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Modernism is a general term applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental trends in the arts of the early 20th century. To understand modernism in arts and literature, we are to get an idea of its social, moral and intellectual backgrounds.


1. The social, moral and intellectual background.

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century brought on the European scene fundamental political, social and economic changes, contradictions, conflicts and confrontations which led to small and large- scale wars. Great triumphs went along with dire catastrophies. In this turn-of- the century world tensions were surfacing in virtually all areas of human endeavor and behavior: in the arts, in fashion, in sexual morality, between generations.

The Victorian era with its strict social codes and ethical values, with its attempts to compartmentalize experience into the categories of good and bad, right and wrong, was over. The transition from the Victorian to the Modern Age was practically as striking as the movement from the Middle Age to the Renaissance. The change happened far more quickly and created a more notable sense of disorientation.

The Great European War (1914 - 1918), a supremely traumatic event, touched every aspect of human life. It brought revolutions, economic depressions and inflations, the breakdown of class structure, an accelerated shift from an agricultural to an urban and industrialized society, dislocation, a deep psychic depression over Europe, discontentment with civilization, alterations in human consciousness.

There sprang up new modes of thought in natural science, philosophy and psychology which could not but influence men's frame of mind, arts and fiction. Here we see Henry Bergson's theory of intuitivism, Jean Paul Sartre's existentialism, Albert Einstein's theory' of relativity, Ziegmund Freud's psychoanalysis.

Henry Bergson (1859 -1941) had rejected the primacy of mathematical and mechanical concepts in favour of the intuitive method in cognizing the world. He pointed out that human personalities express themselves in acts that cannot be predicted. In Matter and Memory (1896) and An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903) he developed a theory of knowledge in which intuition plays a central role.

Existentialism is associated with the 20th-century thinker Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), but it has a history that goes back to the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). The name itself was coined by Sartre, although the expression "existence philosophy" had been used earlier by Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), the distinguished exponent of German existentialism. Existentialists have differed widely from one another on many basic philosophical issues, but they have shared a concern for human freedom and personal responsibility. According to it, man is a unique and isolated individual in an indifferent or hostile universe, responsible for his own actions and free to choose his destiny.

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) developed a theory of relativity, which caused major revolutions in physics and astronomy during the 20th century. It introduced to science the concept of “relativity”—the notion that there is no absolute motion in the universe, only relative motion—thus superseding the 200-year-old theory of mechanics of Isaac Newton. Newtonian linear time, running uninterruptedly from the past into the future, was rejected. Einstein showed that we reside not in the flat, Euclidean space and uniform, absolute time of everyday experience, but in another environment: curved space-time. These new notions of space and time changed man's perception of his universe - and of himself.

There developed ethical relativism, the view that there is no one correct moral code for all times and peoples, that each group has its own morality relative to its wants and values, and that all moral ideas are necessarily relative to a particular culture.

The Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud ( 1856 - 1939 ) greatly affected the arts and literature of the Old and the New World. Appearing as a method of investigating the unconscious sphere of human psyche, Freud's psychoanalysis produced a revolutionary effect upon the world outlook. Freud held that sexual instinct is the basic source of human activity. At the bottom of man’s troubles lie sexual disturbances. Everything which is tabooed and suppressed, natural impulses and sexual strivings, is driven into the subconscious. It is realized in dreams, obsessions, complexes, neuroses and fears. The unconscious is a dynamic force in man's mental life. The personality is most clearly revealed when the intellect is exercising least control.

2. The advent of new morality.

During this period of turmoil and change old truths were called into question and certainty was replaced by doubt. In religion and ethics, in politics and social institutions, in philosophy and aesthetics tradition was overturned and new answers to eternal questions were postulated.

