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Modernism (1890 1939) is a term used for a number of trends in the arts, not only in
Britain but also in other parts of Europe, which influenced the artistic works of the early part of
the 20th century in different ways. Modernism, in its broadest definition, refers to modern
thought, character, or practice. It represents a trend of thought that sustains the power of human
beings to create, better, and transform their environment, a cultural period which emerged as a
revolt against the conservative values of realism 1 and as a response to international war, political
revolution, and worldwide changes in observing the cosmos and human identity. This movement
inspired a way of thinking in terms of a global attitude and a perception consisting in the fact that
the old world order was ending: political events such as the Russian Revolution, the First World
War, womens suffrage or womens right to vote in elections (England 1881, New Zeeland 1883,
Australia between 1894, ); industrial developments such as Fords mass production of the motor
car and the rise of twentieth century global industrialism; medical progress such as Freuds
theory of psychosexual identity and psychoanalysis; scientific discoveries such as Einsteins
theory of relativity; philosophical developments such as Nietzsches post-Christian theory of
heroic existentialism.
Sigmund Freuds many contributions to knowledge and to the understanding and production
of literature include his analysis of the activity of the unconscious, those invisible layers of the
mind that have such an enormous effect on human behaviour. Many of his views have become
familiar (sometimes in oversimplified or degraded form) such as the Id, the Ego and the
Superego, the Oedipus complex, phallic symbolism, repression, a death wish, the formative
experience of childhood. Freuds psychoanalysis influenced the writers of that time, and his
findings placed themselves into modernist literature. While literature from nineteenth century
was mostly preoccupied by the sociological issues, modernist literature focused on the
psychological phenomena of the individual. James Joyce was one of the pioneers of this
technique by using the stream of consciousness (interior monologue). After Joyce used this
technique in Ulysses (1922), many other writers tried to give this method a new interpretation.
Probably the most interesting form can be seen in William Faulkners The Sound and the Fury
1 Barth, John Letters, Putnam


(1929), where the reader faces the viewpoint of a mentally handicapped character, and where
time and space seem to be cancelled.
Sir James George Fraser was one of the founders of modern anthropology. He created a
comparative study of the institutions and beliefs of mankind and sustained the theory of peoples
general progress from the magical and mythical through religion, and to the scientific view. His
distinction between religion and magic (religion as a plea for help to spiritual beings, and magic
as an effort to control events by technical acts depending on faulty reasoning) has been mostly
accepted in much anthropological writings since his time. In making a vast scale of primitive
practice appear comprehensible to European thinkers of his time, he had an ample influence
between men of letters.
In general, modernism includes the activities and outturn of those who felt that
"traditional" forms of art, literature, architecture, social organization, religious faith and daily life
were becoming obsolete in the new social, economic, and political conditions of a developing
industrialized world: The roots of the change in the novel lie tangled deep in the modern
experience. Causes in the fields other than literature there doubtless were a confluence of
psychological, philosophical, scientific, social, economic, and political causes, analogues, and
explanations2. It was a universal conviction that science would change the world for the better.
This belief in science and technology reached its apotheosis in Nietzsches remark God is dead.
The artist was facing a dilemma, because he was by nature located outside the scientific area.
That meant that language and literature were supposed to be investigated with academic
methods. A switch of paradigm appeared in the first two decades of the century, giving literature
a new, more academic, appearance.
There were important changes in society, politics, literature and art after the First World
War. Virginia Woolf underlined this in 1924, when, referring to Samuel Butlers The Way of All
Flesh as being an early symptom of artistic questioning and to Shaws plays, she wrote This is
an accumulated sense of exhilaration at a variety of new beginnings and rejections of the past.3
Roger Fry debated about art and life, emphasizing the form of art as photographic representation.
He underlined the danger of separating art from religion and both from life. He ended his
2 Friedman, Alan cited in: Randall Stevenson, Modernist Fiction (London, 1998) vii
3 Woolf, Virginia quoted by Andrew Sanders in The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. P.

