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Modernism in Literature: Quick Overview

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 3/2/2012

Don't confuse the Modernists movement with the standard dictionary definition of modern. Modernism in Literature is not a chronological designation; rather it consists of literary work possessing certain loosely defined characteristics.

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    What is Modernism?

    The following are characteristics of Modernism:

    • Marked by a strong and intentional break with tradition. This break includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views.
    • Belief that the world is created in the act of perceiving it; that is, the world is what we say it is.
    • There is no such thing as absolute truth. All things are relative.
    • No connection with history or institutions. Their experience is that of alienation, loss, and despair.
    • Championship of the individual and celebration of inner strength.
    • Life is unordered.
    • Concerned with the sub-conscious.
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    British & Irish Modernism

    The horrors of World War I (1914-19), with its accompanying atrocities and senselessness became the catalyst for the Modernist movement in literature and art. Modernist authors felt betrayed by the war, believing the institutions in which they were taught to believe had led the civilized world into a bloody conflict. They no longer considered these institutions as reliable means to access the meaning of life, and therefore turned within themselves to discover the answers.

    Their antipathy towards traditional institutions found its way into their writing, not just in content, but in form. Popular British Modernists include the following:

    • James Joyce (from Dublin, Ireland) - His most experimental and famous work, Ulysses, completely abandons generally accepted notions of plot, setting, and characters.
    • Ford Madox Ford - The Good Soldier examines the negative effect of war.
    • Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse, as well, strays from conventional forms, focusing on Stream of Consciousness.
    • Stevie Smith - Novel on Yellow Paper parodies conventionality.
    • Aldous Huxley - Brave New World protests against the dangers and nature of modern society.
    • D.H. Lawrence - His novels reflected on the dehumanizing effect of modern society.
    • T.S. Eliot - Although American, Eliot's The Wasteland is associated with London and emphasizes the emptiness of Industrialism.
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    American Modernism

    Known as "The Lost Generation" American writers of the 1920s Brought Modernism to the United States. For writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, World War I destroyed the illusion that acting virtuously brought about good. Like their British contemporaries, American Modernists rejected traditional institutions and forms. American Modernists include:

    • Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises chronicles the meaningless lives of the Lost Generation. Farewell to Arms narrates the tale of an ambulance driver searching for meaning in WWI.
    • F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby shows through its protagonist, Jay Gatsby, the corruption of the American Dream.
    • John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, and Sherwood Anderson are other prominent writers of the period.

    Mini Lesson: Make a chart to identify aspects of modernism. In the left column list the characteristics of modernism; in the middle column find specific passages; in the right column write an analysis of the passage.


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