Modernism in Literature
The literary movement that spanned from the late 19th century until roughly 1965 is referred to as modernism. When talking about the movement there must be an understanding of the difference between modernism and the more common word “modern”. The word modern refers to what is new, recent, and updated. Although modernism does deal with the futuristic and the new, it also covers vastly more topics and themes. Modernism reaches into rebellion, struggle and harsh realities.
From there it stretches into abstraction and a break from idealistic vision. Modernism is only modern in the sense that it comes from the desire of those involved to break away from the old, traditional ways of thinking and expression and to come into their current situations with a new view of reality and art. Modernism was spurred into being largely by a few events in history that shocked the masses and began to change peoples’ view of the world. Most notably, World War I caused a drastic change of mind to all involved.
Modernism in Literature Essay Example
This historical event gave momentum to the modernist movement by putting realities in front of people that were vastly different from the serene and beautiful ideals described in romantic or Victorian literature. It was difficult to associate these works of art with the way the world had become; therefore, it was necessary to create a new way of expression. Modernist authors did not want to be confined by the traditional boundaries of literature, so they experimented in terms of style and content. The world changed and literature followed.
There five major themes displayed in modernist literature. The first is a representation of inner reality. Modernist authors placed a greater emphasis on the psychological experience of the individual than on the outer realities. This caused much more focus to be placed on individual interpretation of circumstances and events. Modernist authors did not write clear-cut, chronological stories as their predecessors had. Instead, their work followed no set order or boundary, mimicking the rapidly changing thoughts we would see if we could look into the mind of another person.
Modernists had the desire to express their own individual thoughts as well as to encourage others to think for themselves and define their own experiences. To this end, modernist literature is marked by a blurred distinction between the internal and the external. The second major theme in modernism is the rejection of norms. At the very core of modernism is the defiance of society’s established standards and traditions. This includes structures such as the family structure, government, religion, gender roles, socioeconomic hierarchies, and perception of different races.
Modernist literature rejects the old in favor of the new, embracing a newfound freedom of thought and expression. This shows itself largely in the content of modernist literature, which is unlimited and unrestricted. Previously, literature was confined to topics of natural beauty and drama. Modernist literature spoke of every aspect of reality, putting the spotlight on the ordinary and simple rather than on the extraordinary. Coinciding closely with the second theme is the theme of the grotesque. To be grotesque means to be unpleasant or displeasing.
In modernist literature, authors would take something familiar or traditional and warp it into something disturbing. By manipulating that thing, they were in a sense showing another side to a familiar story. This falls neatly in line with rejecting of the norms, as many modernist authors would use subject matter and content that had been spoken of in classical literature and turn it into something very different and unnatural. The idea was to make the reader uncomfortable with what is commonplace and to question the true goodness of what was considered ultimately good.
The fourth theme is that of technology. In an effort to leap away from the past and into the future, many modernist authors were fond of writing about technology. Technology represents a new way of doing things in education, transportation, communication, commerce, and the daily activities of life. Much of the subject matter of modernist literature includes technology either as a main element of the story or as a background observation. It is sometimes used to show improvement, but more often used to represent the increasing isolation of society and the cold, mechanical nature of the world.
The last theme is the theme of structure and geometry. It is partially related to technology, in that it emphasizes functionality over decoration. This theme is displayed in the authors streamlining of description and embellishment, favoring instead shortened, functional definitions. This creates a sort of unity and flow by linking events, characters, and situations in the author’s story. Along the same line with the themes of modernism are the styles used in modernist literature. Although there are many styles used in modernist literature, there are four many styles of writing that we will discuss.
Firstly, the style of imagism was highly present. Imagism involves using precise, clear, and sharp language in writing, rather than over-embellishment and exaggeration. Imagism called for a return to the directness of presentation and economy of language, as well as a willingness to experiment with non-traditional views. A distinct feature of imagism is its attempt to isolate a single image and reveal its essence. This focus on concisely describing a singularity, rather than a vast topic, is a definite stylistic change from the previous romantic and Victorian literary works.
Secondly, modernist literature uses very symbolic language and content. This is noticeable in the amount of metaphors used by modernist writers. In general, nothing is skin-deep in modernist writing. There is a deeper, symbolic meaning behind most characters, places, names, and other elements of the story. This was a very anti-idealist style of writing as it attempted to show life in its gritty particulars and humble realities. Symbolism takes the literature away from realism, abstracting the ugly truth from any and all situations.
Those who wrote with this style believed that there were some absolute truths that could not be written about directly, choosing instead to represent these things through metaphorical and suggestive writing. They endowed images and objects with symbolic meaning in order to point the reader in the direction of the truth without saying it straight-out. It was the modernist writers’ desire to evoke a reaction or feeling from the reader, rather than merely informing them. Symbolism brought with it a freer flow in the writing of poetry.
Modernist authors did not want to hinder themselves or their message by being confined to consistency of stanzas, rhyming, or any other traditionally accepted norms in poetry. They chose instead to follow whatever form and flow that would best suit their particular pieces of literature, without paying any attention to specific rules or consistency. Third on the list of styles used is vorticism. This was a style of writing that attempted to relate art to industrialization and machinery. It opposes sentimentality and promotes the mechanical and futuristic.
