Introduction to Modernism


In Modernism, there is an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing (and in visual arts as well); an emphasis on HOW seeing (or reading or perception itself) takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived. An example of this would be stream-of-consciousness writing.



Narrators don't always tell the truth,
even when they know it.
Unreliable narrators

In Modernist texts, there is a movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative points of view, and clear-cut moral positions. Faulkner's multiply-narrated stories are an example of this aspect of modernism.










Mixing old and new styles and forms,
so it's more difficult to get a handle on the genre of a work.

Modernist writers blur the distinctions between genres, so that poetry seems more documentary (as in T.S. Eliot or ee cummings) and prose seems more poetic (as in Woolf or Joyce).



















DIY, Dear Reader!
It's up to you to put it together.
Fractured forms

Modernism places an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials.












Always be aware:
You're looking at a piece of art.
Art as art

Modernist art has a tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art, so that each piece calls attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways.















The Red Wheelbarrow
   William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Just what depends on the red wheelbarrow?
Minimizing aesthetics

Modernist artists reject elaborate formal aesthetics in favor of minimalist designs (as in the poetry of William Carlos Williams) and a rejection, in large part, of formal aesthetic theories, in favor of spontaneity and discovery in creation.















High Culture? Low Culture? It's all fair game.
Culture is culture

In Modernism, there's a rejection of the distinction between "high" and "low" or popular culture, both in choice of materials used to produce art and in methods of displaying, distributing, and consuming art.
















Mary Klages
Associate Professor, English Department
University of Colorado, Boulder


Some Attributes Of Modernist Literature

Perspectivism: The locating of meaning from the viewpoint of the individual; the use of narrators located within the action of the fiction, experiencing from a personal, particular (as opposed to an omniscient, "objective") perspective; the use of many voices, contrasts and contestations of perspective; the consequent disappearance of the omniscient narrator.

Impressionism: An emphasis on the process of perception and knowing: the use of devices (formal, linguistic, representational), to present more closely the texture or process or structure of knowing and perceiving.

A break with the sequential, developmental, cause-and-effect presentation of the "reality" of realist fiction, toward a presentation of experience as layered, allusive, discontinuous; the use, to these ends, of fragmentation and juxtaposition, motif, symbol, allusion (jump-cuts).

Language is no longer seen as transparent, something if used correctly allows us to "see through" to reality. Rather, language is seen as a complex, nuanced site of our construction of the "real"; language is "thick," with multiple meanings.

Experimentation in form: In order to present differently, afresh, the structure, the connections, and the experience of life.

The (re)presentation of inner (psychological) reality, including the "flow" of experience, through devices such as stream of consciousness.

Use of such structural approaches to experience such as psychoanalysis, myth, the symbolic apprehension and comprehension of reality.

The use of interior or symbolic landscape: the world is moved "inside", structured symbolically or metaphorically -- as opposed to the Romantic interaction with transcendent forces acting through the exterior world, and Realist representations of the exterior world as a physical, historical, contiguous site of experience. David Lodge suggests in Modes of Modern Writing that the realist mode of fiction is based on metonomy, or contiguity, and the modernist mode is based on metaphor, or substitution.

Time is moved into the interior as well: time becomes psychological time (time as innerly experienced) or symbolic. Time is used as well more complexly as a structuring device through a movement backwards and forwards through time, the juxtaposing of events of different times, and so forth.

A turn to "open" or ambiguous endings, again seen to be more representative of "reality" -- as opposed to "closed" endings, in which matters are resolved.

The search for symbolic ground or an ontological or epistemic ground for reality, especially through the device of "epiphany" (Joyce), "inscape" (Hopkins), "moment of being" (Woolf), "Jetztzeit" (Benjamin) -- the moment of revelation of a reality beneath and grounding appearances.

The search for a ground of meaning in a world without God; the critique of the traditional values of the culture; the loss of meaning and hope in the modern world and an exploration of how this loss may be faced.


Some Cultural Forces Driving Literary Modernism

Some of the major issues to which 20th century literature responded in ways generally known as "Modernism" are:

A sense of the loss of "ontological ground,"* i.e., a loss of confidence that there exists a reliable, knowable ground of value and identity. Contributing factors include:

  • the challenges to 19th century science and its confidence in its ability to explain the universe;
  • industrialization, and the consequent displacement of persons from their previous physical and psychic groundings; (including a pervasive sense that masculinity and masculine authority had been undermined; that mass culture was a "feminizing" force)
  • the association of Christianity with capitalism, and with an oppressive often hypocritical moralism;
  • the critical historical study of biblical texts and the consequent challenge to revelation;
  • the popularization of evolutionary theory;
  • a growing awareness of a variety of cultures which had differing but cogent world-views;
  • changes in philosophical thought which suggested that 'reality' was an internal and changeable, not an externally validated, concept.

