Definition of Modernism

In the broadest sense, modernism is contemporary thought, character, or practise. More precisely, the term refers to the modernist movement, its set of cultural tendencies, and a slew of associated cultural movements that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to large-scale and far-reaching changes in Western society.
Modernism was a reaction to realism’s conservative values. Perhaps the most defining feature of modernism is its rejection of tradition. Modernism rejected both the Enlightenment’s lingering certainty and the existence of a compassionate, all-powerful Creator God. Modernism began around the turn of the twentieth century as a result of rapidly changing technology and industry, and was then influenced by the horrific effects of World War I on the cultural psyche of artists.

In general, modernism refers to the activities and output of those who believed that “traditional” forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organisation, and daily life were becoming obsolete in the newly industrialised world’s new economic, social, and political conditions. Ezra Pound’s 1934 exhortation to “Make it new!” epitomised the movement’s attitude toward the obsolete (not in use any more, having been replaced by something newer and better or more fashionable). Another paradigmatic exhortation was articulated in the 1940s by philosopher and composer Theodor Adorno, who questioned the conventional surface coherence and appearance of harmony associated with Enlightenment thinking’s rationality. Modernism is characterised by a strong sense of self-awareness. This self-awareness frequently manifested itself in experiments with form and work that call attention to the processes and materials employed (and to the further tendency of abstraction).

At the turn of the twentieth century, the modernist movement established the term “avant-garde” for the arts, which was used until the term “modernism” took hold (rather than in its original military and political context). Surrealism gained public recognition as the most extreme manifestation of modernism, or “the avant-garde of modernism.”

The adjectival term “avant-garde” refers to innovative ideas, styles, and methods that are highly original or modern in comparison to the era in which they occur.

“The avantgarde” (noun) refers to the work of painters, writers, musicians, and other artists whose concepts, styles, and methods are highly innovative or modern in comparison to the era in which they live.

Modernist literature is a subgenre of Modernism, a primarily European movement that began in the early twentieth century and was defined by a conscious rejection of conventional aesthetic forms. Modernist literature struggled with the new realm of subject matter created by an increasingly industrialised and globalised world.

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Modernism’s earliest manifestations fostered a utopian spirit, fueled by advances in anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political theory, and psychoanalysis. Ezra Pound and other Imagist poets exemplified this exuberant spirit, rejecting the sentimentality and discursiveness associated with Romanticism and Victorian literature in favour of poetry that emphasised precision of imagery and clear, concise language.

This new idealism, however, came to an end with the outbreak of World War II, when writers began to produce more cynical postwar works that reflected a widespread sense of disillusionment and fragmented thought. Numerous modernist writers shared a distrust of institutions of power such as government and religion, as well as a rejection of the concept of absolute truth. Later modernist works, like T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land, became increasingly self-aware, introspective, and frequently embraced the unconscious fears of a darker humanity.


According to many scholars, the modernist literary movement began with the publication of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses in 1922. Joyce’s strategies for depicting the events in the fictional protagonist’s life, Leopold Bloom, have come to exemplify modernism’s artistic assault on more conventional modes of fiction. T.S. Eliot described these characteristics in 1923 in the American Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, remarking on Joyce’s technique “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history…. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”[2]

Modernist literature addressed aesthetic issues similar to those addressed in contemporaneous non-literary forms of Modernist art, such as Modernist painting. Gertrude Stein’s abstract writings, for example, have frequently been compared to her friend Pablo Picasso’s fragmentary and multi-perspective Cubism.

The most fundamental problems of modern life stem from the individual’s claim to preserve and protect his or her autonomy and individuality in the face of overwhelming social forces, historical heritage, external culture, and life technique.

The Modernist emphasis on radical individualism is evident in the numerous literary manifestos published by the movement’s various subgroups. Simmel’s concerns are echoed in Richard Huelsenbeck’s 1918 “First German Dada Manifesto”:

Art, in its execution and direction, is time-dependent, and artists are creatures of their era. The highest art will be that which presents the thousand-fold problems of the day in its conscious content, the art that has been visibly shattered by the explosions of the last week.