Lastly, there is the style of expressionism. Expressionism was the tendency of modernist authors to present the world from a subjective perspective, distorting the view in order to evoke an emotional response. Although similar to symbolism, expressionism is different in that the author wished more to lead the reader to the specific personal emotions, moods, and ideas of the author instead of general feeling and emotion. This style was brought about largely by the perceived dehumanization effect of industrialization and the growth of cities.
These are the styles and themes of modernism used by those who are considered the major writers of the modernist movement. This literary movement was mostly displayed in British literature. The most notable authors who wrote in the UK are T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. T. S. Eliot was a poet who lived from 1888-1965. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, but moved to England in 1914. He is one of the major writers considered in the modernist movement, with his famous works including “The Waste Land”, “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock”, and “The Hollow Men”. Eliot had a distinguished career in literature, and even received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1948. James Joyce was born in 1882 and died in 1941. Born in Ireland, Joyce moved to continental Europe after university and stayed abroad for most of his life. His most notable work was a book titled “Ulysses”, which is a great representation of modernism because of its stream of consciousness style of writing that reflects the individualism and rejection of norms which modernist writers are known for.
Besides this novel, he is known to have written a collection of short stories titled “Dubliners” as well as another novel titled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. The last major author of the modernist movement was Virginia Woolf, who lived from 1882-1941. She was born in London, and lived in England her whole life. Woolf is considered one of the major writers of the modernist movement because of the content and style of her work. She wrote many essays and stories with feminist undertones, and had strong opinions on the liberation and education of women.
She was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, an intellectual society of writers in England. Some of her notable works are “To the Lighthouse”, “Mrs. Dalloway”, and “Orlando”. Among the lesser known modernist writers is Ezra Pound, who lived from 1885-1972. He was born in the US, but spent most of his life living abroad in different parts of Europe. He was a friend to T. S. Eliot, and even helped him to translate and publish some works in England. His most notable works are “Ripostes”, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”, and his unfinished epic “The Cantos”. Another lesser known writer is the author Gertrude Stein.
Born in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1874, Stein was raised in the US. She moved to Paris in the early 1900s, where she stayed until her death in 1946. She was primarily a novelist and a poet. Some of her famous works are “Three Lives”, “Q. E. D. ”, and “Tender Buttons”. MODERNIST WORKS: “THE WASTE LAND” AND “ANIMAL FARM” THE WASTE LAND T. S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Waste Land” is written in a free-form, often fragmented style. It is divided into 5 titled sections which all share a link to the common themes of death, disillusionment, barrenness, and rebirth displayed throughout the poem.
Eliot portrays a vivid picture of a very hopeless post-war life, with the evidence of death and desperation everywhere. He describes the horrible circumstances that man finds himself in, and is unable to escape from. From the very beginning of the poem where Eliot describes the month of April, traditionally thought of as the best month because of the rain and new growth, as “the cruelest of months”, we can see the false hope which the poem is emphasizing. This all comes from the post World War I mentality and shock that existed in the time the poem was written.
Many people in that time believed that the world would become better after the war, whereas Eliot’s Waste Land contradicts this common viewpoint by presenting this to be a false and shallow hope. The mood of the poem is very gloomy, shown by the various gloomy scenes depicted as well as the constant search for answers by the persona. As well, the persona speaks with a very resigned tone, as if surrendering to the realities and problems of the world. Although the poem has consistent themes, it is set in many different places of which there is no connection or consistency throughout the different sections.
The settings vary from a fancy room, to a bridge in London, to the banks of the Thames River, even to an unnamed desert place. Each setting serves the purpose of the section in which it is written, and paints a very good picture for the reader of the circumstances Eliot is writing about. The first section, Burial of the Dead, talks of high hopes of the rebirth of the world after the war, but overshadows this with the futility of the new life and the hopelessness of the efforts.
This is shown in Eliot’s emphasis on the death which a false hope of life must grow out of, shown specifically in lines 1, 2, and 7. The second section, A Game of Chess, speaks about the perversion of humanity and the degrading social and moral values of society. It starts out by describing a beautiful scene, but as soon as the characters are introduced we encounter sadness of all types. The first character spoken of is Philomel, a woman who is a victim of rape. This illustrates the crisis of perversion of human sexuality.
The second is Lil, a married woman who chooses to abort her sixth child. This is demonstrating to the reader how societal values are changing for the worse. In the third section, The Fire Sermon, we are first given a description of a natural scene and environment. Contrary to romantic literature, which viewed nature as spiritual and beautiful, this description that Eliot writes gives us the impression that there is nothing pleasing or significant about this nature. It depicts the barrenness of the post-war world, where there was a break from old ways of thinking.
The fourth section, Death by Water, shows death as an unavoidable end for all. This observation shows a large amount of hopelessness and gives the idea that death will reach all, as well as the impression that after death people will not remember the dead for long. The fifth and final section, What the Thunder Said, gives the reader a description of the expectations of humanity after the war, without giving a negative or positive opinion of them. This poem can be shown to have stylistic elements such as the use of metaphors, descriptive language, Biblical allusions, satire, and symbolism.
