Some Characteristics of Modernism in Literature

Modernist writers proclaimed a new "subject matter" for literature and they felt that their new way of looking at life required a new form, a new way of writing. Writers of this period tend to pursue more experimental and usually more highly individualistic forms of writing. The sense of a changing world was stimulated by radical new developments, such as:

Some of the features of the new sense of reality:

the replacement of a belief in absolute, knowable truth with a sense of relative, provisional truths (Einstein's first book on relativity 1905);an awareness of "reality" as a constructed fiction

a focus on the unconscious as an important source of motivation (Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams 1900)

a turning away from teleological ways of thinking about time to a sense of time as discontinuous, overlapping, non-chronological in the way we experience it; a shift from linear time to "moment time"

less emphasis on art's reflection of external reality and a greater emphasis on art's reflection of the perceiving mind; [compare developments in painting: moving from "representational" Victorian painting (painting that represents identifiable, often narrative, scenes in external reality) through Impressionism (e.g. Whistler; the attempt to paint the quality of the sensations stimulated by the external scene) to Post-Impressionism (e.g. Matisse; painting the "painterly" scene, the pure elements of colour and form--perhaps as a way of painting the perceiving mind, the aesthetic consciousness]

a focus on epistemological concerns (how do we know what we know?) and linguistic concerns (how is the way we think inseparable from the forms in which we think?); a sense of the break-down of a shared linguistic community; a reaction against the dominance of rational, logical, "patriarchal" discourse and its monopoly of power

Some manifestations of new approaches in modernist writing:

character: a disappearance of character summary, of discrete well-demarcated characters as in Dickens; the representation of the self as diverse, contradictory, ambiguous, multiple

plot: scepticism about linear plots with sudden climactic turning points and clear resolutions; the use instead of discontinuous fragments, "moment time," a-chronological leaps in time, contrapuntal multiple plots, open unresolved endings

style: "stream of consciousness"--tracing non-linear thought processes, moving by the "logic of association" or the "logic of the unconscious"; imagistic rather than logical connections

point of view (or focalization): a rejection of the single, authoritative, omniscient point of view for a narrative focalized instead through the consciousness of one character whose point of view is limited--or through several characters who establish relative, multiple points of view--or through several simultaneously-held positions maintained by the one character