Europe was enjoying sexual revolution. Victorian moral standards were assaulted and shattered. Corsets and belts were loosened. Moral constraints and paternal authority slackened. Women were brought into labor force by the absence of men. Prostitution increased strikingly. No longer was the pattern of Victorian family life acceptable. Men and women freely discussed and experienced premarital sex. The after-war morality was a new one without socially imposed rules, sanctions, obligations, and restrictions on the human personality. People started to believe in personal morality transgressing accepted social norms. The Nietzschian commandment "Du sollst werden, der du bist” became the supreme moral law.

The young rebelled against an older generation. Old authority and traditional values no longer had credibility.

3. The "neurotic generation''.

People started to deny repression, eagerly grasping Freudian psychoanalysis as a justification for this denial. People insisted that the meaning of life lay in life itself, in the art of living, in the vitality of the moment. The twenties witnessed, as a result, hedonism and narcissism, the cult of youth, youth worship.

Spiritual crises affected young and old, female and male. " The mind has been cruelly wounded ..Almost all the affairs of men are in a terrible uncertainty" (Paul Valery). There was emphasis on spirituality, inwardness, the unconscious. It was a flight from reality. The faith was gone, along with it, fixity. Movement, melancholy and neurosis remained. Hence, the term "the neurotic generation".

4. Cravings for newness.

Everybody wanted newness. The craving for newness was rooted in what was regarded by radicals as the bankruptcy of history. Intellectuals and artists were clamouring for the purification of the world. They were discontented with the fruits of civilization which was doomed to an inglorious end, to destruction. Europe became obsessed with emancipation and liberation. The new intellectual impulses behind the quest for liberation came to be named as modernism. There appeared a great variety of social, ethic and aesthetic attitudes incessantly debating among themselves.

5.New priorities and new techniques in painting and music.

Modernist trends in Western arts (decadence, imagism, impressionism, postimpressionism, expressionism, existentialism, destructionism, cubism, futurism, etc.) rebelled against academic forms of representation. They proposed new priorities and new experimental techniques. All waves of modernism were acutely alive to change and free from the dominance of the past.

In painting there was a new emphasis on primary colors, elemental substance, oriental exotics. Impressionism was preoccupied with setting down the chance impressions of a moment (Monet, Manet ,Degas, Renoir, etc.). Impressionists strove to convey transient, fugitive effects in nature, the play of sunlight, air, contrasts of color and light. They suffused their landscapes with sunlight, clear and joyous color.

Expressionism conveyed the irrational, the transcendental, the archetypal, the unconscious, the providential. The glittering repose of Impressionism was changed by intense passions, tragically hysteric explosions, love-hate fluctuations, ebbs and flows of human relationships (e.g. Van Gogh's surrealistic and unfathomable images). Reality disappeared. An artist, a palpitant, sensitive self, seemed imprisoned in a world of wild hallucinations, dreams, irrational visions. An artist seemed to be an instrument for demonic forces.

Music departed from the conventions of classical patterns. Composers took interest in sounds for their own sake without reference to melody. Impressionists in music conveyed elusive, fleeting emotions, wisps of sensations,"the bubbles of the champagne" (C. Debussy ). Expressionistic music was jarring. It violated the laws of harmony and rhythm, relying upon violence, dissonance and cacophony.

6. A new artist.

Disappointed with outdated moral values, artists longed for the renewal, regeneration and rebirth of the world. They proclaimed negation of established priority, absolute nakedness of thoughts and sensations, alienation from social life. The search of artists for newness and change, rebellion against customary values expressed itself in their disregarding morality. Artists believed that art and morality are mutually exclusive, that an artist is to have freedom of vision. A modernist artist became a sexual rebel. For him sex was a vehicle of rebellion, a means of deliverance from social constraints, a vital and irrepressible energy. Hence, motifs of eroticism, sexual fancy.

In this context shock and provocation became important instruments of art. Art was no longer a vision of grace, harmony and beauty. Art would no longer teach - it would excite, provoke, inspire, being a force of spontaneous emotional life.

7. The Bloomsbury Group.

Like arts literature could not but respond to the tumultuous and paradoxical spirit of the century, new modes of thinking, new priorities. It absorbed and transformed new ideas. Young writers no longer believed what they had been taught and what their predecessors had written about.

