Modernism | Definition, Philosophy, Characteristics, Examples in Literature

What is Modernism? Easy way to Understand Modernism in Literature

What is Modernism?

Modernism Definition


Modernism is variously argued to be a period, style, genre, or combination of the above; but it is first of all a word; one which exists alongside cognate words. It’s stem, ‘Modern’, is a term that, from the Latin ‘modo’, means ‘current’, and so has a far wider currency and range of meanings than ‘Modernism‘. In the late 5th century, for example, the Latin ‘modernus’ referred to the Christian present in opposition to the Roman past, modern English is distinguished from Middle English, and the modern period in literature is considered to be from the sixteenth century on, although it is sometimes used to describe twentieth-century writing.


More generally, ‘modern’ has been frequently used to refer to the avant-garde, though since World War II this sense has been embraced by the term ‘contemporary’ while ‘modern’ has shifted from meaning ‘now’ to ‘just now’. It is this sense of the avant-garde, radical, progressive or even revolutionary side to the modern which was the catalyst for the coinage ‘Modernism‘, and it is to this meaning that Rimbaud appealed when insisting “Il faut etre absolument moderne”


The Modern movement in the arts, although seen as being almost synonymous with the advent of the twentieth century, actually goes back to the last decades of the nineteenth century when the foundations of high Victorian culture were facing serious threats from various agencies. As a cultural phenomenon, Modernism saw the departure from preexisting modes of aesthetic engagement to the sphere of art.

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Modernism applies to literature, music, painting, film, and architecture and to some works before and after this period). In poetry, Modernism is associated with moves to break from the iambic pentameter as the basic unit of verse, to introduce vers libre, (free verse) symbolism, and other new forms of writing. In prose, Modernism is associated with attempts to render human subjectivity in more authentic ways than realism: to represent consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and the individual’s relation to society through interior monologue, stream of consciousness, tunneling, defamiliarisation, rhythm, irresolution and other techniques. The Modernist writers therefore strove, in Ezra Pound’s brief phrase, to make it new”


With regard to literature, Modernism is best understood through the work of the Modernist authors who wrote in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century. One of the first aspects of Modernist writing to strike readers is the way in which such novels, stories, plays and poems immerse them in an unfamiliar world. Modernist writing frequently immerses the reader in a confusing and difficult mental landscape which cannot be immediately understood but which must be moved through and mapped by the reader in order to understand its limits and meanings.


History of Modernism


By contrast ‘Modernism’ was first used in the early 18th century simply to denote trends characteristics of modern times, while in the 19th century its meaning encompassed a sympathy with modern opinions, styles or expressions. In the later part of the 19th century modernism referred to progressive trends in the Catholic Church. In literature it surfaced in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles (1891), to denote what he called a general and unwelcome creeping industrial “ache of Modernism”. In criticism, the context with which this article is concerned, the expression was used, but failed to gain currency by Robert Graves and Laura Riding in their 1927 A Survey of Modernist Poetry. It was only in the 1960s that the term became widely used as a description of a literary phase that was both identifiable and in some sense over. Its literary roots have been said to be in the work of the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire and the novelist Gustave Flaubert, in the Romantics, or in the 1890s fin de siècle writers, while its culmination or apogee arguably occurred before World War I, by which point radical experimentation had impacted on all the arts, or in 1922, the annus mirabilis of James Joyce’s Ulysses, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, and Virginia Woolf‘s Jacob Room.


Post-war dates for Modernism’s high-point make sense in terms of British literature but not European. Its end is variously defined in terms of chronology, as 1930, 1950, or yet to happen, and, in terms of genre, as the rise of neo-realism or postmodernism. As an international art term it covers the many avant-garde styles and movements that proliferated under the names of Expressionism, ImagismSurrealismFuturismDadaismVorticismFormalism and (in writing if not painting) Impressionism. Its forebears were Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche; its intellectual guru was Freud. Modernist writing is most particularly noted for its experimentation, its complexity, its formalism, and for its attempt to create a “tradition of the new”.


