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 a focus on the individual
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.
Modernism in literature involves introspection
After the decline in classical western thinking and the radical changes in society at the beginning of the 20th century, writers turned inward, favoring individual expression and creating space for contemplation. In this way, Modernists established the blueprints for modern literature.
Modernism in literature involves experimentation with form
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.
Modernism in literature involves stream of consciousness
A style characterized 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.
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.
Modernism in literature involves rejection and revaluation of the past
As a conscious break from established political, religious, and social views, Modernist writing aims to challenge its reader’s perceptions. It is critical of history yet often takes a playful and creative approach in making sense of it.
Modernism in literature involves favoring relativism over absolute truth
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.
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.
Appearing towards the end of the Modernist movement, Absurdism is another manifestation of post-war disillusionment. Absurdists note the inherent desire to find value in a meaningless world and represent this in the structure of their work.