What is Modernism?| Meaning, Features & Examples

Modernism is a widely used term in art and literature to cover and mark the break in traditional thinking and writing. In terms of time frame, some critics have denoted it from 1890 to 1950 and the scholars like Abrams put it clearly from 1914 to 1945 as the modern period in English literature. The era of high modernism came in literature after the First World War with the publications of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both published in 1922. Modernist movement in literature gave birth to new concepts and methods of writing highly based on distorted forms and distractions from traditional writing. Some of the major poets and authors, other than Eliot and Joyce, associated with modernism are: Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, Dorothy Richardson, William Faulkner, Stephane Mallarme, W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht, etc. Modernist movement is associated with other art movements such as Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, Symbolism, Imagism, Vorticism, Ultraismo, Dadaism, etc. These are closely identified as modern movements in art and literature. According to Abrams:
“The term modernism is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of twentieth century, but especially after World War I (914-18). The specific features signified by “modernism” (or by the adjective modernist) vary with the user, but many critics agree that it involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of Western art, but of Western culture in general.” (Abrams, 176).
Modernism is marked by different features vividly seen in the writings of above mentioned poets and authors. E.g. Eliot’s The Waste Land does not follow the traditional concept of poetry. The radical changes in themes, forms, structures, language and overall discourse are vividly found in the works of these writers. The sense of disillusionment and fragmentation is a strong pointer in The Waste Land:
“A primary theme of T. S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land (1922), a seminal Modernist work, is the search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty landscape. With its fragmentary images and obscure allusions, the poem is typically of Modernism in requiring the reader to take an active role in interpreting the text.” (britanica.com).
Thus it marks the break from conventions forming new styles and structures in writing. There is another term associated with modernism avant-garde, derived from military phrase advance-guard. The authors and poets consciously violet the traditional or past norms and bring forth their own styles, structures and themes, sometimes they use restricted subject matters openly. Such authors think about themselves that they are alienated from the system and work to show the deficiencies through their unconventional and strongly pointed or sharp writings like Ulysses which was banned for many years in English speaking countries.
General Features of Modernism:
1. Break from Conventions: modernism is a movement which has broken down the traditional norms and ideology in art, literature, politics, culture, social discourse, fashion, etc. It has given birth to new concepts and trends in these fields of human activity. Modernists find their own way to put the things before readers or audience.
2. Split World: they strongly believe that the world is made up of fragmentation, disillusionment and distorted images. It is the condition of the post war world. There is loss, despair, alienation resulted in unhappiness.
3. Nothing is Permanent: according to modernists, nothing is permanent in the world, even truth. Truth also can change and is dependent; it is a relative phenomenon. What we think today is right but tommorrow it might be wrong, or changed.
4. New Forms: they use new forms with incomplete, distorted and not so clear structures in writing. The Waste Land is the fine example of fragmented structures and ambiguous language. It shows us the disillusioned world. Use of dislocated structures, phrases, language, etc. is common in writing.
5. Forbidden Subject Matters: use of unpracticed themes, discontinuous narratives, broken forms, etc. Most of the themes are based on spiritual emptiness, redemption, physical and internal chaos, psychological dilemma, disordered and distorted life, wounded civilization, etc.
6. Stream of Consciousness Technique: many of the novels have stream of consciousness technique in narration highly based on the inner thoughts and processes of human mind. A constant flow of thoughts running in the mind and the mind is caught in dilemma not able to find the way out. It shows the grim psychological condition of human mind.
7. No Distinction in Forms: there is no clear distinction among literary genres like poetry, drama, novel or fiction, long narrative, etc. The distinction among such forms are deliberately blurred to show the complexity of modern art and literature.
8. Overall modern literature reflects individualism, experimentation, absurdity, symbolic representation of persons, places, events and things, etc. They have given more significance to the individual performance and experimented with new forms and techniques in writing.
Examples of Modern Literature:
1. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land based on spiritual emptiness, effects of industrialization, urbanization and war.
2. James Joyce’s Ulysses, Finnegans Wake (1939) composed with no proper plot, setting, characterization, structure or syntax.
3. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) reveals aftermath and drastic effects of war on human life.
4. Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) employs stream of consciousness technique.
5. James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), a philosophical work discloses the religion, mythology and its place in human existence with new perspectives.
6. Eugene Gladstone O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1922) raises the issues of identity, belongingness and overall, the purpose of human existence.
7. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) shows the routine life difficulties and quest for identity and survival.

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