Its historical and social background includes the emergence of the New Woman, the peak and downturn of the British Empire, unprecedented technological change, the rise of the Labour party, the appearance of factory-line mass production, war in Africa, Europe and elsewhere. Modernism has therefore almost universally been considered a literature of not just change but crisis.


Social context of modernism philosophy


Technology contributed to the erosion of many cherished values. It broke up the systems of social integration – the concepts of the happy family. Not that simply one credo was replaced by another but there was change in the pace in which life moved it became faster, freer, and grossly materialistic. The twentieth century saw a host of material benefits available to man-luxury items, popular entertainments like cinema, an unprecedented comfort in basic living conditions. Materialism also enhanced the class divide, but that was not an unknown experience for the industrial West.


The foundations of faith were also battered by the onslaught of Darwinism. The challenge to faith is one of the key characteristics in modern literature. In the early poetry of T.S. Eliot, for instance, the anxiety of modern living the experience of chaos capture this loss of centre Eliot’s Prufrock Joyce’s Dedalus are questers without direction.


The modern experience was not confined England alone. The twentieth century saw the internationalisation literature – the literary horizons of English were inhabited by writers who used the language but not necessarily the territorial condition. Writers like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, a Hemingway found in the modern experience the resource through engaged their creative impulses.


Modern literature is characterised by a process of cross-fertilisation of ideas, images, experiences. When Joseph Conrad writes about Marlow he is a modern man, but not simply an Englishman. In the world of Charles Dickens in the 19th century, Micawber belongs to a tradition that traces its sources to a robust English optimism.


Characteristics of Modernism


Another approach is to attempt to construct a description of the representative features of Modernist writing. Norman Cantor, in Twentieth Century Culture, Modernism to Deconstruction (1988), has offered what he calls a Model of Modernism, with the following characteristics. Modernism favoured anti-historicism because truth is not evolutionary and progressive but something requiring analysis. It focussed on the micro- rather than the macrocosm, and hence the individual more than the social. It leant towards the disjointed, disintegrating, and discordant in opposition to Victorian harmony.


Modernism also advocated that an object exists in terms of its function, a house is therefore seen as a machine for living in (Le Corbusier) and a poem “a machine made for words” (William Carlos Williams). In terms of sexuality and the family, Modernism introduced a new openness, with candid descriptions often sympathetic to feminism, homosexuality, androgyny and bisexuality, besides a questioning of the constraints of the nuclear family which seemed to hamper the individual’s search for personal values, Modernists did not view ethics as superior to art, seeing the latter instead as the highest form of human achievement. If Victorian literature was concerned with morality, Modernist writing was concerned with aesthetics.


Lastly, Cantor notes tendency towards feelings of apocalypse and despair following decades creeping Victorian doubt. In this spirit, Modernist texts often focus on social, spiritual, or personal collapse and subsume history under mythology and symbolism.


Other characteristics are a focus on the city and a championing as a fear of technology, technical experimentation allied with radical stylistic innovation, a suspicion of language as a medium for comprehending or explaining the world, and an attack on nineteenth-century stalwarts such as empiricism and rationalism. Above all, however, what has come to be called Modernism appears retrospectively to have been a wide-ranging and far reaching series of vigorous and persistent attempts to multiply and disturb modes of representation. Its artistic expansion seemed to follow on from other kinds of growth: scientific, imperial, and social. These lucrative material changes were accompanied by individual and collective crises, especially spiritual, which issued in a new literature that was rebellious, questioning, doubtful, and introspective, but confident and even aggressive in its aesthetic conviction.


Modernism in Literature


Modern Fiction


The novel was the dominant literary form in the Victorian period and while engagement with the reading public of the early twentieth century continued. The high Victorian fascination for social drama was somewhat pushed to the margins in the attempts of the modern to accommodate new situations and attitudes. It may be argued that the modern moment in English diction was brought about by the writings of Joseph Conrad, especially his Lord Jim (1900) and Heart of Darkness (1902).


