Literary Modernism: Katherine Mansfield and the Short Story

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. (Literary) ‘Modernism’
2.1 Extra-Literary Conditions and Influences
2.2 Themes and Formal Innovations

3. The Modernist Short Story
3.1 Beginnings, Development and Main Features 7 3.2 Katherine Mansfield
3.2.1 Life
3.2.2 Contribution to the ‘Invention’ of the Short Story and Thematic Innovations

4. Katherine Mansfield ‘The Fly’
4.1 Summary
4.2 Interpretations
4.3 A Short Story for English Language Teaching?
4.3.1 ‘Adjunctive Structures’
4.3.2 Worksheet

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix

1. Introduction

Modernism is widely acknowledged as probably the most important and influential artistic-cultural phenomenon of the twentieth-century, whether it is considered primarily as a movement, a period, a genre, a style or an ideology (cf. Poplawski 2003, p. 5).

In order to find out what is so special about the literary period between 1901 and 1939 extra-literary developments and contexts as well as thematic and formal innovations according to modernism will be considered at first in this paper.

Afterwards the modernist short story, as an important ‘invention’ of modernist writers, and its main characteristics and features are of interest. In this respect some writers of the modernist era, such as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson etc., and some of their short stories will be considered to get a completed picture of the topic. Katherine Mansfield, one of the great Modernist innovators of twentieth-century English literature, plays a central role in this regard. After a biographical overview her contribution to the ‘invention’ of the short story with special interest to characteristic features of her way of writing will be presented.

Finally, the aim should be to explore how one of Katherine Mansfield’s last short stories ‘The Fly’ can be used for English language teaching. At first a short plot summary and various kinds of interpretations are given to get at the real meaning of the story. Then a concrete example of classroom treatment, including a worksheet, will be dealt with. This worksheet gives attention to text gaps, which can be found within the short story, in the way that they can be seen as ‘adjunctive structures’ and can be used for text work in groups.

2. (Literary) ‘Modernism’

2.1 Extra-Literary Conditions and Influences

In the context of science, psychology, philosophy and linguistics (literary) modernism is mainly characterised by the word “uncertainty” (cf. Kastan 2006, p. 2).

Scientific discoveries, such as Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” (1859) and those of geologists abandoning the foundations of a biblically based understanding of our cosmogony, led to a growing uncertainty in the minds of modern men and women considering the world in the scheme of creation (cf. ibd.).

According to social science Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ “The German Ideology” gives insights on the level of the community and therefore plays an important role: the key feature is that our thoughts and behaviour are not spontaneous but suggested by a complex and unconscious system of values and beliefs by those in power. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, explored the influence of the unconscious mind on our daily lives. The unconscious became significant for modernist writers, not only as a subject but also as motivation for many extreme stylistic experiments. Marx’s, Engels’ and Freud’s work resulted in the awareness that humans are not fully in control of unconscious and social, political or economic forces on their personal lives and relationships (cf. ibd., pp. 2-3).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s scathing critique towards the Jeudo-Christian morality culminated in the statement “God is dead” by which he “means to suggest […] that as traditional religion had been discredited by advances in the physical sciences […], and as religion (‘God’) disappeared, so logically must all moral and ethical systems that depend on such faith for their force likewise fade away” (cf. ibd., p. 3). Significant was Nietzsche’s emphasis on the uncertainty of cognition (cf. Stevenson 2005, p. 318).

Albert Einstein’s relativity theory revealed that everything is absolute except for humans: they are not able to see things the way they really are because of outside forces like time, motion and gravity. So he highlighted the value of observation and regarded humans as subjective and therefore fallible observers (cf. Kastan 2006, p. 4).

Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics, described uncertainty as a striking feature not only of every part of modern thought but also of all human languages. “The end result of this line of thinking, so articulated, was not part of the intellectual framework of modernist writers, but an awareness of the inherent fallibility- ‘slipperiness’- of language informs most if not all important modernist texts” (cf. ibd.).

2.2 Themes and Formal Innovations

Generally, form and structure were more affected than subject by literary modernism and its challenges (cf. Stevenson 2005, p. 316).

Erotic, homo- and heterosexuality were treated liberal by modernist authors. Moreover, they wrote about World War I and its consequences, exile, the ethics of empire and the anonymity of urban life. Individual understanding of perception and observation can be mentioned as further thematic innovation (cf. ibd., pp. 316-317).

Modernist authors can be distinguished of other, more conservative writers by renovations of structure and style. Formal innovations are affected by an extended use of symbolism and stylistic devices to reflect the individual perception and consciousness. The development of literary tactics such as the interior monologue, the stream of consciousness, presenting inner thoughts with the chaotic immediacy of their actual occurrence, or the mind-style were innovative at the turn of the twentieth century (cf. ibd.,p. 317). According to Virginia Woolf “authors should ‘look within’ and ‘examine… the mind’ ” (ibd.). In order to realise the thematic innovations modernist writers work with anachronous temporality and a high degree of self-reflexivity and complexity (cf. ibd., pp. 319-320).

Head (1994) describes “the limited action and an associated ambiguity and preoccupation with personality; and the self-conscious foregrounding of form and the concomitant reliance on pattern” (p. 8) as significant features of literary modernism.

3. The Modernist Short Story

3.1 Beginnings, Development and Main Features

Many critics impute the beginning of the modernist short story in America to Stephen Crane: “[I]t was Crane’s impressionism– the combination of the subjectivity of romanticism with the so-called objectivity of realism– that did the most to effect this transition” (May 2002, p. 12). He uses specific moments of reality of the everyday in his stories. By dealing with a combination of expressive emotions and ironic observation Crane delivers insight into both objective and subjective perspectives. This attains the effect that the narrator, simultaneously, seems to be involved and aesthetically detached. Frank Stockton, Ambrose Bierce and O. Henry belong to those writers who focused rather on a formalised aesthetic reality, which looks back on the works of Edgar Allan Poe– thus on the former period of romanticism (cf. ibd., p. 13).

Allen claims that the change to the specifically British modernist short story can be dated at 1878, the year in which Lionel Stevenson[1] published “A Lodging for the Night”. It is also stated that the symbolist movement gave the decisive impulse to the development of the short story in the 1890s, the period that H. G. Wells called “the Golden Age” of the short story in England. The key aim of modernist short story writers was to focus on technique and form rather than on content alone (cf. May 2002, p. 14).

Due to the profundity of his vision and his keen sense of language use Joseph Conrad managed to explore the field of philosophic generalisations in his works. Therefore he is considered to be the one who effectively made the transition between the old-fashioned tale of the nineteenth century and the modernist short story. Short story writers, including Conrad and Joyce, focused on concrete situations in the real world. In “The Secret Sharer”, one of Conrad’s most famous symbolist/impressionistic stories, he uses a specific technique to embody psychic processes: he creates the theme of a psychological double in a person who exists outside and inside the character at the same time (cf. ibd., pp. 14-15).


[1] Lionel Stevenson was the first British writer to build his career on the short story form

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Literary Modernism: Katherine Mansfield and the Short Story
University of Cologne
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
489 KB
Modernist Short Story, The Fly, Interpretation
Quote paper
Steffi Joetze (Author), 2010, Literary Modernism: Katherine Mansfield and the Short Story, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Literary Modernism: Katherine Mansfield and the Short Story

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free