In the 1880s, writers abandoned realism and started experimenting with new, unconventional ways of writing, inspired by emerging philosophies and ways of understanding the human experience.
In the 1880s, writers abandoned realism and started experimenting with new, unconventional ways of writing, inspired by emerging philosophies and ways of understanding the human experience. Friedrich Nietzsche’s focus on psychological drives, Sigmund Freud’s theories of the subconscious and Henri Bergson’s ideas on the subjectivity of time all prompted writers to consider new ways of writing and new ideas on what to write about.
Forms of plot and poetry that had stayed the same since Aristotle were overthrown in pursuit of writing that captured the internal drives and chaos of the human mind. Modernists often used non-linear narratives (stories that don’t happen in chronological order) and internal dialogue that emphasized the emotions of the individual rather than the person’s actions in the external world.
Modernism is marked by five key characteristics: experimentation, focus on the individual, multiple perspectives, free verse, and the use of literary devices such as symbolism and imagery.
Scholars agree that Modernism began in the mid-1880s and transitioned to Postmodernism in the 1940s.
Historical Context of Modernist Literature
The precursors to Modernists, Victorians were self-confident and optimistic — they saw the expansion of the British empire, believed in their own competence and stability, and thought that science and technology would create a bright future.
However, as the Industrial Revolution created increasing poverty and blight, as the colonies became increasingly problematic, and as their faith in religion turned to doubt, this confidence crumbled.
What remained for the Modernist was confidence in themselves – although the introduction of new philosophies exploring the darker side of human drives and psychology’s focus on the subconscious shook even that.
Seeing all their sources of optimism destroyed, European writers also saw the limitations of traditional genre to express their new perspective of despair. World War I and putting technology into the service of mass destruction was the final blow, pushing writers further into the pursuit of completely new ways of writing about the human condition.
Writings from WWI
World War I prompted an outpouring of new voices in literature. Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John Ciardi, and Wilfred Owen are among the best-known poets, depicting life at the front in all its raw brutality.
Although men wrote the vast majority of WWI literature, writing by women emphasizes the effect of war on brothers and husbands and its impact on domestic spaces.
At the beginning of the war, some writers expressed idealism and optimism. However, as the war wore on and became increasingly bloody, writers started to depict the war’s great horrors. Poets published more than 2000 works about the war, but novelists also tackled this topic: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque are well-known examples. Both are autobiographical and capture perspectives from both sides. At home, Virginia Woolf portrays the war’s lasting impact on a stunned society in her novel Mrs. Dalloway.
The Loss of Absolutes
Although different ages and cultures have clung to varying values and beliefs, until Modernism, human societies have always relied on set definitions of ethics and morality that guided both faith and practical daily decisions.
Medieval philosophers, for example, assumed that a god exists, takes an interest in humankind, and is interpreted through the Bible and the church. Enlightenment thinkers exchanged those absolutes for belief in the scientific method and rational thought. In both cases, however, there was a solid foundation upon which individuals built their beliefs.
Modernists, however, abandoned any belief in absolutes, believing instead that everything is relative and subjective. There was no god, the human mind is not rational, and science can be wrong.
This lack of foundation created a real problem for Modernists: As German novelist Herman Hesse says in Steppenwolf, modernism ‘loses all power to understand itself and has no standards, no security, no simple acquiescence.’ Modernists, therefore, became absorbed with their own consciousness and wrote from a subjectivity that approached solipsism (being self-centered) or nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless).
The Modernist belief that nothing was certain or trustworthy carried over into the fiction, often through the use of unreliable narrators.
In traditional literature, the reader can count on narrators to be fair, accurate, and sincere.
Modernists, on the other hand, rejected the idea of ‘a truth,’ and reflected that in their narrators, who could no longer be trusted. Modernist writers concentrated instead on the natural way the brain jumps from idea to idea and on the way people can interpret the same event in different ways – as well as the different reasons people misrepresent what ‘truth’ there is.