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Humanity’s cultural history creates a unique shared history that binds previous generations of humans to the current generation. The Modernist re-contextualization of the individual within the fabric of this received social heritage is exemplified by T.S. Eliot’s “mythic method” in his analysis of James Joyce’s Ulysses:

By utilising mythology and manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Joyce established a precedent that others must follow. It is simply a means of regulating, organising, and giving meaning to the vast panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.

Modernist literature attempted to break free from the constraints of Realism by introducing concepts such as disjointed timelines. Following Modernism and the Enlightenment, meta-narrative was a recurring feature.

Modernist literature is largely defined by its formal, stylistic, and semantic break with Romanticism. Modernist literature is frequently characterised by a strong pessimism, a blatant rejection of optimism. However, the modernist spirit of questioning could also be interpreted, less elegiacly, as part of a necessary search for ways to make sense of a broken world; in his modernist expression, the artist as “hero” seeks to embrace complexity and discover new meanings.

However, many Modernist works, such as Eliot’s The Waste Land, lack a central unifying figure. Modernists scorned Romantics such as Shelley and Byron for their solipsism.

Modernist literature frequently transcends the constraints of the Realist novel in order to address larger issues such as social or historical change. These are significant themes in “stream of consciousness” writing. Ulysses by James Joyce, Kew Gardens and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter, Cane by Jean Toomer, and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner are all examples of stream of consciousness novels.

Modernism as a literary movement is largely viewed as a reaction to the rise of urban life as a dominant force in society. Additionally, an early emphasis on the object as a freestanding object evolved into a preoccupation with form in later Modernism. The dyadic collapse of the distance between subject and object symbolised a transition from means to being. Whereas Romanticism emphasised the subjectivity of experience, Modernist writers were acutely aware of their surroundings’ objectivity. The object is in Modernism; the language does not imply that it is. This is a transition from an epistemological to an ontological aesthetic, or, to put it another way, from a knowledge-based to a being-based aesthetic. This transformation is at the heart of Modernism.

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Characteristics of Modernism/Modernity

Formal/Stylistic Characteristics

Modernist writing incorporates juxtaposition, irony, comparisons, symbols and images, and satire. The most obvious stylistic device used by modernist writers is the frequent use of the first person. Rather than a linear storey with a beginning, middle, and end, modernist writing frequently reads like a long stream of consciousness, akin to a rant. This can leave the reader perplexed as to what the work is intended to convey. Juxtaposition can be used to represent something that is frequently unseen, such as a cat and a mouse being best friends. Irony and satire are critical tools for the modernist writer because they enable them to mock and point out flaws in the subject matter they are writing about, which is typically societal problems, whether they are governmental, political, or social in nature.

Thematic Characteristics

For the first-time reader, modernist writing can be difficult to comprehend due to its fragmentation and lack of conciseness. The text’s plot, characters, and themes are not always linear. Modernist literature is not primarily concerned with catering to a specific audience in a formal sense. Modernist writing is more concerned with amplifying the writer’s ideas, opinions, and thoughts. Modernist literature frequently takes a strong stance against or expresses an opinion about a social concept. The dismantling of social norms, the rejection of conventional social ideas and traditional beliefs and expectations, opposition to religion and outrage over the effects of world wars, and the rejection of truth are all prevalent themes in this literary era. Additionally, a rejection of history, social systems, and a sense of isolation are prevalent themes. To maintain their elitist exclusivity, past modernist writers were also known to create their texts stylistically and artistically, employing a variety of fonts, sizes, symbols, and colours in their writing.

Manifestos of Modernism

The modernist manifesto is a public declaration of artistic convictions that is typically succinct and combative. The modernist manifesto was one of the most widely circulated and proclaimed outcomes of the modernist movement and writing. In Latin, the term’manifesto’ means ‘to make public’. These authors didn’t care about their intended audience as long as their manifestos reached the public eye. Manifestos frequently employed hostility and vulgarity as a means of attracting an audience.

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