* Ontology is the study of what "being" is; it is always accompanied by epistemological issues, that is, of questions how we know and what it is to know. Ontological ground is then that which gives us a sense of the surety of being itself.

A sense that our culture has lost its bearings, that there is no center, no cogency, that there is a collapse of values or a bankruptcy (interesting metaphor) of values. As Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming" (1920):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This loss of faith in a moral center and moral direction is based (in part) on the important recognition that the traditional values have, after all, led only to a horrid war, industrial squalor, the breakdown of traditional rural society, exploitation of other cultures and races, and a society built on power and greed. W.W.I was a gruesome wake-up call.

A shift in paradigms from the closed, finite, measurable, cause-and-effect universe of 19th century science to an open, relativistic, changing, strange universe. Einstein was a modernist thinker.

The locus of judgment moves from the traditional sites -- consensus, social authority and textual authority -- to individual judgment and phenomenological (lived experience) validation, hence to the locating of meaning (and, in a sense, "truth") in individual experience.

The development of studies and ideas which have as their focus the nature and functioning of the individual: the discipline of psychology; a growing democratization in politics; in aesthetics, movements such as impressionism and cubism which focus on the process of perception.

Discovery that the forces governing behaviour, and particularly the most powerful and formative ones, are hidden: this in the realms of psychology, economics, politics -- Marx, Freud, Neitzsche, etc.

A move to the mystical and the symbolic as ways of recovering a sense of the holy in experience and of recreating a sustainable ontological ground -- Yeats and the development of symbolic thought, Jung and the concept of universal archetypes; Lawrence with his notions of the creative mystery and blood knowledge, and so forth.


For much of its history, "modern" has meant something bad. In a general sense it meant having to do with recent times and the present day, but we shall deal with it here in a narrow sense more or less synonymous with that of "modernist." It is not so much a chronological designation as one suggestive of a loosely defined congeries of characteristics. Much twentieth-century literature is not "modern" in the common sense, as much that is contemporary is not. Modern refers to a group of characteristics, and not all of them appear in any one writer who merits the designation modern.

In a broad sense modern is applied to writing marked by a strong conscious break with tradition. It employs a distinctive kind of imagination that insists on having its general frame of reference within itself. It thus practices the solipsism of which Allen Tate accused the modern mind: It believes that we create the world in the act of perceiving it. Modern implies a historical discontinuity, a sense of alienation, loss, and despair. It rejects not only history but also the society of whose fabrication history is a record. It rejects traditional values and assumptions, and it rejects equally the rhetoric by which they were sanctioned and communicated. It elevates the individual and the inward over the social and the outward, and it prefers the unconscious to the self-conscious. The psychologies of Freud and Jung have been seminal in the modern movement in literature. In many respects it is a reaction against REALISM and NATURALISM and the scientific postulates on which they rest. Although by no means can all modern writers be termed philosophical existentialists, EXISTENTIALISM has created a schema within which much of the modern temper can see a reflection of its attitudes and assumptions. The modern revels in a dense and often unordered actuality as opposed to the practical and systematic, and in exploring that actuality as it exists in the mind of the writer it has been richly experimental. What has been distinctively worthwhile in the literature of this century has come, in considerable part, from this modern temper.

"Modernism" in A Handbook to Literature. 7th ed.
Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman, eds.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996. 325-36.


The term modernism is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts, and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the present century, but especially after World War I (1914-18). The specific features signified by modernism vary with the user, but many critics agree that it involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of Western art, but of Western culture in general. Important intellectual precursors of modernism, in this sense, are thinkers who had questioned the certainties that had supported traditional modes of social organization, religion, and morality, and also traditional ways of conceiving the human self--thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud.

