creating a better response from a contemporary audience than the pure confusion modern society finds in the fragmentation of texts.
Eliot can see the problems in a war-torn society in conjunction with isolated thought processes; yet ‘meaning is not communicated between the writer and reader directly but is instead produced when the reader recognises the text as a mosaic of quotations of previous texts’. Thus the communication cannot be direct with messages different for each individual reader, highlighting conflicting ideals and recurring themes and issues which would be different dependant on the background and perspective of each reader.
This individualised handling of recurring themes is reflective of Faulks’ method in Engleby; for example the ‘co-res’ buildings may have been demonstrating the changing role of women in society; or it could be interpreted as a step forward in the sexualisation of Britain which has been seen over the interim period- its own version of historical intertextuality through recurring themes. Nevertheless, other characters and situations in ‘Engleby’ give some indication of ‘normalcy’ in the text, for example his admission ‘I’d never thought of politics like that.
You stood for what you believed- and if the voters didn’t like it, then tough luck’ despite his segregation of others into groups: ‘a true brit wants either a) socialism with as few deviations as possible from a command economy (Kinnock); or b) a Malthusian free-for-all, in which survival of the fittest takes on a quasi-moral dimension (Thatcher)’. This self-distancing of himself and others leads Engleby to see himself as above others (‘sniffy asides about people who say ‘I’ when they mean ‘me’ and can’t spell and ask for their steak well done.
Everything is beneath him’) which is arguably the reason he finds himself so socially inept, similar to Eliot’s tenuousness of interaction in ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’: ‘That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all. ’ Eliot takes direct quotes taken from numerous sources such as: ‘The Inferno’- ‘each man fixed his eyes before his feet’; ‘Tristan and Isolde’-‘Frisch weht der wind… Wo weilest du? ’; ‘Metamorphoses’- ‘The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king’ and numerous other historical literary texts.
This has been to show the differing perspectives that can be had of the world and how readers could develop between readings, with each individual gaining a different understanding or meaning from the selected works. This is similar to ‘Engleby’ interacting with others to give an insight into his personality, such as the differences between a reader who sees the innuendo of ‘a lot of planes flew over that day’ (implying that Engleby enjoys watching the ‘rape’ of Jennifer), whilst others would have seen the aside as a meaningless addition to the narration.
The context of the First World War surrounding ‘The Waste Land’ is presented through the use of foreign languages to represent how humanity is attempting to heal following the alienating futility of the breakdown of society. ‘What the Thunder Said’ is used as Eliot’s mouthpiece as he speaks of ‘these ruins I have shored against you’; reflecting on the idea that the ruins of languages and cultures must all be combined in order to create a harmonised version of humanity if it is ever to escape from its self-destructive tendencies.
Faulks’ view is more pessimistic as Engleby declares ‘Time for a bath Stevens’- a mocking mimicry of his own earlier struggles against Wingate’s earlier calls of ‘Time for a bath, Toilet’. This cyclical theme provides the idea of a recurring ‘violence’ in humanity, though the reader is left to decide whether such actions are a result of his own harsh upbringing, or an innate ‘evil’ in mankind. In conclusion Eliot makes abundant use of references and literary allusions, indicating his attempts to search for a way forwards out from the hopelessness he finds in the situation of humanity.
In contrast Engleby similarly uses multiple sources to depict a scene of hopelessness in society yet doing nothing about it, happily ‘coasting’ through his ‘inane existence’. Although both texts use similar methods to convey parallel messages of dissatisfaction, the tone of the texts is in harsh contrast, with Eliot’s hopeful search for unity and Engleby’s haunting acceptance of his own unimportance to human existence.