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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 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?

Experimentation with form Show more Show less

New writing techniques captured the spirit of rebellion and 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.
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Stream of consciousness

A style characterised by loosely structured and continuous text that usually replicates a character’s thought process, ‘stream of consciousness’ writing is quintessentially Modernist. It’s associated with many well-known names of the writing period: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust.

The Argument

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis understood the mind in psychology as stream of consciousness did in literature. Inspired by the pivotal neurologist, the writing technique captures the loosely structured, sensorial and erratic nature of realistic human thoughts.[1]The result is challenging to read at first, often featuring off-putting non-sequiturs and huge bulks of unbroken prose. Yet, its association with novels such as Ulysses (James Joyce) and the work of Virginia Woolf make it a notable feature of Modernist literature. In charting the depths of the human consciousness these writers not only expanded the psychological implications of fiction, but made a radical departure from literary traditions. Sentence structure, syntax, punctuation and grammar take sometimes incongruous forms. They contribute to a non-linear story, and there is a focus on internal observation over external action. This is because they represent the disordered logic of the human mind and challenge the contrived nature of traditional narrative structures. 'Ulysses' achieves this by setting its narrative over the course of a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom. The mundane, obscene, and philosophical are rolled together into a subconscious bric-a-brac. As a testament to its modernity, the novel alludes heavily to Greek myth but subverts it with its depiction of a colourful and low-brow Dublin.[2] Then you could take Woolf’s 'To the Lighthouse' for a very different approach. Rather than writing in a first person interior monologue, Woolf opts for a an omnipresent narrator who cycles between the thoughts of various characters inhabiting the same house. In doing so throughout the novel, she tracks the changes of her characters with a psychology clarity, and without needing to rely on overt tension.[3] It is also pretty telling that for much of the book the dramatic highpoint is a missing brooch. Simply, stream-of-consciousness is an iconic and contentious device of the Modernist playbook.

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This page was last edited on Tuesday, 20 Oct 2020 at 10:19 UTC

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