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What is Modernism in Literature?

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Ernest Hemingway is one of the most famous writers of modernism in literature.

Ernest Hemingway is one of the most famous writers of modernism in literature.

"Fire and Ice" By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost was an American poet from the modernist movement in literature who is mainly associated with the life and landscape of New England. He is known for his realistic depictions of everyday life and his command of speech that is closer to real life.

Modernism in Literature Definition

There are many definitions of modernism in literature out there. The most basic aim of modernism is to consciously break away from classical and traditional forms. Modernism in literature and the arts became popular in Western societies in the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, following WWI and the rapid growth of cities.

The modernism movement is a response to these societal changes as artists, writers, and thinkers began to see traditional ways of thought and expression as outdated for the emerging industrial society and changes in the economic, social, and political spheres. They experimented with new forms in attempts to completely break from tradition and reflect the mood of the times more accurately with different forms of expression.

Modernism in literature has its origins mainly in North America and Europe. The movement was a break away from traditional forms of poetry and verse and a move toward new forms of expression that more accurately reflected the mindset of the times. Writers, like artists, experimented with literary forms in order to fit into the new modernist point of view and regarded traditions as completely outdated.

Modernist literature often opposes or provides a differing opinion on a social concept. It is concerned with social norms, standard social ideas, traditional thoughts and expectations, religion, and anger following both World Wars. Writers of modernism in literature also usually reject history and social systems and emphasize a break from urbanized cities and industrial societies.

Some of the most influential writers include Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, Langston Hughes, and D.H. Lawrence.


Stream of Consciousness

  • The Mark on the Wall.
    "The Mark on the Wall" by Virginia Woolf is a great example of stream of consciousness in literature.

Modernist Literature

Characteristics of Modernism in Literature

There are many different characteristics of modernism that help one understand just what is modernism in literature. Satire, juxtaposition, and irony are just a few literary terms highly associated with this movement. Writers also tend to use discontinuous narratives and fragmented plots and almost always draw the reader's attention to the author's role as creator.

Modernism can be frustrating in literature because of its lack in concise language and broken plot lines that can be confusing and seem nonsensical. It is important to recognize that one basic characteristic of modernism in literature is that they steer away from completely linear plots and do not aim to please any particular audience.

The use of narrative devices such as "stream of consciousness" are not uncommon in literary modernism. This device in particular is one example of how frustrating modernism can be for readers. Stream of consciousness is intended to be read as unedited thoughts coming straight from the narrator's mind in the exact order that they appear. These interior monologues can lack punctuation or correct grammar and even leap from one idea to the next without warning or any discernible order.

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In the end, there are many different characteristics of modernism in literature, but, it can be defined simply as a break from past traditions that experiments in new literary forms that were better suited to the sentimentality of the times. While some works, such as "The Mark on the Wall" by Virginia Woolf, can be a little frustrating for readers (I know that one is particularly troublesome for me), modernism is still a fascinating movement with writers that are still popular today.

© 2013 Lisa


Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on June 23, 2015:

I often shy away form terms like 'modernism' since I'm not always sure what they mean. Now I know! Thanks, Lisa. Voted up.

AJ Long from Pennsylvania on May 08, 2014:

LisaKoski, I find these modernist writers intriguing and inspiring. Every time I read something by these poets and authors, I find myself able to create! Thanks for the interesting Hub! (Anytime I see Papa's image, I click on the article it is added to lol!) :o)

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on April 18, 2013:

Excellent hub! Very interesting and informative. I have read the influential writers you mention in the first part. I found them very interesting and not frustrating at all. The literature is more realistic and not every story ends happily ever after. Thanks for a great introduction to the Modernism era of writing. Contrats on your 100 hub score!

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on April 12, 2013:

Really interesting. I think learning about the different eras of how literature evolved is important to know and I think for modernism, it was frustrating for the artists (like Jackson Pollack, maybe) and writers as it was for many wanting to digest it. Stream of consciousness...James Joyce, certainly. All the influential writers you list is such a great company of names I love. Good hub!

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on March 08, 2013:

Well written article, but how could you not mention James Joyce? You know your stuff, so what happened.

Voted up


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