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Some Characteristic Features of Literary Modernism

Characterization and the Hero

For all their interest in ancient myth and ritual, however, modern writers broke with
the literary past in more ways than they tried to preserve it. The symbolist
movement, as we have seen in the Nineteenth-Century Prose Narrative section,
foreshadowed modernism's interest in a deeper than surface reality. Part of that
new, deeper reality involved a change in the portrayal of literary characters.
Suddenly authors became aware that, in the words of novelist Virginia Woolf, "In
or about December, 1910, human character changed." Woolf's precise date could
refer to two key events that, in her mind at least, signalled the end of one age and
the start of another -- the death of England's King Edward VII and the first PostImpressionist exhibition in London. Though Woolf exaggerated -- human character
itself had not changed -- people's knowledge of it had. Thanks in large part to the
tireless documentation by Sigmund Freud of the power of the unconscious and of
human sexuality, writers realized that the human personality, far from being a
rational and comprehensible whole, was infinitely more complex than previously
imagined. Consequently, the nineteenth century's tendency to define character by
means of historical and social contexts was no longer adequate; newer, subtler
techniques had to be developed to capture the irrational, unpredictable, darker side
of human nature.
One such technique was the "stream of consciousness" device in which a
character's thoughts are reproduced as they presumably occur, not in full sentences
or in any logical sequence, but according to an associative process that depends on
the conscious or unconscious connections made by each individual's mind. This
device was used extensively by such authors as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in
Europe, and by William Faulkner in America. The first page and a half of
Joyce's Portrait of the Artist (1916) employs this technique to particularly good
advantage. Here, young Stephen Dedalus describes his world in a seemingly
random, disjointed prose that is actually logical and coherent once the reader
recognizes that it focuses, in part, on the child's five senses and what they tell him.
In addition to abandoning a traditional concept of characterization, modernism also
abandoned one of the most fundamental, but also problematic, types of character -the hero. What constitutes heroism has always aroused debate, but the typical
protagonists of modernism, having lost faith in society, religion, and the
surrounding environment, seem also to have lost any claim to heroic action or
stature. Indeed, faced with a terrifying and possibly meaningless world, leading
characters either fear to act, having concluded that action itself is pointless, or like
Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, the "hero" of The Metamorphosis (1915), or Joseph
K., of The Trial (1925), cannot act in a universe that has entrapped them. Given this
alienation from society, modern heroism seems often to be reduced to the heroism

of becoming aware that in this new age, heroic or successful action is not only
unattainable, but also perhaps undesirable.
Plot and Chronology
If heroism became a literary impossibility for many modern writers, so did the
conventional way of telling a story from beginning to end; in the process, the
modernists rejected traditional notions of plot and time. The nineteenth century saw
time as comprising three distinct stages -- past, present and future -- through which
an orderly progression of events evolves. Such a view of time produced, by
necessity, a literature that focused on the major events in the life of a character and
showed a rational, cause-effect relationship between those events and the
character's development. By contradicting these traditional assumptions, modern
authors produced an entirely different type of literature. This impulse may be
traced, in part at least, to a non-literary source, the theories of the French
philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). In his influential study, Time and Free
Will (1922), Bergson reasoned that time is not a series of logically sequential or
separate stages. Rather, time is a continuous, uninterruptible flux or stream, with
past, present and future simultaneously present in and indistinguishable from each
other. Or, as T. S. Eliot would later write in Four Quartets (1943):
Time present and time past
Are both present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Theoretically, then, always starting a story at the beginning became irrelevant, even
misleading, because, in a sense, there was no real beginning. Freed from the
tyranny of time, modern writers felt justified in dislocating normal narrative
chronology through flashbacks, repetitions, or even by omitting transitions entirely.
This dislocation, they believed, could more truly reflect reality than a narrative
structure based on the artificial Aristotelian divisions of beginning, middle, and
Furthermore, the idea of time as flux implicitly challenges the practice of focusing
on major events in a character's life. In a temporal stream, any occurrence, even the
most trivial or mundane, possesses importance and is capable of revealing much
about a person or the true nature of reality. This new attention to life's isolated,
commonplace moments perhaps explains the great interest of modern novelists in
the short story. Writers such as James Joyce (1882-1941), Joseph Conrad (18571924), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), William
Faulkner (1897-1962), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Ernest Hemingway (18991961), and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) achieved considerable success with this
literary form.

The breakdown of narrative sequence in fiction was duplicated in poetry by similar

changes in poetic syntax. Gone were the logical and rhetorical connectives of
nineteenth-century poetry, gone were the long fluid verse paragraphs of a poem like
"Tintern Abbey" which (if read superficially) read like prose. Instead, a general
fragmentation in content and style appeared, along with abrupt changes in subject
matter and tone, allusions to unfamiliar authors and works, and rhymes that seemed
to have no relationship to their poetic context: "In the room the women come and
go / Talking of Michelangelo."(3) Clearly, in using these stylistic techniques of
altered time schemes, complex, alienated characters, and fragmented syntax,
writers were attempting to reflect the uncertain, frightening nature of modern life.
At the same time, this very emphasis on style was an effort to, in the words of
Samuel Beckett, "find a form for the chaos" surrounding humanity. "These
fragments I have shored against my ruins," says the speaker in T. S. Eliot's The
Waste Land, but his voice could be that of almost any modern author.
The Alienated Author, the Active Reader
The rejection of traditional literary techniques and the adoption of new ones created
new roles for both writer and reader. Authors, like artists and composers, became
part of a culturally advanced group known as the avant-garde which, for the first
time, set itself aside as an elite class, the precursor of artistic trends. This group
disdained responsibility to its audience in favor of a total loyalty to the work of art.
The split between author and audience owed much to the experimental nature of the
artist's work on the one hand and to society's inability to adjust to the radically new
style of modernism on the other. As the writer's alienation from his own society
increased, the only solution in many cases seemed to be that of Stephen Dedalus -exile. Indeed, one could almost say that the hallmark of a modern writer was his
inability to live in his own country and his affinity for a foreign one. Henrik Ibsen,
Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht,
Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett all left their native lands for one more
hospitable to their art. Of those who did not, or could not leave, many, like Franz
Kafka, felt like a stranger in a strange land.
Changes in the style of modern literature also affected the reader. Confronted with
fragmented chronology and syntax, the reader's task became in a sense, to
reassemble the story or poem, to understand not only in what order the events
actually occurred, but also why the author chose this particular arrangement of
events or words. Thus, form acquired its own significance, and now part of the act
of reading was to discover that significance. Such a task, not easy to accomplish in
any time, was made all the more difficult by the fact that modern literature, like
modern art, had severed its connection to the external world for a deeper
examination of the internal human world, to the subjective sense of time, the
unconscious self, the fragmented thoughts and language that each one of us carries
within ourselves. Consequently, novels, poems, and plays became self-referential.
As we have seen, Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author blurs the

distinction between art and life by containing two sets of characters, characters who
are actors and actors who are characters. Their confrontation produced the same
effect as that of two mirrors placed to reflect each other; one cannot tell what is real
and what is merely an image of reality. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for
Godot revolves around its own axis, with Act II duplicating Act I. The last sentence
of the centerpiece of modernist fiction, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (1939),
leads directly into its first. Thus, modernist literature becomes a closed system, its
own object and its own subject.