Modernism in Literature: Definition, Characteristics, Examples, and More
The Industrial Revolution – and the rapid industrialization that followed it – marked the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But new technologies didn't only change the ways of manufacturing. They also made writers reconsider their attitudes toward the established norms of the craft. Out of this cultural shift, one of the most compelling literary movements was born: modernism.
Modernism in literature is the act of rebellion against the norms on the writers' part. They refused to conform to the rules any longer. Instead, they sought new ways to convey ideas and new forms of expressing themselves. In their opinion, the old ways of writing simply couldn't reflect the rapid social change and a new generation born out of it.
Today, let's take a deep dive into modernist work. What is modernism in literature? What are the key characteristics that set it apart from other literary movements? What modernism in literature examples reflect the movement's qualities the best? And who can represent modernism in American literature?
You'll find the answers to all of these questions – and more – below!
What is Modernism in Literature
As any physic helper would advise you to approach a subject, let's start with one crucial question: ‘What is modernism?’
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term 'modernism' as a practice characteristic of modern times and seeking to find original means of expressing oneself. Modernism was a movement not just in literature but also in arts, philosophy, and cinema.
As for the modernism in literature definition, the same dictionary describes it as a conscious break from the past and a search for new ways of expressing oneself. But its spirit is best reflected in a motto coined by Ezra Pound: ‘Make it new.’
The movement's main characteristics are individualism, experimentation, and absurdity. Its other characteristics include symbolism and formalism.
What about the history behind the modernism literary movement? Started by the Industrial Revolution and fueled by urbanization, the movement originated in Europe, with Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, and Robert Musil as early modernists. It was also heavily influenced by the horrors of World War I: it shattered the preconceived notions about society for many modernists.
The movement first developed in American literature in the early 20th century modernism. Apart from the Industrial Revolution, it was influenced by Prohibition and the Great Depression and fueled by a sense of disillusionment and loss. William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, and E. E. Cummings are among the prominent American modernists.
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5 Key Characteristics of Modernist Literature
Now that we've covered the modernist genre definition let's examine why certain works are considered modernist more closely. In other words, what sets modernist works apart from their counterparts?
The key to unraveling the answer lies in the key characteristics of modernism. We'll define five of them that matter the most:
Below you'll find a short description of each characteristic, along with examples.
Individualism is one of the key elements of modernism. It postulates that an individual's experiences, opinions, and emotions are more fascinating than the events in a society as a whole.
So, modernism is focused on describing the subjective reality of one person rather than societal changes or historical events on an impersonal scale.
A typical protagonist in modernist literature is just trying to survive and adapt to the changing world. Presented with obstacles, the protagonist sometimes perseveres – but not always. You can find compelling examples of individualism in the works of Ernest Hemingway.
The fascination with subjective reality also led to the development of unreliable narrators in fiction. You can find great examples of the Madman type of unreliable narrator in Franz Kafka's works.
Literary modernism rejected many of the established writing norms, paving the way for experimentation with the form. Modernist poets best exemplify it: they revolted against the accepted rules of rhyme and rhythm, thus inventing free verse (vers libre) poetry.
Modernism in literature also led to experiments with prose. Combined with individualism as another core characteristic, writers developed a narrative device called ‘stream of consciousness.’
This device is meant to reflect how the characters think, even though it may be inconsistent, chaotic, or illogical. This new technique allowed writers to craft novels that read like the protagonist's stream of consciousness.
Among authors, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are the best examples of this characteristic in action. As for poetry, T. S. Eliot's and Ezra Pound's bodies of work are a must-read.
During the modernist period, authors watched the world as they knew it crumbled around them. Two World Wars, the rise of capitalism, and fast-paced globalization all undermined authors' beliefs and opinions about humankind.
This led many of them to consider the world absurd and reflect it in their writing. From the setup to the plot development, modernist works based on this characteristic take surrealist or fantastical turns. They can also be described as bizarre or nonsensical.
The rise of absurdism also led to the invention of the Theatre of the Absurd. Pioneered by European playwrights, it revolves around the idea that human existence has no grand purpose or meaning. Absurdist plays don't seek to communicate effectively; instead, they include irrational speech.
There's no better example of absurdity in literary modernism than Franz Kafka's works, especially The Metamorphosis.
While symbolism in literature existed before the late 19th century, it quickly became one of the central characteristics of modernism in literature. Modernist authors and poets also reimagined symbolism. Where their predecessors left little unsaid, modernists preferred to leave plenty of blanks for the reader's imagination to fill.
That, however, doesn't mean there was no attention to details. On the contrary, modernist authors infused every layer of their work of fiction with symbolic details. The difference is that their way of using symbolism in writing allowed for several interpretations, all simultaneously possible and valid.
As a characteristic, symbolism in the modernism literary movement is most prominent in the works of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.
As mentioned above, 20th-century modernism was defined by the search for radically new forms of expression. Creativity fueled this search, paving the way for the emergence of original forms.
In modern period literature, the writing process was no longer perceived as a laborious craft. Modernists treated it as a creative process instead. In some cases, the originality of the form was deemed more important than the substance.
