Modernism as a literary movement emerged in France during the last quarter of the 19th century and remained an influential force right up until the Second World War throughout whole Europe and lasted approximately up to 1950.

Modernism is also used as an umbrella term applied to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the literature of the early 20th century including Symbolism, Futurism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Vorticism, Dadaism and Surrealism.

There is no organized group of writers or artists and manifestos associated with Modernism. The literature of the Modern period grew out as a reaction to Realism and Naturalism. 

Modernism was characterized by the breaking of traditional writing styles. Modernistic writers tended to see themselves as an avant-garde disengaged from bourgeois values and sometimes confused their readers by adopting complex and difficult new forms and styles.

Modernism was majorly impacted by several events and movements in the late 19th and the early 20th century. The movement began with the horrible awakening that World War I impacted upon the world.

The emergence of new isms through the works of T.H. Huxley, Karl Marx, Herbert Spenser, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and William James also signaled the new creation in literature at the end of the 19th century.

Sigmund Freud’s work encouraged self-analysis of the Conscious and Unconscious self. This self-reflection influenced many of the works of the Modernist Period. Marxist ideas of socialism and class struggle also influenced Modernist Literature. He believed in self-determinism and workers uniting together to create a utopia, which appealed to the victims of WWI.

William James first used the expression of “Stream of Consciousness” which later became the hallmark of Modernist literature. The economic and technological expansion ushered in by the Industrial Revolution began the destruction of cultures and environments at a rapid pace, and also left many peoples in places of oppression.

The enormity of the War had undermined humankind’s faith in the foundations of Western society and culture and Post-War Modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation. A primary theme of T.S. Eliot’s long poem “The Waste Land” is the search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty landscape. With its fragmentary images and obscure allusions, the poem is typical of Modernism in requiring the reader to take an active role in interpreting the text.

Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality in an era characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, and advances in science. Modernism was a radical break from the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation particularly in the years following World War I.

In their attempt to throw off the aesthetic burden of the realist novel, these writers introduced a variety of literary tactics and devices: Stylistically, in Modernism, there was the free use of indirect speech and allusion to myths and stories from another time. Another characteristic was the overwhelming use of figures of speech like personification, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, etc. One of the most famous works of this era in literature was ‘’Ulysses’’ by James Joyce that invented new notions of plot, setting, characters, and form.

Although the 1920s was a period of prosperity, those who had fought in the War found it hard to join in on the festivities. This is reflected in the tone of isolation that is often found in many works of Modernist Literature. The effect of alienation was further intensified by the loss of religious authority that led to an identity crisis of modern man.

In the words of Mathew Arnold, the Modern man was” wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.’’ Aldous Huxley with his ‘’Brave New World’’ spoke about the dangers that city life and the modern world could bring upon society.

Existentialism was popular among philosophers during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and promoted self-reflection and thought about one’s place in the world among Modernist thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche promoted ideas such as “God is dead’’ and Existentialism.

In Existentialism, the thought of the individual is highly encouraged. The individual’s starting point is characterized as “the existential attitude” which involves a sense of confusion or disorientation in a large complex world. This was in part due to spiritual ruins after the War which led many to question what the meaning of life was.

Modern life was a hypnotic panorama of misfits, doomed desire, and convoluted identity. So according to Modernists and the works that they created, the truth was relative and there was no such thing as absolute truth. They were champions of the individual and celebrated the strength of soul that each individual possessed. Hence individuals became the center of attention rather than society for Modernist writers.

Corresponding to the real modern man, the individual characters in Modernist literature were under the high influence of psychological theories prevailing at the time. In William Faulkner’s ‘’As I Lay Dying’’ there are shifting points of view to focus on each character’s eccentricities.

 The violent warfare and high death rate of WW-I created a sense of disillusionment among many young Americans. Society became fragmented as many young veterans expatriated themselves to European countries to live. They became known as the ‘Lost Generation’ and they were very influential in the Modernist Literary movement. In his work, ‘’The Sun Also Rises’’, Ernest Hemingway talks about the lack of meaning in the lives of the ’Lost Generation’.

The works of Modernist writers had a deep concern for what is known as the Sub-Conscious and what was not said but felt and believed. They also believed in the depiction of unordered life prevailing the mind of characters or the writer himself. The writers often compared their use of language to the use of raw material by an artist or a sculptor.

