What exactly is Modernism in literature

01:00 Mon 25th Jun 2001 |

A. It would be hard to give a precise and succinct definition of the term Modernism, as there was, unlike movements such as the Surrealists or the Futurists, no organised group and no manifesto.

What distinguishes the Modernist novel is its experimental nature. Modernist literature has a tendency to lack traditional chronological narrative, break narrative frames or move from one level of narrative to another without any warning through the words of a number of different narrators. It may also be self-reflexive about the act of writing and the nature of literature. Much use is made of the stream of consciousness technique and focusing on a character's consciousness and subconscious - the writings of Sigmund Freud were highly influential on the movement - is a recurring technique. Unlike the literature of the 19th century, there is a breaking down of the traditional beginning-middle-end linear narrative in the Modernist novel, leaving an impression of enigma and an open-endedness to the work.

In poetry, rhyme and traditional form were frequently overthrown, and fragmentation, deliberate obscurity and the juxtaposition of images from seemingly unrelated ages and cultures were often featured.

Q. When was this
Emerging in France during the last quarter of the 19th century with movements such as Naturalism, Symbolism, Decadence and Aestheticism, early Modernist work began to appear in Britain and America from the 1890s and it remained an influential force right up until the Second World War.

Q. Who were the main exponents in literature in English
Although the Decadent poets of the 1890s, such as Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons and W.B. Yeats, who were all influenced by the writings of the likes of Baudelaiure, Mallarm and Valery, had made use of elements of what would later be called Modernism, it was the work of the American Henry James that really signalled the new direction in literature at the end of the 19th century. Other authors whose work moved in this direction around the same time were Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The works of all these writers were experimental in their structure. They were also engaged with themes of fin de sicle anxiety, such as imperialism, urban chaos and paranoia.

James Joyce is perhaps the ultimate Modernist. His masterly work Ulysses (1922) focuses on just one day in the life of two people, using multiple narrators, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, literary parody and stylistic changes. Few have managed successfully to follow his lead, but his influence can be felt in the works of writers such Flann O'Brien and Malcolm Lowry, whose Under the Volcano takes place over the course of a single day.

D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf were both heavily influenced by Freud. Woolf, in novels such as Mrs Dalloway and The Years, employed much structural experimentation, while Lawrence, though using more traditional narrative forms, was poetic and emotional in style and daring in his subject matter.

The most important Modernist poets were the Americans T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the Irishman W.B. Yeats. Eliot's The Waste Land is a perfect example of Modernist techniques, with its juxtaposition of fragments and different forms and techniques, its use of intertextuality and its bleak urban settings.

In the 1930s Modernist writers became more overtly political, especially in their involvement with left-wing causes and their opposition the rise of Fascism in Europe. Key writers of this period were the poets W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender and the writers Christopher Isherwood and C. Day-Lewis.

See also the articles on postmodernism and stream of consciousness

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By Simon Smith

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