On the British scene it was the Bloomsbury Group , with V. Woolf at the head, which did much to renovate literary canons. This group included some of the most important creative thinkers and artists of the day. They were united by a willingness to break the established rules in behavior, thought, arts and literature. They denied the whole Western tradition in literature. They believed in personal morality and responsibility to take the place of socially imposed rules. They proclaimed the destruction of the customary and the legitimate, absolute nakedness of thoughts and feelings, the music of the irrational. They believed that art was to be imaginative and emotional, not intellectual. They regarded art as a quasi-religion.

8. V.Woolf, J.Joyce, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence as innovators.

“All round us", in all forms of art and writing, V.Woolf heard "the sound of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction ". With society, self and universe so shaken, the young writers felt themselves ''sharply cut off from our predecessors... alienated from the past... too vividly conscious of the present" (V.Woolf).

V.Woolf, Ezra Pound, T.S.Eliot found traditionalism (romanticism and realism) stale and degenerate. According to them, realism had come to a deadlock. A.Bennett, H. Wells, J. Galsworthy had exhausted themselves. They described only the outside way of life, never getting inside. They classified men who are unclassifiable. They rationally explained and interpreted the workings of men's minds, which are irrational and unfathomable.

V. Woolf, J. Joyce, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence believed that to revitalize literature was to change its contents and forms. They were abandoning literary traditions and broadly experimenting. In defense of experimental literature V.Woolf asserted: "Any method is right, every method is right". Overturning traditions in the contents, the structural design and narrative techniques, these authors introduced new kinds of books. They were immediately followed by others. In fiction, the accepted continuity of chronological development was upset by Conrad, Proust, and Faulkner, while Joyce and Woolf attempted new ways of tracing the flow of characters' thoughts in their stream of consciousness styles. In poetry, E. Pound and T.S. Eliot , using free verse instead of traditional metres, replaced logical thoughts with fragmentary images. There appeared poems without recognizable rhymes and rhythms, plotless novels. The formal experiments were so pronounced that it seemed at times that the new authors were more preoccupied with manner and techniques than with matter ( themes and problems).

Modernist writing often expressed a sense of cultural disintegration following World War I. In English, its landmarks were Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's The Waste Land (both came out of print in 1922).

T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land became a model for poets, conceptually and technically. It is a ghastly description of the after-war civilization. The waste land is a world of spiritually displaced people of every nationality and creed, emotionally and intellectually starved.

V.Woolf let in the fresh air of experimentation in composition, narrative technique, characterization and imagery. We find in her writings tremulous flights of imagination and fantasy.

In J.Joyce's Ulysses, a literary universe banned for obscenity in English-speaking countries in the twenties, we see broad areas of experimentation. Obscure, unintelligible, inaccessible, the book affected considerably the 20th century literature.

In Lawrence's writings life was more full, free and intense than the contemporary world could grant to men and women. Accused of obscenity , he treated sex as a creativity of life opposed to deadening, sordid and mechanical age.

In perceiving and representing life young authors were fascinated by the philosophies of will and intuition of Nietzsche and Bergson, by the erotic mysticism of Freud. They rejected rationalist notions of cause and effect. They stressed the importance of an intuitive moment.

D.H. Lawrence looked gratefully to A.Bergson (1859-1941), a French philosopher, who found intuitivism to be a philosophical method more potent in cognizing the world than intellectual methods. Intuition helps to cognize life as a ceaseless creative flux. For Lawrence "by intuition alone can man love and know either woman or world, and by intuition alone can he bring forth again images of magic awareness which we call art". He relied upon instinct and intuition as most important forces in inspiring an artist: "Once the instinct and intuition gets into the brush –- up, the picture occurs... "

New aesthetics led to broadening the scope of problems to be described. The matter of poetry and prose could now be anything the poet and the writer were capable of digesting. They learned to find beauty in traditionally ugly things. Art was no longer a vision of grace, harmony and beauty.