The language used to write The Waste Land is very dense, and full of metaphorical reference, although sometimes very vague references. For example the third stanza in the first section speaks entirely about the clairvoyant, known as Madame Sosostris, and her deck of Tarot cards. And again, the fourth section refers back to this same reference, using the Phoenician Sailor character once more as a metaphor. Eliot uses very descriptive language to give the reader a vivid mental picture of the barrenness of this world he is describing.
In the first section the poem’s persona talks of the “dull roots” (line 4), the “red rock” (line 25), and “where the sun beats” (line 22), to show how the scorching sun has made the land dry and difficult. All of this is used to illustrate the effect that the harsh conditions have caused to the human race. There are frequent Biblical allusions in The Waste Land, such as in line 20 where the persona is speaking to the Son of Man and in the last stanza of the third section where the language used speaks to the Lord in terms that sound like a Psalm from the Bible.
Satire is shown throughout the poem as well, but is particularly evident in lines 70-77, where the persona mocks the body of a buried corpse, speaking about it as if it were a seed that would sprout up in the springtime. He then refers to Webster’s White Devil in lines 74-75 when he cautions the characters to “keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men, or with his nails he’ll dig it [the corpse] up again. ” Lastly, Eliot uses highly symbolic language, even in the title The Waste Land which can be said to reflect the pessimistic, desperate state of the world at that time.
Another example is the description of the city of London in line 62 as the “unreal city”, and later in line 65 it is said that “I had not thought death had undone so many. ” This is symbolic of the state of mind post-war. ANIMAL FARM Eric Blair, whose pen name was George Orwell, was born in India in 1903 and died in 1950. His family moved to England while he was still at a young age, and he stayed there afterwards, with some short stints abroad for various jobs. He is most noted as a novelist, with his most famous novel being Animal Farm. The story in Animal Farm is largely played out by personified animal characters.
Set on a farm in England, Orwell describes a cruel master, Mr. Jones, the human owner of the farm. The animals, inspired by a speech from the wise pig Old Major, incite a rebellion and manage to overthrow the Jones family. Two pigs take over leadership of the farm, Snowball and Napoleon. In the beginning there is harmony and all are working towards the greater good of the farm. The animals destroy all objects like whips and harnesses that represent the tyranny of human rule, better rations are given to all, and the farm is more productive than ever before.
The pigs, being the most intelligent animals, take on leadership and supervisory roles over the rest of the animals. They create the seven laws of animalism to unite the farm. The harmony does not last for long, as the leaders begin to disagree on the best way to run the farm. Napoleon, who has secretly trained attack dogs, drives Snowball out of the farm and assumes an ultimate leadership position. Under his leadership, the slow evolution from equality to inequality begins.
It starts with extra rations and easier work being given to the pigs, and ends with the pigs living exactly as the Jones family used to. By this time, the farm and all the animals on it are worse off than they were before the rebellion, but it is hard for them to see it because there is a lingering sense of commitment to the farm that they all own. The book Animal Farm was written to parallel the Soviet Union. It is written as satire, and bases its characters off of real historical figures from Soviet Russia. It is considered a modernist work mainly because of its individualism and experimentation.
Orwell experimented in the sense that this work was not only written as a fairy tale, an unpopular style of writing at the time, but was also based on personified animal characters, which was almost unheard of. This novel focuses on the individual reader developing his own opinion, his own truth, about the issues displayed. While Orwell certainly does not paint a pleasant picture in the story, he never refers to anything as inherently good or bad, and therefore allows the reader to decide for themselves whether it is so.
This goes along with the grotesque theme of modernism. Some of the major themes displayed in the novel are those of utopia, propaganda, and the eventual corruption of power. Utopia is alluded to throughout the novel, as all the animals are made to believe their work is towards a greater good for all. In the beginning this utopia is shown in the light of hopefulness, but by the end of the book it is seen as a vague promise that the characters have very little reason to trust in.
The theme of propaganda is shown largely by the pig character named Squealer. He has a unique talent for twisting words and arguments so as to convince the animals that if they disagree with him they disagree with the ideals of animalism and the greater good. He is said to be able “to turn black into white” (page 36). Finally, the corruption of power is shown by the subtle things which the pigs do to further their own agendas rather than contributing to the good of all.
The pigs use their place of authority as a reason for their needs to be considered more highly. They start out by requiring extra rations, which leads to them requiring their own space to work and rest in the farmer’s house, and eventually leads to them enjoying alcohol and clothing to the point that they are indistinguishable from the cruel human masters. From the beginning of Napoleon’s rule, he tricks the other animals by making small changes to the rules and creating stories that will cause greater loyalty to him.
He shows himself as the great leader who makes immense sacrifices to bear the burden of leadership, when in reality he is a dictator who is enjoying the benefits of the animals’ labor without contributing to their efforts. He makes the others work for his good and the good of the other pigs while disguising it with clever excuses and false intentions. By the end of the book Napoleon is crueler than Mr. Jones ever was, but has fooled the animals into believing they are working for their own good.