argument top image

What constitutes Modernism in literature? Show more Show less
Back to question

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 favor of the ‘new’. Literary Modernism is characterized 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?

Modernism in literature involves experimentation with form Show more Show less

New writing techniques captured the spirit of rebellion and the need to rip apart, rearrange, and reappropriate language structure. But far from taking an ‘anything goes’ approach, Modernists were disciplined and rigorous, carving a niche and marking their territory on the literary landscape.
< (2 of 4) Next position >

Modernism in literature involves intertextuality

Modernists were interested in the way different texts related to each other and explored this through the use of references, allusions, quotations, and pastiche. Though not an invention of the Modernists, this technique went on to define their literature.

The Argument

Modernist texts recognized more explicitly than those which preceded them that literature doesn’t exist within a vacuum. This might seem odd for a movement that rejected past ideals- even past movements in literature, like Romanticism, so blatantly. But Modernism was about reinvention as much as revolution. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land could be considered a case study of intertextuality in Modernism because of its sheer quantity of allusions. Stylistically, this gives the poem a frenetic quality, but it also helps root some of its imagery. Take his biblical allusions, particularly evident in the descriptions of arid desert, which shows his view of a world bereft of religion.[1] But there’s an even greater emphasis on legendary writers such as Dante, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire. Eliot uses his references to create a coded language: in order to understand the present, he wants readers to unravel the past. It also embodies what he describes in his essay Tradition and Individual Talents as the ‘simultaneous existence’ and ‘simultaneous order’ of all texts.[2] For a famous example of long-form intertextuality, see James Joyce’s Ulysses. It takes its name and structure from Greek myth and Homer’s The Odyssey while also referencing The Iliad, as well as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and many others. But the novel is a culmination of many literary different styles, often depicted with an ironic gaze and using parody and pastiche.[3]French philosopher Roland Barthes suggests the meaning of the text doesn’t come from the text itself but from the reader’s understanding of it in relation to other texts, and this is no more evident than in Ulysses, which includes some infamously difficult passages that are hard to decode without knowledge of broad literary, historical and social influences.[4] It’s ironic, given that the technique has contributed to the timelessness of works.

Counter arguments



Rejecting the premises


This page was last edited on Friday, 20 Nov 2020 at 23:49 UTC

Explore related arguments