Modernism in Literature


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


When we think of the modernist school of literature, we normally think of the seminal writers who came of age in the 1920s—Joyce, Pound, Eliot. Their writing seems so dramatically different from the Victorian sensibilities that had driven the generation before, that they almost seem to have had no antecedents, no role models, no mentors at all. And yet modernism’s roots lay in a reaction to, and a rebellion against, Victorianism, and its seeds were planted when the Victorian era was in full flower.


In real English, what does that mean? It means that in the late nineteenth century, writers, artists, and thinking people in general were starting to question whether the smug complacency of the Victorian era really expressed their own experience of life. Specifically, critics looked at the fussy, rococo art and architecture; the heavily ornamental poetry; the insistence on propriety and virtue; and the obsession with appearances and status, and saw how these adversely affected not only literature and art but the Western world’s social infrastructure as well. This was begun well before the turn of the century when modernism was actually named; it grew out of the work of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and developed through them into the radically unique expression of modernists such as James Joyce.


Thus modernism came to stress image over logic, the unconscious over the conscious, and impression over form. Writers of this era tended to employ extremely complex artistic measures to support the density of their material, and to intuitively express the crisis of meaning that plagued Western society at the very beginning of this century. Modernism describes a tendency to break away from traditional values and established rules of form and style, sometimes going so far as to abandon form altogether in favor of total experimentalism. In subject matter, viewpoint, and theme, modernism focuses on the individual’s subjective, often alienated, consciousness. Modernism rejected the traditional framework of narrative, description, and exposition, and substituted instead a stream-of-consciousness effect that appeared to be completely uncrafted. Whereas a structural “frame” of plot (in the case of the novel and play) and a metrical, often rhyming stanzaic form (in the case of poetry) was the basis for the literary work of the nineteenth-century, the “image” became the basis for the modernists. Plainly, modernism saw as the universe’s most defining characteristic a constant momentum of change.


Through the influence of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, many writers and intellectuals in the early part of the twentieth century expressed their disenchantment with the way of looking at life that had satisfied the previous generation. They realized that society, instead of being static, changed rapidly, and they embraced that change. Modernists also felt that culture up to that point had been founded on erroneous assumptions—assumptions based on nationalism, class and ethnic bigotry, and sentimentality—and they determined to not only purge these from their own writing but from their culture as well. Thus in modernist writing we can see both cynicism over the failures of the old order and a tentative hope for the new; we find both a sense of alienation and a need to belong.


In an age without heroes, the hero of the modern age could well be the seventeenth century character Don Quixote, who set off to perform chivalric deeds in an age which had abandoned chivalry. Just as Don Quixote did not fit the demands of his world, modernist writers did not fit theirs. They were born into a time when everything was secure and stable; they came to maturity in an era when everything was upside down. They had, like Don Quixote, to find a new way to make the old values work—and, when that proved to be impossible, they needed to find new ones. Modernism laid a sturdy and broad foundation for the literary movements that followed in this century because it helped both readers and writers evoke the irrationality of the worlds without and within.


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