9. A modernist novel as against a traditional novel conceptually and technically.

9. 1. From the outward to the inward.

In the center of a traditional novel was social outward life with rational action. As thought was found very often devitalizing, concentration on reflections and uncontrolled sensations was avoided. New writers destroyed the statics of reality. They viewed life itself as "shifting and flowing, contradictory and unstable" (V.Woolf ). Life was to them individual experience, fluid, disorderly, not subject to rational control,” a continuous flux, a river flowing ceaselessly from nowhere to nowhere”. Human history was telescoped into each man's experience. "History is individual nightmare” (J.Joyce. Ulysses). They believed that there was no collective reality, only individual response, only dreams and myths. Hence, their concentration on the dark forces of the heart, the inner workings of the mind, hidden areas of the personality, a nakedness of thoughts, a chaotic play of sensations, unconscious strivings and unrestrained longings.

So, in a modern novel the drama passed from the external action to the inner realm, to the internal movement of a character's imaginations, memories, desires and frustrations.

9.2. Transformations of textual categories (plot, composition, time, space, the presence of the author, the point of view, narrative techniques ).

A classical novel was that of growth and development, with the action ordered into a tightly- engineered plot, with the conflicts being solved, with straight chronology, linear horizontal time.

From the standpoint of the Prague School, a classical text is a sequence of possible alternatives between topic and comment. It is characteristic of a linear progression when the comment of one sentence becomes the topic of the one that follows , which is connected with the purely logical presentation of facts.

A modernist text is no longer tightly plotted. Writers turn from the carefully engineered plot to an illogical, loose, inconsistent presentation of facts. They abandon the tyranny of the plot , which comes to be now shapeless and vague. Traditional plots were based on the conflicts the hero faced and the solutions he evolved. The 20th century protagonist is incapable of understanding the complexity of the world. Neither can he understand himself and the people around him. Solutions may not be easily found. Marriage cannot provide a convenient conclusion to a novel, as marriage is not seen as either an end to life, or the only goal. There disappear local settings, local societies, local worlds with limited horizons, traditions, occupations, classes, which we see in Jane Austen or George Eliot.

In a new novel there is no straight chronology. The writer refuses from Newtonian uninterrupted time. Modernist time is distorted, fragmentary, relative. It is continually shifting, which expresses itself in flashbacks and daydreams, retrospective and prospective insights.The structure of the novel is transformed. Traditional rhetoric exposition, gradation, climax, suspense, denouement are no longer recognizable. Exposition can be scattered throughout the novel (story) , which ends in a context of continuing life, a kind of future extension. New structural techniques are elaborated ( the beginning from the noddle, the middle from the beginning, the missing links in the chain technique, the undercurrent technique, the technique of detachment). The reader is immediately drawn into the thick of events. He is presupposed to be familiar with the preceding information. He feels himself participant and interpreter. He experiences a sense of sharing, a sensation of immediacy, which stimulates his imagination.

Modernist literature is characterized by a rejection of the 19th century consensus between the author and the reader. The all-powerful and omnipresent author withdraws from the scene, giving it to his heroes. He refrains from describing, commenting and analyzing scenes and characters. "The artist ...remains within or behind or beyond or above his handwork, invisible"( J.Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ). The withdrawal of the author lets the reader judge for himself, draw inferences on the ultimate meaning.

