Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

3.1: Modernism and Postmodernism as Literary Movements

  • Page ID
  • Modernism as a literary movement was influenced by thinkers who questioned the certainties that had provided support for traditional modes of social organization, religion, morality, and human identity, or the self. These thinkers included the socialist Karl Marx (1818-1883); Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose philosophical studies encouraged accepting concepts as occurring within (and therefore defined by) perspectives, and that critiqued Christianity; Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who founded psychoanalysis; and Sir James Frazer (1854- 1941), who examined mythology and religion syncretically.

    clipboard_e0e9e60434f7b50fb555dba9774976463.pngModernism rebelled against traditional literary forms and subjects. Modernists subverted basic conventions of prose fiction by breaking up narrative continuity, violating traditional syntax, and disrupting the coherence of narration—through the use of stream-of-consciousness, that is, a narrative style providing the uninterrupted flow of an individual’s thoughts and feelings—among other innovative modes of narration. They also departed from standard ways of representing characters by questioning identity as a real as opposed to an artificial construct, by eliminating the possibility of character coherence, and by conflating characters’ inwardness with their external representation.

    Although Victorian themes and authors influenced writers like William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), James Joyce (1882- 1941), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), modernism defined itself against Victorianism. Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) in his Eminent Victorians (1918) punctured Victorian stuffiness and pretensions to moral and cultural superiority by critically examining such revered Victorian figures as Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), a Roman Catholic Cardinal; Florence Nightingale (1820- 1910), the founder of modern nursing; and General Charles George Gordon (1833- 1885), who quelled the Taiping Rebellion. A prominent feature of modernism was its interest in the avant-garde; as Ezra Pound (1885-1972) directed, modernists wanted to make it new.

    Victorian realism gave way to obviously artificial structures. To the modernists, the visible, space, and time are not reality; rather, they are modes through which we apprehend reality. When reviewing Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), T. S. Eliot lauded Joyce’s mythical method in using the paradigm of Ulysses’ journey from Troy to his home in Ithaca to give shape and significance to modern futility and anarchy as Leopold Bloom travels through Dublin. Through this mythical method, writers could be realistic in portraying modern chaos while also suggesting, through psychological insights, a continuing “buried life” (to use Arnold’s phrase) that rises in mythic or archetypal patterns, patterns that express the meeting of mind with nature.

    The sense of the individual’s place in the world became tenuous, especially through what modernists identified as the dissociation of the mind and body. Modernists examined this dissociation through such themes as the inorganic and artificial, alienation, and estrangement. While some modernists, like Lawrence, suggest strategies for reintegrating the body and mind, others, like Woolf, face this dissociation with a sense of tragedy and overwhelming despair. Another dissociation that modernists pointed to was that between the perceived and the “real” self, between an autonomous self and one created by society and the world. Some writers, like Joyce, indicated ways to develop a strong individuality that rejected old values and created new ones; others suggested that such a strong individuality can make a world of itself and claim universality; and still others suggested that “real” individuality ceased to exist at all. Such writers considered how individuals could develop “honest” relationships with the world around them.

    Modernism itself gave way to a post-modernism that even further questioned narrative and verbal structures through fragmentation and unreliable narrators, among other methods. Writers’ intentions were called into question, as literary texts came to be seen as dependent on both the author and the reader. The idea of a critical fallacy, where the author may not even know what they are writing, moved away from the subjective/objective view of art toward more of an emphasis on the work itself and the reader’s response to it. Textual unity, even through use of the mythic method, was not integral to the text but instead imposed on it, and readers work through textual indeterminacy, fragmentation, and unreliability to derive meaning, if any meaning is available at all.

    Postmodernism destabilized the relationship among author, text, and reader by highlighting fictive methods through metafiction, when a work deliberately draws attention to its artificiality; the sprawl, excess, and fragmentation of maximalism; and the stripping to the bone of minimalism. It also made no distinction between so-called high and low culture through pastiche, parody, and intertextuality, with texts commenting upon each other and existing within their own literary continuum.


    In his plot-less dramas configuring cultural fatigue and individual alienation, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) rejected structural elements of both the drama and society. As the individual’s place in the world came to be seen as an artificial construct, the artist’s place in the world became more and more remote. The loss of a “center” on which writers could depend became increasingly apparent with the influx of colonial and postcolonial writers like Doris Lessing (1919-2013) and Anita Desai (1937 - ). Diversity in literature, of races, voices, viewpoints, and more, became the hallmark of the twentieth century and beyond.

    • Was this article helpful?