The possibilities suggested by Conrad were taken further by other modern novelists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. In novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), Virginia Woolf readdressed the issue of the genre itself by suggesting that external structuring of events through the frame of the novel was not adequate justify the complexities of modern experience.


Among other members, the novelist E.M. Forster was associated with the Bloomsbury group. Like Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique, Forster’s best known work is A Passage to India (1924) where he wave through the thread of cultural differences with dexterity. His views regarding India have been controversial to say the least.


James Joyce’s novel has become a cult text of modern literature. In Ulysses, ahead with his quest figure, Stephen Dedalus (whom he had introduced in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1913), in a narrative that to present the modern day Dublin as the archetype of the civilized city, and these characters are epitome of modern man.


D. H. Lawrence relied more on the thematic evocation of the modern experience than narrative jugglery to further his thesis on modernity. The logic of autobiographical association was used initially to read his first novel Sons Lovers(1913). Lawrence did not want to impress upon his audience, or it could be argued that his visualisation of obscenity and vulgarity operated through a completely different matrix than the one that normally did. The Rainbow(1915), Women in Love (1920). Aaron’s Rod (1922), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928/1960) are some of Lawrence’s other novels.


Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) wrote a futuristic novel about modern chaos in his Brave New World (1932). The combination of tragedy and satire was successfully packaged in the novels of Evelyn Waugh (1902 66) especially A Handful of Dust (1934) and Brideshead Revisited (1945). The plight of the personal occupied a very important place in Greene’s fiction which was portrayed in The Power and the Glory (1940) and The Heart of the Matter (1948)


Modern Poetry


The advent of the twentieth century saw interesting explorations in the field of poetry, which were further quickened by developments in the contemporary world. The first major change came in the writing of the group known as the War poets (Modernist Poets). The First World War was a major political as well as a cultural event. The poetry of Rupert Brooke was often seen in conjunction with his image of the ‘young patriot’ who died for the country.


The contemporaries of Brooke who provided responses protest and frustration included Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Sassoon wrote anti-war poems with a quiet but very effective ironic thrust in the Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-Attack (1918). Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), Edward Thomas (1878-1917), and Charles Sorley (1896-1916) were some of the other poets of the war period, who didn’t survive it.


The First World War provides a very convenient marker to read the emergence of new trends in English poetry and figures like William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who in fact had been writing from the last decades of the preceding century, and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) moved to suggest interesting departures from the available poetic modes. The conflict between the romantic idyll and the potentially corrupt urban world is beautifully evoked in his “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. Yeats’ romanticism found another counter in the spirit of Irish nationalism.


Eliot, on the other hand, began his poetic career by reacting to the romantic assumptions of the nineteenth century brand practised by poets like William Wordsworth. One of his earliest poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is today as an example of trademark modernism for its constructed allusiveness and for subsisting in a parodic engagement that undercut many of the Victoria certainties, including love. In his classic The Waste Land (1922), where he presents the angst, corruption, and materialism of modernist society within the frame of a quest that draws on various cultural structures. The poem is characterised by a robust cosmopolitanism. The collection of four poems called “Four Quartets” (1943) dealt with the complexities of religious experience in the modern world.


Poets like W. H. Auden. Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day Lewis swerved towards the political ideologies and such alignments eventually compelled a confinement of some of their poems to purely topical contexts. The poetry of Stephen Spender (1909-1995) is organized to manifest his concern for the contemporary scene, and from his first collection Poems (1930) to Dolphins (1994), he exudes a sober sophistication. The poetry of Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) exhibits the marks of a genius that, according to many, wasn’t completely fulfilled.


Modern Art


Like many other Modernist movements, the origins of modern art can be traced back to some late nineteenth century movements. Impressionism was one such influence. The impressionists stayed away from the established modes of European painting and sought to represent scene from daily life. The impressionists many species of popular culture and introduced new techniques such application of broken brushstrokes or the employment of intensely concentrated colours.