The form, style, and technique used became as important as the content itself. During this period, artists began to develop their own individual styles as they felt that individuals, especially artists, were becoming increasingly isolated by mass culture. In Eliot’s words, the true purpose of Modernistic literature is

‘‘…a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’’

Modernist writers broke free from old forms and techniques. Poets abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and wrote in free verse. Novelists defied all expectations. Writers mixed images from the past with modern languages and themes, creating a collage. The inner workings of Consciousness were a common Subject for modernists.

This preoccupation led to a form of narration called Stream of Consciousness, where the point of view of the novel meanders in a pattern resembling human thought. Authors James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, along with poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, are well known for their experimental Modernist works.

In Modernist literature, the writers were more interested in the inner workings of an individual’s mind, unlike traditional writers whose aim was to explore society and to provide characters as being used as mere tools. Specifically, Modernist writers were fascinated with how the individual adapted to the changing world. In some cases, the individual triumphed over obstacles.

For the most part, Modernist literature featured characters who just kept their heads above water. Writers presented the world or society as a challenge to the integrity of their existence. Ernest Hemingway is especially remembered for vivid characters who accepted their circumstances at face value and persevered.

Many Modernist writers used the Stream of Consciousness technique in their works. The use of comparison, symbolism, discontinuous narrative, and Psychoanalysis was also pre-dominant.  Often the works had multiple narratives. Thematically, works in this style often depicted a breakdown of societal norms, depressive behaviour in the face of an uncertain future, loneliness, alienation from known things, etc. 

There was an attempt to break away from traditions, not only political, religious, and social but also literary views that were established, and cornerstones of society. The other characteristic features of Modernism were, Impressionism, Interior Monologue, and nonlinear plotting. Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” is one of the best examples of the use of Stream of Consciousness.

Intellectualism is the hallmark of modernism. There was intellectual snobbery. Some of the artists did not have the training or intellectual powers to understand the contemporary world.

Artists would look for a shorter path to their subject matter. Some were really intellectual but others just showed off. T.S. Eliot’s works demand its reader to go through the study of a number of civilizations and mythologies in order to get the true meaning of them.

Modernist writing was dominated by a new quality known as Absurdity. There were several reasons due to which the world became a new and alien place for many people. People struggled to make sense of this new world. The World Wars were life-changing experiences for the people.

Such a thing was unprecedented in history. Along with Capitalism and the new world order, many new perspectives of viewing life emerged. The violent ways of the emerging world were evidence that humanity had lost its way.

The Absurd ways of this new reality were represented in modern literature. Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” in which a traveling salesman is transformed into an insect-like creature, is an example of modern absurdism. This practice later resulted in the formation of Theatre of the Absurd. Some noteworthy works of the Modernist movement are as follows:

D.H. Lawrence’s novel “The Fox” reflected on the breaking of conventional relationships, their complexity, and the dehumanizing effect of modern society. Stevie Smith’s ‘’Novel on Yellow Paper’’ parodies conventionality. The publication of the Irish writer James Joyce’s ‘’Ulysses’’ in 1922 was a landmark event in the development of Modernist literature.

Dense, lengthy, and controversial, the novel details the events of one day in the life of three Dubliners through Stream of Consciousness, which commonly ignores orderly sentence structure and incorporates fragments of thought in an attempt to capture the flow of characters’ mental processes. The narrative constantly migrates from the present to the past, and from one character’s mind to another’s, and it’s network of literary, philosophical, and historical references.

Franz Kafka’s novel ‘’The Trial’’ and his novella ‘’The Metamorphosis’’ introduce elements of dreamlike sequences and shows how an individual can feel alienated from his environment and from modern life. Eugene O’Neill used free speech and also shattered sexual taboos like prostitution and homosexuality. T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is the truest example of Modernist poetry.

In fiction, some other European and American Modernist authors whose works rejected chronological and narrative continuity include W.B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Knut Hamsun, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Joseph Conrad. Joseph Conrad’s, “Heart of Darkness” is an early example of linguistic ambiguity and layered narrative that features some of the most cryptic languages ever. In poetry, Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot replaced the logical exposition of thoughts with a collage of fragmentary images and complex allusions.

In a nutshell, Modernism was all about the radical disruption of the linear flow of the narrative, the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause and effect development, the deployment of ironic and ambiguous juxtapositions to call into question the moral and philosophical meaning of literary action.

The adoption of a tone of epistemological self-mockery aimed at naive pretensions of bourgeois rationality, the opposition of inward consciousness to rational, public, objective discourse, and an inclination to subjective distortion to point up the evanescence of the social world.

The fragmentation experienced due to WWI did not end, but was rather dominated by WWII.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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