Take the works of E. E. Cummings as an example here. Instead of conventionally putting the poetry on the page, he spread out separate words and phrases on the page as if it were a canvas and his poem – the paint.
Other examples of formalism include the use of invented or foreign words and phrases and unconventional structure – or its absence.
4 Recurring Themes in Modernist Literature
As an act of rebellion against conventional norms of the craft, literature of the modernist period touched on various themes that could best convey the author's opinion on the world around them.
Due to their variety, listing all of them here would be impossible. However, some of the modernist themes are more prominent than others. Below you can find four of them, along with examples.
These themes also represent a great starting point for essay writing. Whether you want to do it yourself or turn to a write my essay service, you can choose one of them as your topic for exploration.
Modernism is practically inseparable from the theme of transformation. Be it the transformation of form, expression, or norm; the movement is based on the idea of radical change. If you want to see this theme in action, start with Ezra Pound's manifesto, Make It New.
As a theme, transformation also means a change in beliefs, opinions, and identities, a symbolic rebirth. Fueled by loss, destruction, and the war experiences of the authors caused fragmentation, this aspect of the theme.
You can find examples of transformation as a theme in Franz Kafka's absurdist The Metamorphosis. As for modernism in American literature, you can identify this theme in the works of Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises) and William Faulkner (Barn Burning).
Unlike their predecessors, modernist artists and authors didn't just refer to the Greek-Latin and other myths. Instead, they reimagined those tales in a new, modern world setting. Used as symbols or characters central to the plot, mythological tales and figures define modernism in literature.
As for examples of myths in the works of the modernist period, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is one of the best. In this poem, T. S. Eliot reimagines the myths of the Fisher King and uses Tarot cards and the Holy Grail as symbols. T. S. Eliot also used Greek and Latin phrases to enhance the poem's meaning.
Other examples of myths in modernist works include James Joyce's Ulysses, which alludes to Homer's Odysseus, and Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, which reimagines the Greek myth of Electra.
Loss, Separation, and Destruction
The cruel experiences of war are the major reason this theme became prevalent in modern-period literature. These experiences were infused with loss, separation, and destruction, and many authors lived through them. So, these experiences were reflected in the works of the post-war times.
Loss, destruction, and separation were also universal experiences that many went through simultaneously and shared their consequences. That's why the modernist works were also well-accepted by the readers.
You can find more than one instance of this theme in the works of Virginia Woolf, a British author and a pioneer of modernism in English literature. In American literature, the best examples of these themes are present in the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and T. S. Eliot.
Love and Sensuality
As one of the characteristics of modernism, individualism drove the theme of love and sensualism in the literature of this period. However, these themes didn't escape the disillusionment and demystification: they were reimagined somewhat cynically (or, some might say, realistically).
In modernist works, love isn't described as a magical feeling that can move mountains. Instead, the tone of love stories becomes grimmer and more fatalistic, and it serves as more proof of the social fabric corroding away.
In addition to love and sensuality, modernist works were marked by discussions of and reflections on sexuality, gender roles, and feminism. Some prominent authors in this regard are Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence.
For love and sensuality modernism examples in literature, read and analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover is also a great example here as it examines the theme from the perspective of emancipation and gender equality.
10 Notable Modernist Writers in the Literary Movement
Need to write a literature review about one instance of modern-period literature? Start your search for the subject by checking out the works of the following ten authors and poets!
These creators are among the most prominent modernists that defined the movement, developed its qualities, and experimented with its main characteristics. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and more age-defining creators are among the notable modernist writers and poets below.
A pioneer in modernism in English literature, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and her body of work defined the movement. For one, she was one of the first authors to start using the stream-of-consciousness narrative device to display the complex inner world of her characters.
Woolf also infused her works with feminist themes. She was one of the three female authors of the period to explore ‘the given,’ according to Simone de Beauvoir. However, other themes of the time – the war, destruction, and the role of social class – are also central to her work.
Virginia Woolf's most prominent works are Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To The Lighthouse (1927). You may also enjoy reading The Waves (1931) and The Years (1936).
Further reading on Virginia Woolf's life and body of work includes J. Goldman's The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf (Cambridge University Press) and V. Curtis's Virginia Woolf's Women (University of Wisconsin Press).
An Irish poet and novelist, James Joyce (1882-1941) is best known for his Ulysses novel (1922). He belonged to the group of creators who explored new styles and forms of expression. His approach to writing was detail-oriented, infused with internal monologues, and overturning traditional plot and character devices.
James Joyce focused on modernist themes such as destruction, social class, enlightenment, and identity. However, his works mostly focused on slice-of-life tales told in new, creative ways.
Apart from Ulysses, James Joyce's major works include a collection of short stories, Dubliners (1914), the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Finnegans Wake (1939). The latter pushed the use of stream of consciousness to its extreme.
As for poetry, James Joyce is best known for his three collections of poems, with Chamber Music (1907) being the most acclaimed one.