Vincent Van Gogh sought to relay on his emotion pressures through the can and used symbolic structures in his paintings including representations of the self. Edward Munch, on the other hand, recourse to exaggerate and colourful representations of modern man anguish in a mechanized society. Georges Seurat, who used the benefits of scientific knowledge by violating the norms of realism. Paul Cézanne combined a solid conception of objects with a remarkable reorientation of perspective altering the overall effect of the printing, Cleanne’s radical perspectives were more apparent in his still-life paintings.


The late nineteenth century and early Modernist focus on a re-visualisation of art objects was also evident in developments that heralded a form of abstractionism. Henri Matisse’s use of disparate shapes in his apparently simple’ drawings suggests a fascination for abstraction that was unprecedented. Cubism, another radical revisualisation of perception am technique in the early twentieth century, is associated with Modernism in Pablo Picasso‘s Les Demoiselles D’Aviron (1907) a classic Cubist Art challenged the formal structure of conventional paintings. Many other artists like Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger Delaunay, Fernand Lager and Juan Gris followed Picasso in reinventing the form and idea of modern paintings.


Futurists like Umberto Boccioni used the idea of motion that came from the placement of sequential photographs, especially those by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.  Boccioni’s “Dynamism of a Soccer Player” (1913) is a trademark futurist painting and modern sculptor.


Modern Drama


Henrik Ibsen is often regarded as the first modernist in the history of European theatre, which is conflated with his placement as a pioneer in terms of the development of realist theatre also. Even though the plays of Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) and Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) preceded the innovative theatrics of modern drama, some of their plays do show the potential of a serious engagement with the problems of modernity. The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) by Pinero, for instance, combines the Ibsenite penchant for critical readings of contemporary malaises. A similar foray into the theatrics of Ibsen is seen in Henry Arthur Jones’ Mrs Dane’s Defence (1900) which enlarges the parameters of society drama to accommodate the sexual politics that also served as themes in novels of the period.


The only comic reinvention of the time came from the writings of Oscar Wilde, whose deliberately undercut the familiar by exposing oppositional facets with those very structures that characterised contemporary conditions. Outwardly, the four major plays (Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892: A Woman of No Importance, 1893: The Ideal Husband. 1895 And The Importance of Being Ernest, 1895) of Wilde exhibit striking similarities with the theatre of social convention as epitomised by Jones and Pinero.


Georege Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) inherited, or rather consciously appropriated, the Ibsenite model and exploited the resources of such theatrical conditioning in his dramatic experiments. The adoption of themes of familiar understanding in plays like Androcles and the Lion (1913), Pygmalion (1914) and Saint Joan (1924), Arms and the Man suggests the potentialities of these stories that could be dramatically extended beyond the conventions that framed them.


The works of John Galsworthy, coming at around theme time, utilised the benefits of plotting to show how engaged the chosen subjects were: Strife is Galsworthy’s best example of this condition. The success of The Silver Box (1905) was further emulated by some of his other plays like Justice and The Skin Game (1920).


Another Irishman who left a mark on the modern stage was John Millington Synge (1871-1909). In brief but exciting career Synge exploited the resources of his culture to experiment and engage the potential of Irish theatre in a way that wasn’t attempted before him. The Shadow of the Glen (1903),  Riders to the Sea (1904), The Well of the Saints (1905) and The Playboy of the Western World (1907) are Synge’s plays that move through terrains of heightened pessimism and given their placement within a culture of Irish indomitableness.


Sean O’Casey occupies a position in the history of Irish theatre. His early adventure with Irish nationalism and contemporary life was manifested in three of his plays.  – The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.


T. S. Eliot wrote innumerable plays which are worth mentioning – Murder in CathedralThe Family ReunionThe Cocktail PartyThe Confidential Clerketc.


The 1920s and the 30s were fertile years for the English theatre. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) successfully demonstrated the possibilities of satire in his plays. They include Our Betters (1917), The Circle (1921), The Constant Wife (1927) and For Services Rendered (1932).

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