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What constitutes Modernism in literature?

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 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.


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.

Alienation and Isolation

Struggling for individuality in an age of industrialised urban living, writers expressed a loss of self, feeling like an outsider within society.

Experimentation with form

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.

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.


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

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.

Favouring relativism over absolute truth

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


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 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.


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This page was last edited on Thursday, 8 Oct 2020 at 22:20 UTC