Often referred to as the mother of modernism, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) is one of the most important American modernist writers. Like the two previous authors on this list, Stein experimented with stream of consciousness and other narrative devices. Her writing style, in turn, can be described as distinctive and playful.
Stein's first novel, Q.E.D.Q.E.D. (1903), was one of the first to explore a coming-out story. A lesbian herself, Stein focused on sexuality in some of her works (case in point: Fernhurst (1904)) – an unprecedented choice for the time.
As a poet, Stein is best known for Tender Buttons (1914), a collection of poems that capture the routine of mundane life. In the publication, Stein experiments with sounds and fragmented words to convey an image to the reader.
Stein's most prominent prose works of fiction include The Making of Americans (1902–1911) and Three Lives (1905–1906).
Look no further if you're looking for modernism examples in literature that explore symbolism and multiple perspectives. William Faulkner (1897-1962), an American novel and short story writer, belongs to the group of celebrated modernist authors who focused on these themes.
A Nobel prize laureate and a Mississippi native, Faulkner is famous for his Southern Gothic stories taking place in the made-up Yoknapatawpha County. Besides symbolism and multiple-perspective storytelling, Faulkner also explored the unreliable narrator and nonlinear storytelling devices.
Faulkner's most prominent novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), The Wild Palms (1939), and Light in August (1932). He was also working as a Hollywood screenwriter between 1932 and 1954. During that time, he crafted screenplays for films like Flesh (1932), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946).
An expatriate American poet, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) is one of the most prominent figures of 20th-century modernism. He was unrivaled in using free-verse poetry and allusions in his body of work.
Pound also excelled in using imagism in his works – and he was one of the first poets to do so. This makes his poems vivid and powerful for the reader's imagination.
You've already seen several references to Ezra Pound's Make It New (1934), a manifesto for the modernist movement. However, that's not the cornerstone of Pound's literary legacy. To delve into it, read The Cantos (c. 1917–1962), an epic 800-page poem, In a Station of the Metro (1913), or The Return (1917).
An Austrian-Hungarian author, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is one of the most prominent modernist writers in the German-speaking world. Kafka explored the themes of transformation, existentialism, and alienation in his works.
Kafka focused his craft on absurdist, surrealistic, and fantastical plots, as best exemplified by The Metamorphosis (1915). In this short story, a salesman has turned into a large insect (commonly interpreted as a cockroach).
Kafka's body of work led to the birth of a new term – Kafkaesque. This term is the easiest way to describe the author's style: it's marked by absurdist, disorienting complexity and a surreal distortion of reality.
The Metamorphosis isn't the only work of Kafka worth reading. His best novels include The Castle (1926) and The Trial (1925).
E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) was one of the most productive American poets and authors of modern-period literature. Over his lifetime, he crafted around 2,900 poems, four plays, and two autobiographical novels over his lifetime.
Cummings' poetry style is best defined as idiosyncratic. The poet disregarded not just the established norms of rhyme and rhythm. He went further and refused to abide by the syntax, punctuation, and spelling rules. His poems often employ lowercase spelling as a form of expression.
If you want to get acquainted with the best works of E. E. Cummings, we suggest you start with may I feel said he (1935) and [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] (1952). His books of poetry – 1 × 1 (1944) and No Thanks (1935) – are also a worthy read and a great introduction to the poet's unique style.
Another prominent English novelist and poet, D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), didn't earn himself a worthy place in the modernism literary movement during his lifetime. Only after his death did his works earn him the recognition he deserved.
His works dealt with themes of sexuality, industrialization, modernity, and spontaneity. Exploring sexuality – especially from the standpoint of female characters – earned D. H. Lawrence many enemies. As a result of public persecution and censorship trials, D. H. Lawrence spent years in voluntary exile.
D. H. Lawrence's most prominent novels are Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), The Rainbow (1915), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). However, the latter was deemed too scandalous to be published in Great Britain until 1960, after D. H. Lawrence's death.
An American novelist and short-story writer, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) isn't just considered one of the most influential creators of the modernist period but American literature as a whole. He is famous for his unique style of prose. It's economical, straightforward, and matter-of-fact, with few descriptive adjectives in the text.
Having spent years as a journalist on the battlefield, Hemingway experienced the horrors of war first-hand. This influenced the themes he explored in his writing: his novels reflected war, love, destruction, loss, and disillusionment.
Hemingway's bibliography consists of seven novels and six collections of short stories. His most prominent works include For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), based on his experiences of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and The Sun Also Rises (1926).
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is one of the iconic feminist modernist writers who specialized in crafting short stories. A New Zealand native, Mansfield reflected on anxiety, identity, existentialism, and sexuality in her works.
Mansfield's style draws inspiration from visual arts and psychoanalysis. This made for vivid descriptions in her prose and complex characters. Her short stories often have a twist in the form of a revelation or an epiphany about the protagonist.
If you want to get acquainted with Mansfield's literary style, we recommend you start with short stories like The Garden Party (1922) and Daughters of the Late Colonel (1920). Other great but lesser-known examples of her short stories include Something Childish But Very Natural (1914), Bliss (1918), and Sun and Moon (1920).
A Modernism Essay Example
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