Modernism in literature was a new style of writing that originated in the 19th century, as a challenge to the traditional trends. Read this article to know more about the characteristics of modernism.

Characteristics Of Modernism

By definition, Modernism is “a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms”. This movement originated when some writers felt that they required a new form of writing to express their ideologies and outlook towards life. Modernism enabled writers to pursue highly individualistic forms of writing. Thus, this style of writing represents a radical shift in cultural sensibilities of the corresponding time. The concept of modernism took shape in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time period which witnessed the development of modern industrial societies and rapid growth of cities. The horror of WW I also fed the urge for a new way to express the protest towards the social atmosphere prevalent at that time. Writers such as Ezra Pound and other poets rejected the expressive kind of writing followed in the romantic and Victorian literature and favored a more sharp style of writing to raise their voice of protest against the existing social situations. However, with the commencement of WW I, writers began to concentrate more on the cynical post-war works reflecting the sense of disillusionment and fragmented thought that prevailed in the society, leading to the end of modernism. Read on to know more about this concept.
Modernism In Literature

Formal/Stylistic Characteristics Of Modernism

Irony, comparisons, juxtaposition and satire are some common elements found in modernist writing. Modernistic works are often written in first person and are quite different from traditional styles. In modernism, the content of the writing is represented as a long stream of consciousness, just like a rant, that often does not have a proper beginning, middle and/or end. Hence, the readers may get slightly confused as to what the writer is trying to communicate to them. Juxtaposition usually represents something which is unusual, for example, a cat and mouse sharing a good friendship. Modernist writers use irony and satire as tools that aid them in making fun of something and point out faults, usually, problems within their society.
Thematic Characteristics
Modernist writing, for a first-time reader, can be a frustrating experience, requiring a big effort to understand the concept. This is because of the fragmentation and lack of conciseness of the writing, which are main characteristics of modernism. The plot, theme and the characters are not necessarily linear. Modernist writings usually focus more on representing the writer's ideas, opinions and thoughts and presenting them to the public at as high a volume as possible. It could be an opposition to the existing social structure, a social practice or a prevailing ideology. Some past modernist writers were also known to create stylistic and artistic texts using different fonts, symbols, colors etc. in their writing.
General Characteristics
  • Modernism is marked by a strong and intentional break from the traditional way of rendering a theme or a thought.
  • The concept of modernism denies the existence of truth. According to this school of thought, everything is relative.
  • Modernists believe that the world is what we perceive or, in other words, the world is what we say it is.
  • Modernism maintains absolutely no connection with history or historical institutions.
  • According to this concept, life is unordered.
  • Modernism emphasizes on the importance of companionship between individuals and celebration of inner strength. 
New Sense Of Reality
  • Modernism believes in relative, provisional truths and hence, it replaced the concept of absolute, knowable truth with the awareness of "reality".
  • Modernists refused to follow the teleological ways of thinking in which phenomena are explained on the basis of their ends or purposes. It suggested a development in the sense of time as we experience it; a shift from linear time to "moment time". Living in the moment was an underlying theme of modernism.
  • Modernism emphasized more on an art's ability to affect the mind, rather than emphasizing on external reality. Let’s take an example from an art form to make the concept more decipherable; paintings were "representational" in Victorian painting, which presented narrative scenes. On the other hand, in Impressionism, there was an attempt to paint the quality of the sensations stimulated by the scenes. Moving on to Post-Impressionism, you can see an attempt to portray the pure elements of color and form, an attempt to represent the perceiving mind and the aesthetic consciousness.
  • Modernism focuses more on epistemological concerns like ‘how do we know’ and ‘what we know’ and it inquires how the way of thinking isinseparable from the form of thinking.
  • Modernism is a reaction against the dominance of rational and logical discourse.
New Approaches In Modernist Writing
Character: The character summary disappears in modernism. It is characterized by the representation of ‘self’ as diverse, contradictory and ambiguous.
Style: The style changed into an imagistic way rather than one giving logical connections.
Plot: Modernism doubts linear plots that come with sudden, unexpected turning points. Alternatively, it uses ‘moment time’ contrapuntal multiple plots and open unresolved endings.
Focalization: Modernism rejects the single, authoritative, omniscient point of view that comes from the consciousness of one character. Instead, it takes on multiple points of view simultaneously held by one character.
Causes Of Development Of A New Thought
Modernism is a result of a sense of a changing world, stimulated by radical developments like:
  • escalation of warfare to a global level.
  • new development in the anthropological studies and religion.
  • new insights from newly developing fields like psychology and sociology.
  • scientific development of new theories of electromagnetism and quantum physics.
  • rising criticism against British imperialism and the ideology of empire
  • emergence of "city consciousness".
  • shifting power structures like women entering the work force.
  • development of information technologies like radio and cinema.
  • new concepts like mass democracy and the rise of mass communication.
  • fin-de-siècle or "end-of-the-century" consciousness. 
Modernism gained popularity as a protest to the existing society, social institutions and the way they functioned. However, in literature, it declined after a period as the works concentrated more on the writer’s line of thought in an abstract manner, which made them difficult to understand. However, there are some writers who find this style more comfortable for presenting their ideologies and follow this school of thought even now.

How to Cite

Related Articles

More from