Modernist writers often used multiple narrators to convey the general confusion in any social situation. With no set of shared values or beliefs, narrators tell readers their individual versions of events, emphasizing their thoughts and unique reactions. And since there is no truth, they do not attempt to lead readers to a particular conclusion. With unreliable narrators, the author has no intention that the reader learn a certain lesson or agree with the writer by the end of the work.
Impressionism started as an art movement in which painters emphasized their impressions of a scene and not the details of the reality in front of them.
Scholars originally felt that the ideas of Impressionism were impossible to copy in literature because writing involves reflection and judgment, not merely perception and impression. However, Impressionism as an influence on literature gained credibility through Henry James’ argument in The Art of Fiction that ‘a novel in its broadest definition is a personal, direct impression of life.’
Notable Modernists such as Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad all eventually used the term ‘impression’ to describe at least the beginning point of fiction.
Since literary Modernists increasingly dismissed the idea that writing involved careful and time-consuming plotting and reflection, the two schools began to come together. Some scholars go so far as to say that embracing Impressionism was the turning point for Literary Modernism, since it opened writers to the idea of presenting life as it appeared through a subjective lens instead of the supposed objectivity of realism.
Theater of the Absurd
World War II pushed Modernists further into their sense of despair, confirming and deepening their horror over World War I. As a result, Theater of the Absurd appeared after WWII, expressing writers’ feelings that life was meaningless and cruel.
These plays seek to show what happens when human life lacks meaning to the point that communication entirely breaks down. The plays focus on human beings, but they’re trapped in situations that are completely illogical and nearly impossible to understand. The characters’ problems are coupled with and made more desperate by the complete inadequacy of language.
In Theater of the Absurd, characters are often stereotypes who speak only in clichés and lack individual characteristics. Occasionally, dialogue even descends into nonsense sounds.
These plays often only have two characters. Sometimes one character is dominant and torments the other, and in others the characters’ dominance changes throughout the play.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a well-known example of an Absurd play that displays many of these characteristics.
The Harlem Renaissance
In the 1920s and 30s, African American music, dance, literature, and art experienced a lively cultural revival in Harlem, New York. Fueled by the Great Migration (when African Americans moved in huge numbers out of the American South), the Harlem Renaissance was the heart and soul of the energy, creativity, and intellectual power of a generation of Black artists.
Alan Locke’s anthology, The New Negro, brought the work of Harlem writers to a wider public, and he became known as the leader and chief recorder of the Harlem Renaissance. The anthology included writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neal-Hurston, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Jean Toomer.
Bringing their distinct culture into their work, writers of the Harlem Renaissance created ‘jazz poetry,’ exemplified in Hughes’ ‘Weary Blues.’ The energy of this convergence of Black intellectuals and artists allowed them to create authentic works that showed the complexity of their distinct culture. Although the Great Depression brought an end to this incredible moment, its after-effects are still being felt.
Key Figure: T. S. Eliot
Probably the most notable poet of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot is a central figure in Modernist literature. The first of his major poems, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ incorporated the main elements of Modernism. Although it was immediately dismissed by critics, it drew the attention of Ezra Pound who began to mentor Eliot, editing some of his major works and guiding his early career.
‘The Wasteland,’ published in 1922, is today considered the touchstone of Modernist poetry. Because of its complexity, the poem is often compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, another groundbreaking work that was published in the same year.
Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927, and his later poems reflect the changes in his religious perspective. “Ash Wednesday” and “The Four Quartets” include Christian theology, art, and symbolism.
Key Figure: William Faulkner
Though his style differs from other Modernist writers, William Faulkner’s work is unquestionably Modernist and experimental. It includes stream of consciousness narrating, and highly emotional, complex stories that tend toward the Gothic. He is distinctly Southern American, and his writing represents a post-Civil War culture that is at once dynamic and in decay.
Faulkner’s first major work was The Sound and the Fury. Because of its complexity and the difficulties it posed for readers, editors suggested significant changes, but Faulkner refused to make compromises for the sake of marketing. This work uses stream of consciousness and multiple narration.
Faulkner’s novel Absalom! Absalom! is seen as Faulkner’s most iconic Modernist novel. Written as a series of different narrators with their own self-centered perspectives, it is infinitely open-ended and displays incredible storytelling.