Literary Modernism

A turn of the century meant a turn on tradition in literature

Modernism was the changes in the arts between late 19th century and 1939, with the outbreak of World War Two acting as the ‘full stop’ on this movement. The key feature of Modernism was experimentation in form, rather than presenting both art and literature in the traditionally time-honoured way. For example, Picasso broke new ground as he painted in a riot of colour and shapes, making no attempt to be naturalistic or representational in his art that would later become known as cubism.

In literature, this drastic move away from rigid normality was conveyed through the writer switching to a narrative form different from the traditional omniscient narrator, leaving the reader in a larger state of uncertainty. Additionally, brief moments in the story would be enlarged into something very significant, intense and drawn out, such as the kiss between George and Lucy in E.M. Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’ (1908). There was an innovative use of language, most predominantly seen in the structure called ‘stream of consciousness’ – no chapters, just a character’s internal dialogue that provided the reader with an insight quite new to literature. Author Virginia Woolf was most influential in this literary formation, as she recommended concentration on the mind’s mirroring, written in an essay a few months after the end of World War One. Sure enough, her own novels became works significant in Modernism, such as ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (1925), that follows a character’s response to a London society that has barely recovered from the shock of war.

It can also be said that this particular structure was shaped by the interest in Freudian theory within the writing community, because of the emphasise on human thought and emotion in a truly detailed manner. Additionally, the presentation of unconventional sexual relationships, such as in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ (1928) by D.H. Lawrence, though not entirely new to the literary scene (unconventional love had long been a literature favourite), was informed by the understanding of human sexuality that was generated by Freudian theory.

And what social circumstances drove literature from the old to the new? Though the demise of Edwardian England meant a slow end to repressive Victorian values that largely accounted for early Modernist literature, it was the destructive force of World War One that proved the most radical source of inspiration for writers. Particularly, the theme of nature, torn and tarnished by wartime destruction, had now lost its conventional power to console, a far cry from the beauty of nature seen within the poetry of Romanticism. Modernist focus was on dispirited cityscapes – in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), the opening lines described April as ‘the cruelest month’, indicating contempt for nature, before focusing upon a depressed post-war London.

I hope that you have enjoyed this snippet of the features of the Modernist movement! I am going to be writing more regularly about components of literature, such as in this post and my previous article on the Gothic genre.

Thank you for reading,


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