In the 19th to early 20th century, Modernism heralded a radical transformation of culture. With its renewed outlook of a post-industrial, post-WW1 society, past beliefs and styles were rejected in favour of the ‘new’. Literary Modernism is characterised by innovative literary techniques such as stream of consciousness, interior monologue and multiple viewpoints which reflect an interest in psychology and human nature. Despite its prominence the movement is notoriously hard to define. So, what elements make up Modernist literature?
A focus on the individualShow moreShow less
Modernist voices care less about society, and other people, instead honing in on the individual perspective. In this way they reject national values and ‘the greater good’ by manifesting the cynicism and uncertainty of a new generation trying to make sense of the world.
After the decline in classical western thinking and the radical changes in society at the beginning of the 20th century, writers turned inward, favouring individual expression and creating space for contemplation. Is this way Modernists established the blueprints for modern literature.
Following a period of rapid development in technology- in communications and industry- and the disruptive effect of mechanised warfare on society, the emergence of the writer’s expression as an individual was welcome. Before this, writing, like all art, was based on morality, objectivity, truth, spirituality and beauty. It was made for commercial appeal not satisfy a creative need in the author. The dramatic form gave us soliloquys, but not until the advent of the modernists was this the interior voice fully utilised in literary structure.
This was also a response to the growing impersonality of the modern world. Not only was the concept of human life devalued by the war, but increased urbanisation and the after effects of the industrial-revolution led workers to feel like simply another cog in the machine. This is evident in Sophie Treadwell’s play 'Machinal' (1928) which stages the struggle of one woman for definition in an oppressively conformist society. As a journalist, Treadwell knew the line between objectivity and personality, which gives the play a distinct tone.
Yet the case for personal identity arose in many forms. Novels such as EM Forster’s 'A Room with A View' (1908) and D.H Laurence’s 'Lady Chatterley’s Lover' (1928) display a rupturing of social norms through illicit, individually driven romances. Both female leads are spurred on by introspection.
This shows Modernist characters appearing more self-aware of their social standing. For Luigi Pirandello in his play 'Six Characters in Search of an Author' (1921) this is taken to a literal extent in a moment of metafiction, in which fictional characters challenge the nature of their existence. Pirandello’s own presence within the production is often symbolically created with an empty chair in the auditorium.
Indeed the turn towards introspection was a prophetic one for art and culture, and truly put the ‘modern’ in modernism.