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What constitutes Modernism in literature? Show more Show less
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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 favoring relativism over absolute truth Show more Show less

The human experience is confused, wild, jumbled, and completely subjective. There is a belief that people cannot fully know themselves, so their understanding of the world is bound to be piecemeal and full of contradictions. So, Modernist literature asserts that everything is relative.
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Modernism in literature involves nihilism

Now that truth, objectivity, and morality were beginning to be more rigorously questioned, a new ideology emerged. Helmed by Nietzsche, but gaining momentum after WW1, Nihilism can be seen oozing from the darkness of Modernist literature.

The Argument

While not beginning and ending with the Modernists, Nihilism is a prevalent characteristic that manifests in the psychological darkness of the movement’s key literature. Several things sparked it: Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Freud’s psychoanalysis, an increased skepticism of western faith and the carnage of World War 1.[1] All of this was absorbed into 20th-century literature and summed up by Nietzsche’s prophetic philosophy near the end of the 19th century. Nihilism in Modernist Literature could also be seen to represent the shift toward Relativism and vice-versa. This is noticeable in texts such as TS Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922), William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and works from Franz Kafka and playwright Samuel Beckett. To take Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’: this famous poem situates itself somewhere between Nihilism's derelict abyss and a vivid past. Its constantly shifting viewpoint gives the impression of a world in disarray, with characters engaging in futile lives. This can be seen in the opening section in which an aristocratic woman reflects on her childhood but appears to be living a desolate existence; we get imagery of ‘Lilacs out of the dead land’ and a desire to remember upturned by the inevitability of forgetting.[2] Another side to Nihilism is the decline of religion and belief in a godless universe. Eliot suggests this through the heavy use of biblical allusions. Decades later, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1957) would be defined by their religious absence- of structure, morals, and authority. Faulkner’s The Sound and Fury (1929) shows its effect on the individual level through Benjy, a mentally disabled man. Benjy’s incoherent, stream-of-consciousness accounts highlight the chaotic nature of modern living, where traditional values have been destabilized. If Nihilism has prevailed, as Nietzsche predicted, then we can look to Modernist literature as a document of it. Still, its influence permeates modern life.

Counter arguments



Rejecting the premises


This page was last edited on Thursday, 19 Nov 2020 at 13:39 UTC

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