The word “modernism” is intentionally ambiguous, and perhaps without realizing it is a fitting term for such a literary movement. In the most common usage it refers to the twentieth-century movement that began with the concept of the “modern” (obviously, since without this word how could one have modern-ism?) and ended up being a collection of authors and works characterized by efforts by the individual character and author to remold and reshape reality while reflecting its social ills. This is quite a simplistic analysis of an entire movement, but I will go into greater detail below.
Modernism took elements from realist literature in that it sought to realistically portray the growing social isolation and alienation of individuals caused by industrial capitalism. Characters are almost always withdrawn, and the entirety of the work contains a bitter cynicism bordering on absolute nihilistic despair. The main geographic sites for this movement were England and America post-Industrial Revolution, blooming during the periods between World War I and World War II, the main places where this system had taken hold. These first few decades of the new century begin with writers such as Joyce, Eliot, Pound D.H. Lawrence, who all stepped forward onto the literary scene by creating texts that were called highly experimental on content rather than merely form. This is the movement we now call “modernism,” though I don’t mean to use it in a reductive sense to imply that outside of these few head writers there exist no modernist movement.
The main characteristics of a modernist novel are as follows.
- The most prominent, noticeable facet of the modernist movement is severe alienation (even from one’s own work). It is important to realize that for a Marxist, the definition of alienation is a lack of control. This is why the worker is alienated from his work-he has no control over his workspace or the products he makes and consumes. Authors are not immune from this, and frequently show a coping mechanism for their alienation through experimentation with form and content. Many writers are themselves very conflicted about their proletarian, progressive or reactionary themes and the dialectic relationship between them becomes obvious within their work.
- The popular concept of the Victorian novel has overnight become meticulous to the new sped-up industrial capitalist life. Novels would now be leaner, meaner and with more bite.
- Frequently it put more emphasis on the individual over the social and outward, or is concerned with the outward only inasmuch as it affects the individual. Frequently showcases a central, heroic figure.
- Its operating ideological system is existentialism, or the belief that objective truth exists but it has no meaning for humans except the meaning we, as individuals or masses, create through acting upon reality. Often the work presents a world where chance makes things happen and the plot for the novel itself has no meaning except what the reader imposes on it.
- Frequently contains stream-of-consciousness ranting, a multi-narrative perspective, disjointed timelines and short, declarative sentences.
- Increasing skepticism about religious systems.
Moreover, these artists actually sought to challenge established systems by making their characters behave in ways outside the norm-much better than the reactionary “humanist” writers, with their hollow phrases overly concerned with form rather than content, and their content itself inhospitable to complex motivation and characterization, to actions and emotions “unacceptable” to petty-bourgeois reformism. Now for the bad news. Modernism, much like its even-lesser-defined evil twin sister postmodernism, gravitates towards a radically pessimistic vision of subjectivity as a rewarding experience for any given society. As in Eliot and Joyce, this leads to reactionary anti-social behavior, which then spawns uncompromising relativism and individualism, which would eventually give birth to the dreaded libertarian science fiction world of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451. Why is this movement “dreaded,” you ask? After all, they were only exposing the evils of government and the state, weren’t they? Yes, but unfortunately their works were not meant to represent the BOURGEOIS state, or organized religion (surely a much better and much closer twin of what they represent in their novels) but rather any state that the dominant ideology deemed “extreme.” As such, while the authors may not have directly intended as much (though Orwell certainly did), their works have become tools for imperialist propaganda. But hey, that’s another post.