One and the same event is presented from different stances. In the classical narration there prevailed the point of view of the omniscient author, hence the dominance of the third person narration. The characters' monologues were clearly marked. True, there were attempts to modernize narrative techniques. Galsworthy's represented speech, representing the character's unuttered thoughts, was introduced into the author's narration without any perceptible transition from one to the other. In experimental literature there appeared such narrative techniques as the method of obsessive questioning (V.Woolf), the stream of consciousness technique (J.Joyce). In V.Woolf’s The Waves, for instance, disembodied voices deliver monologues which are an experimental blend of speech, thought, and the non-verbal content of the human mind. Joyce's narrative technique is the culmination of narrative frivolities, where voices intermingle, representing a virtuosity of collage. It conveys half-conscious workings of the characters' minds, free associations, dreams, a chaotic play of sensations , which reveal more about a character than his socially controlled behavior. J.Joyce attempted to approximate mental processes below the level of consciousness. In a new text we encounter a diversity of narrative techniques: traditional all-person narrations, monologues, represented speech, uninterrupted monologue with the interlocutor being felt, indirect interior monologue, the stream of consciousness technique, fusions of voices. Hence, transitions from speech to speech, interpolations of the author, narrative shifts. Transition from one point of view to another takes place imperceptibly. The point of view of the author and that of the character very often do not coincide, which is an expression of the false perspective technique.

9.3. The evolution of the character.

The character undergoes changes. The history of literature knows several types of characters. Flat is a one-dimensional character, wiith one domineering passion, either a hero or a villain. Ch.Dickens's female characters, for instance, are flat, one-sided, not fully realized. Round are complex, contradictory characters, who can be heroic and villainous at the same time. In modernist literature we don't find a unitary character with his ready-made notions, unitary personality given in the accuracy of costume and setting. According to Saul Bellow, such character is "remote from real reality".

Among new characters we see simple-minded, mentally immature, deficient, dull people, from the conventional point of view, anti-heroes. T.S.Eliot's Alfred Prufrock is a very pitiful , insignificant variant of modem Hamlet. J.Joyce's Leopold Bloom is a parody of Homer's Odysseus. K. Mansfield's lady's maid is a miserable creature, deprived of pride and dignity. Pascal said once that there are no dull people, only dull points of view. Religious philosophy maintains that every soul is infinitely precious and, therefore, infinitely interesting. "The baker's daughters may have revelations and miracles to offer , to keep fascinated novelists busy until the end of ftme” (Saul Bellow ).

A new character is a multiple self, elusive and wandering as the real self, unfathomable to himself and to others. An individual is infinitely complex. His true identity lies very deep. The simple identity at any given moment may not be "the true self." "It is only for convenience that we unite the wandering facets of our multiple selves” ( V.Woolf ). As life is not orderly, the reality of characters cannot therefore be measured in terms of the accuracy of costume and setting. V.Woolf asserted that "characters need to be multi-dimensional because that is what people are. Every nuance of each human complexity is the legitimate concern of the artist. External details are not enough, the reality which matters is the inner being only partially revealed by what a person wears or says or does" ( Modern Fiction). A new writer brings to light the hidden areas of the personality.

In V.Woolf’s The Waves there are six characters with distinct bodies, personal interests, and individual lives. They melt into each other to symbolically create a single complete person. But they are unable to form a complete human being or to represent the entire potential of human life. In this sense they may stand for modem man, no longer able to understand, let alone influence the world.

We don't find "the old stable ego of the character" in Lawrence's writings. His characters are ever changing moods, fleeting and transient.

E.Hemingway insisted that when •writing a navel, a writer should create living people, not characters. A character is a caricature”.

A new character disintegrates, dissolves, disappears. He is obscurely outlined, vague, inconsistent, split. The vanishing character is merely a suggestion. To gather information about this character, we examine the wanderings of his mind, his imaginations, sensations, frustrations. It accounts for a greater psychological introspection of a new novel.

9.4. Experiments with style, wording, imagery, syntax.

In a traditional novel the styles were finely balanced. In a new novel proportions of styles are distorted, naturalism and symbolism being intricately amalgamated. This is what we see in J. Joyce' s Ulysses.

Like a modernist composer, who experiments with sounds, combining them intricately, a modernist writer experiments with a word's music, color, plastic form, thought, passion, spirituality, with combinations and associations of words. J.Joyce's alter ego Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man loves words, their colors, rhythms and associations :”Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour?”