Modernism is a revolutionary movement encompassing all of the creative arts that had its roots in the 1890s, a transitional period during which artists and writers sought to liberate themselves from the constraints and polite conventions we associate with Victorianism. Modernism exploded onto the international scene in the aftermath of World War I, a traumatic transcontinental event that physically devastated and psychologically disillusioned the West in an entirely unprecedented way. A wide variety of new and experimental forms and techniques arose in architecture, dance, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

As a literary movement, modernism gained prominence during and, especially, just after the First World War; it subsequently flourished in Europe and America throughout the 1920s and 1930. Modernist authors sought to break away from traditions and conventions through experimentation with new literary forms, devices, and styles. Their work reflected the pervasive sense of loss, disillusionment, and even despair in the wake of the Great War, hence their emphasis on historical discontinuity and the alienation of humanity. Although modernist authors tended to perceive the world as fragmented, many -- such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce -- believed they could help counter that disintegration thorough their works. Such writers viewed art as a potentially integrating, restorative force, a remedy for the uncertainty of the modern world. To this end, even while depicting disorder in their works, modernists also injected order by creating patters of allusion, symbol, and myth. This rather exalted view of art fostered a certain elitism among modernists.

Modernism encompassed a number of literary endeavors and styles, many of which became known as movements in their own right, such as Dadaism, expressionism, formalism, and surrealism. Modernist works are often called avant-garde, an appellation that has also been applied to more radically experimental postmodernist works written in the devastating wake of World War II. Many literary scholars distinguish between old (or modernist) avant-garde works and new (or postmodernist) ones. A modernist surrealist work is easily differentiated from a postmodernist Absurdist one.

Literary historians locate the beginning of the modernist revolt as far back as the 1890s, but most agree that what is called high modernism, marked by an unexampled range and rapidity of change, came after the first World War. The year 1922 alone was signalized by the simultaneous appearance of such monuments of modernist innovation as James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as well as many other experimental works of literature. The catastrophe of the war had shaken faith in the moral basis, coherence, and durability of Western civilization and raised doubts about the adequacy of traditional literary modes to represent the harsh and dissonant realities of the postwar world. T. S. Eliot wrote in a review of Joyce's Ulysses in 1923 that the inherited mode of ordering a literary work, which assumed a relatively coherent and stable social order, could not accord with "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." Like Joyce, Eliot experimented with new forms and a new style that would render contemporary disorder, often contrasting it to a lost order and integration that had been based on the religion and myths of the cultural past. In The Waste Land (1922), for example, Eliot replaced the standard syntactic flow of poetic language by fragmented utterances, and substituted for the traditional coherence of poetic structure a deliberate dislocation of parts, in which very diverse components are related by connections that are left to the reader to discover. Major works of modernist fiction, following Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and his even more radical Finnegan's Wake (1939), subverts the basic conventions of earlier prose fiction by breaking up the narrative continuity, departing from the standard ways of representing characters, and violating the traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language by the use of stream of consciousness and other innovative modes of narration. The new forms of literary construction and rendering had obvious parallels in the violation of representational conventions in the artistic movements of expressionism and surrealism.

A prominent feature of modernism is the phenomenon called the avant-garde; that is, a small, self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertake to "make it new." By violating the accepted conventions and proprieties, not only of art but of social discourse, they set out to create ever-new forbidden, subject matter. Frequently, avant-garde artists represent themselves as "alienated" from the established order, against which they assert their own autonomy; a prominent aim is to shock the sensibilities of the conventional reader and to challenge the norms and pieties of the dominant bourgeois culture.

Modernism, from M.H. Abrams


Modernist Constellations Of Meaning

The Centers of Modernism
  • Stylistic innovations - disruption of traditional syntax and form.
  • Artist's self-consciousness about questions of form and structure.
  • Obsession with primitive material and attitudes.
  • International perspective on cultural matters.
Modern Attitudes
  • The artist is generally less appreciated but more sensitive, even more heroic, than the average person.
  • The artist challenges tradition and reinvigorates it.
  • A breaking away from patterned responses and predictable forms.
Contradictory Elements
  • Democratic and elitist.
  • Traditional and anti-tradition.
  • National jingoism and provinciality versus the celebration of international culture.
  • Puritanical and repressive elements versus freer expression in sexual and political matters.
Literary Achievements
  • Dramatization of the plight of women.
  • Creation of a literature of the urban experience.
  • Continuation of the pastoral or rural spirit.
  • Continuation of regionalism and local color.
  • Fragmentation of traditional literary and artistic styles.
Modern Themes
  • Collectivism versus the authority of the individual.
  • The impact of WWI and the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
  • The Jazz Age.
  • The disassociated, anomic self.
  • The wearing away of traditional class structures.

Modernism, from Paul Reuben (mostly)