‘Navigating the Tidal Pull’ Representations of the Modern-Postmodern Tension in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost’.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
This thesis shall examine the representation of the modern-postmodern tension through imagery in two of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost. Written in 1992 and 2000, respectively, these novels have previously undergone a thorough exploration under a conventional postcolonial framework, with critics analyzing how each novel expresses the issues stemming from imperial colonization. Using this existing research as a foundation, I believe one may expand this examination by considering how the postcolonial model’s Western-Eastern dichotomy may also be read as a manifestation of a modern-postmodern tension. Exploring the novels imagery from a modern-postmodern viewpoint requires a clear classification of which elements constitute ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’, and how these ideas draw upon the concepts of the ‘colonial’ and the ‘postcolonial’ which are so often employed to examine Ondaatje’s work. For the purpose of this thesis, I shall take the alignment of specific values and characteristics with each ideological perspective as a given, particularly both novels connection of modernist and postmodernist concepts with a Western and Eastern viewpoint, respectively. Therefore, I read The English Patient as firmly linking a Western perspective with modernist ideals of clarity, order and defined knowledge through the novel’s use of naming and mapping imagery, while the postmodern is connected to a sense of ambiguity and mingled, vague ideas of identity and truth. These associations resonate with those of Anil’s Ghost, which I read as correlating Anil’s Western outlook with the modernist arena of forensic science and validated truth, while, in contrast, Sri Lanka is connected to a sense of postmodernist uncertainty and chaos through the novel’s use of hazy, environmental imagery. I do not propose these associations as an ideological truth, but instead as tools which allow a clear exploration and comparison of the novels through a modern-postmodern lens. The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost both attach specific ideals and traits to each side of the modern-postmodern divide, before expressing the tension that exists between these two viewpoints. While the modernist-postmodernist dichotomy is made apparent in both novels, through its key characters, each text offers a divergent representation of how this binary edifice manifests. This variation is, seemingly, attributable to the contrasting period in which each novel is set: while The English Patient reflects an ambiguous, dynamic sense of the modern-postmodern tension which fits within the context of its setting in the transitional society at the close of World War II, Anil’s Ghost expresses this in a more definitive tone which resonates with elements of the text’s setting in a contemporary world which clearly divides the privileged from the ignored. Therefore, Anil’s Ghost offers a comparatively lucid representation of each character’s motivations and choices within the modern-postmodern tension, portraying a sense of clarity which contrasts with The English Patient’s more opaque representation, as the latter shows how the individual experiences of each character means they are shunted and directed between the two stances by the ‘tidal pull’ which characterises the modernist-postmodernist tension.