Imagery is no longer an embellishment, an adornment, a means of emphasis. It is deeply connected with the message of the author. Modernism preserves the traditional inventory of artistic devices, modifying their use. A new author tries to reflect his auditory, visual, tactual perception of the world. A new text is primarily naturalistic. It abounds in synaesthetic metaphors, which are based on transitions from one sensorial sphere into another. These are syntagmatic combinations of two or more words of differing sensorial spheres which are perceived identically. Scents, odours, sounds, colors correspond to each other in a writer's imagination. Metonymy comes to prevail over metaphor. A detail assumes a supreme importance. It helps to create the effect of the fragmentary, the unsaid, the suggested. Modernistic texts are imaginatively suggestive and implicit.

A modernistic symbol is many-layered. V.WooIf’s sea develops a cluster of meanings - the traditional ones, like birth, death, flux and eternity, and also new ones the complexity of man who is eternal and unchanging, yet at the same time is as ephemeral in his individual identity as a single wave.

Modernistic imagery is richly intricate. It is a kaleidoscope of metonymies, aposiopeses, understatements, suggestions, synaesthetic metaphors, associations, arrangements of details, cryptic allusions to literary, philosophical and mythological sources.

As writers no longer search for logical causes and effects, as they attempt to render the spontaneity of vision, irrationality, poetic exaltation (V.Woolf), they come to favour parataxis. Most frequent are such syntactic figures as parcellation (J.Joyce), detachment (D.H. Lawrence), parallelism, semantic leaps in represented speech (J. Galsworthy).

The new pattern in literature comes to be more akin to poetry and music. The tensions and stresses of the unharmonious urban life are conveyed by uneven and jerky Wagnerian rhythms.

Literature becomes free, unrestricted. It depends on rhyme, echo, symbolic imagery, associations.

A new text is multi-dimensional temporally, spacially, sensually. It is stereoscopic and stereophonic. Narratively it is polyphonic.

10. Modernism vs. realism.

At the very start of modernism its concepts and techniques were violently rejected by traditionalists. Modernists were said to have escaped from reality, to have neglected realism, the inner logic of events, to have destroyed time, the novel's structure, to have reduced a character to absurdity. They were blamed for preoccupation with pure form, for no longer accepting man in time, man acting in the world, man changed by the world and man changing the world, man actively creating himself (Ralph Fox).

Though the term modernism has been used very often as a universally disparaging designation, its concepts and technical innovations are still exercising an immense influence upon the realistic trends of the 20th century literature.

Several waves of modernism were followed by postmodernism and conceptualism. At present we find an interplay of several realistic, modernistic, post-modernistic and conceptualistic trends.




1. Baker, Carlos. Hemingway. The Writer as Artist. - Princeton University Press, 1956.

2. Bellow, Saul. Where Do We Go from Here: The Future of Fiction / The Theory of the American Novel. - Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

3. Eksteins M. Rites of Spring. The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. - Bantam Press, 1989.

4. Fox, Ralph. The Novel and the People // The Idea of Literature: The Foundations of English Criticism. - Moscow; Progress Publishers, 1979.

5. Gorsky S.R. Virginia Woolf. - Twaine Publishers, 1978.

6. Hitfer, Tony. American Fiction since 1940. - London: Longman, 1992.

7. Jackson D., Jackson F.B. Critical Essays on D.H.Lawrence. - Boston, Mass.: Hall, 1988.

8. Mahaffey , Vicki. Reauthorizing Joyce. - Cambridge University Press, 1988.

9. Modernism in Literature// Extractions from Britannica CD. Version 97: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1997.

10. Modernism in Literature // Extractions from 1998 Grolier Multimedia CD.

11. Modernism in Literature // Extractions from Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia: 1998 Encarta Electronic Publishing Inc.

12. The Spirit of D.H.Lawrence. Centenary Studies.- Macmillan Press, 1988.

13. Woolf, Virginia. Modern Fiction // The Idea of Literature: The Foundations of English Criticism. -Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979.


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