argument by announcing that the artist of the new movement is moving into an area more and
more remote from that of the ordinary man.4
The writers that have been called modernist were very different from each other, but they
all rejected conventional Edwardian and Victorian values and of the 19 th century point of view
with its foreseeable structure of narrative description and rational display in both prose and
poetry, they always hunt the critical writing and question the received ideas, they argue about
tradition and the denial of tradition and the use and understanding of history. Their rejection of
the values and approach of the immediately preceding period was associated with a desire to
experiment in the writing technique. Modernism rejected the conventional surface consistency
and impression of harmony typical to the rationality of Enlightenment thinking, and the existence
of a sympathetic, all-powerful Creator God "Joyce's Ulysses is a comedy not divine, ending, like
Dante's, in the vision of a God whose will is our peace, but human all-too-human..."5Modernists
questioned the acknowledged ideas, and searched for the critical writing. They argued about
tradition and the rejections of tradition and the value and interpretation of history. D.H.
Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Woolf, Pound and Huxley are well known modernist writers. The
Bloomsbury6 group was an important group of associated English intellectuals, writers,
philosophers and artists. Their works and views intensely influenced aesthetics, criticism,
literature, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards pacifism, and feminism.
Modernist fiction opposes the literary norms of the past by reflecting upon the internal
aspects of each individual as independent subjects and confronts the fate of man as being
determined through rendering meaning or wholeness or beauty to the modern world7. In
literature, the push to new forms necessitated a reconsideration of the fundamentals of
4Fry, Roger quoted by Andrew Sanders in The Short Oxford History of English Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, P. 509
5 Pericles, Lewis

Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2000).pp 38-39; Peter Faulkner, Modernism (Taylor &
Francis, 1990).p 60.

6 The Bloomsbury Group or Bloomsbury Set was a group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists who held informal discussions in
Bloomsbury throughout the 20th century This English collective of friends and relatives lived, worked or studied near Bloomsbury in London
during the first half of the twentieth century. Their work deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern
attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality. Its best known members were Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, T.S Eliot
and Lytton Strachey.

7 Matz, Jesse The Modern Novel: A Short Introduction,. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, (2004)

imaginative writing: theme, character, narration and plot, the presentation of time and space,
imagery and, above all, language.8
Some of the most important and significant features of this innovative and revolutionary
literary movement include the following: the breakdown of traditional literary genres; creative
self-consciousness about themes as form and structure; the emphasis on unconscious and
psychology; the fragmentation of traditional ideas of time, place, plot; emphasis upon novelty,
the disruption of fixed form and the new use of syntax, grammar, punctuation; a strong
commitment to splitting from both patterned responses and predictable forms; the use of myth,
classical literature, oriental philosophy; a belief in the power of art to save humanity from the
deadening aspects of everyday life, especially the numbing elements of urban, industrial society;
and the struggle for free expression; celebrations of the common textures and rhythms of life in
extraordinary ways; the interest in primitive materials and attitudes; the conviction that modern
life alienates the individual, and it desensitize people from their truest selves, cutting them off
from any sense of belonging to the world in a secure way; the use of free verse; ironic stances
and points of view (Modernists believed that by giving in to emotions involved them in an
erroneous, even dishonest, sentimentalism.)
There were two generations of Modernists, meaning that the poets and the novelists of
this period are divided into two different groups characterized by different features and interests.
The poets of the first generation of Modernists include Ezra Pound, Thomas Stearns Eliot and
William Butler Yeats. They presented, through the new themes and techniques introduced by
Modernism, a realistic and symbolical depiction of the western civilization during the painful
years that followed the World War I. Regarding the fiction, there must be remembered James
Joyce and Virginia Woolf who explored and analysed the unconscious and the mental processes
through their psychological novels. The main characteristics of the Second Generation of
Modernists refer to the involvement in the Second World War and their interest in politics and
social problems. They pleaded for a return to the traditional forms and the application of a less
obscure language. They shared, with the first generation of modernist writers, the use of myth
and classical tradition. George Orwell and Wystan Hugh Auden are the most important
representatives of this second group.

8 Childs, Peter

Modernism, London: Routledge, 2009. P. 133