Literary modernism and English fiction

English literature

Lecture Notes, 2020

55 Pages, Grade: A.b




Modern Western literature commenced from the 1890s. The high modernism began after the First World War. The architect Sir Edwin Lutyen visited the battlefields of north-eastern France in July 1917 in order to investigate the need for permanent memories to the vast number of dead. The post-war period was haunted by long memories, tender, angry, and sickening. Sir Lutyen says that poppies, cornflowers, skylarks and rats of the poetry had emerged from the war that effectively marked the end of an art which had once reached far comfortably to sympathetic images from nature.

New feelings started in politics, society and in art and literature after the First World War and its immediate aftermath. Virginia Woolf expressed this in 1924, “This is an accumulated sense of exhilaration at a variety of new beginnings and rejections of the past.”1 She refers to Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh as an early symptom of cultural questioning and the plays of Shaw. Her paper “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown” would probably have acknowledged the potent influence of the wider European innovations.

In 1910, there was an exhibition in London of the blazing colours and visual fragmentations of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin organized by Roger Fry and the post-impressionists. The second exhibition in 1912 introduced the visual economics, the rethinking of form and the abstractions of Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Derain to the London public. It included English imitators Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Russian artists. Diaghilev's company organized an exhibition of Russian art works. This influenced European arts. It directed challenges to the vaunted refinement and urbanity of inherited aristocratic Western culture and to the emasculated nature of much of its old-tradition.

The spirit of London collapsed in the winter of 1915-16. D.H. Lawrence focused on the city, praised from heart a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes and fears. The artist of Europe and America met at Versailles in order to unravel the outstanding historical, geographical, religious and racial knots in Europe. The Bolshevik State, was first assaulted by armed Western intervention, and wracked by the civil war and destructive maneuvers of internal capital, emerged from many post war intellectuals on the model of progressive society. The Soviet Russian literature in the 1930s had the idea of working future of mankind, most conveniently avoided contemplating the fate of Russian intelligentsia and the manifest suffering of uprooted, regimented and forcibly collectivized peasants. The modern British young writers less focused on the Western bourgeois but they focused on the problems of poverty, and the problem of the explosive anti-democratic energies of Italy, Germany and Span. The pre war Western literature focused on the conditions of the industrial, agricultural poor, and the unemployment. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century served the politics and electoral success of the Labor Party in the 1920s.

The General Strike of May 1926, which collapsed after nine days, but the Government’s propaganda victory, was partly due to its successful control of the media, including, for the first time radio broadcasting. It continued economic depression and helped to ensure that Labor Party was able to form a second Government between 1929 and 1931.

The British literature in the 1920s and 1930s demonstrated the existential instability in Europe. Roger Fry (1866-1934) had argued about art and life. His argument was, the idea of art as photographic representation. It ends by announcing that the artist of the new movement is moving into a sphere more and more remote from that of the ordinary man and that in proportion as art becomes purer the number of people to whom it appeals gets less.2

The Mail (1896), Dail Mirror (1903) and Daily Express newspapers were devoted to women's interests, national and culture, elements of national life. The first music broadcast by the new corporation on New Year's Day 1926, was instantly democratic. In 1930s T.V and cinema took great role on British society.

Modernists always question the received ideas, and hunt the critical writing. They debate about tradition and the rejections of tradition and the use and interpretation of history. Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Woolf, Pound and Huxley are modernist writers. The Bloomsbury group was a group of writers and artists. It was never a formal grouping. Its origin lay in a male friendship in the late 19th century Cambridge. It was only with formation of the Memorial Club in 1920, it was originally centered on Leslie Stephen's daughters Virginia and Vanessa Clive Bell, and their friends E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and Desmond McCarthy.

The term ‘modernism' is not a precise label but, instead, a way of referring to the efforts of many individuals across the arts who tried to move away from the established modes of representation in formal or political terms. It is said, In literature, the push to new forms necessitated a reconsideration of the fundamentals of imaginative writing: theme, character, narration and plot, the presentation of time and space, imagery and, above all, language.3

Modernism is variously argued to be a period, style, genre or combination of the above; but it is first of all a complex word. Its stem ‘modern' is a term that from the Latin modo, means ‘current' and so has a far wider currency and range of meaning. ‘Modernism' is referred to the Christian present in opposition to the Roman past. More generally ‘modern' has been frequently used to refer to the avant-garde since the Second World War. This sense has been shifted from meaning ‘now' to ‘just now.' It is this sense of the avant-garde, radical, progressive or even revolutionary side to the modern that was the catalyst for coinage of modernism and its meaning. It is loosely used as a label for the dominant tendency of the 20th century. It is a new trend in art and literature, in the Christian church, a movement or tendency that began shortly before 1900 in an attempt to reconcile Christianity with science, especially Darwin's theory of evolution.

The word ‘Modernism' in religion is an outlook, holding that modern scholarship and scientific advances require fundamental restatement of traditional doctrine. The term is specifically applied to Roman Catholic movement of the last 19th and early 20th centuries. The modernists in the Roman Catholic Church sought to retain the letter of church doctrine by reinterpreting it in the light of modern knowledge. In doing so they showed the influence of current evolutionary philosophies. Dogmas, for example, were not thought to be exact and authoritative formulations of truths revealed by God and fixed for all time, but rather statements of religious feelings and experiences in a given historical epoch. Thus religious truths were held to be subject to a constant evolutionary progress as part of mankind's progressive experience.

Now frequently used in the discussion of the twentieth century literature, Modernism means that some of today's literary aspects of literature are distinguished from classical times. Modernists have new and distinctive features in their subjects, forms, concepts and style in their art; they had deliberately and radically broken away from some of the traditional aspects and they questioned the certainties that had supported traditional modes of conceiving literature. Humanism, symbolism, futurism, expressionism, imagism, vorticism, ultraismo, dadaism, stream of consciousness, surrealism, the theatre of absurd, cubism, realism, existentialism and cultural crisis are newly emerged in our time. They reject the 19th century traditions and their consensus between author and reader, the concept of realism, free-verse and avant-garde. They adopted complexes and different forms and styles.

Stephen Spender defines modernism as, “ruffling the realist surface of literature by underlying forces; the disturbance may arise, though, from logic solely aesthetic or highly social.”4 Modernist writing is predominantly cosmopolitan and often it expresses a sense of urban culture, dislocation along with awareness of new anthropologies and psychological theories. Literary historians locate the modernist revolt as far back as the 1890’s but most are agreed that what is called high modernism had rapid changes after First World War. European and American writers who are central to modernism include Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, Dorothy Richardson, William Faulkner, Stephen Mallarme, William Butler Yeats, Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, William Carlos William, Wallace Stevens, Carl Strindberg, Wedekind, Apollinaire, August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht, May Sinclair, Rosy Macaulay, Edith Sitwell, Rebecca West, Gertrude Stein, Bonnie Kim, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Charlotte Mew, Anna Wickham, Jean Rhys, Mina Loy, Catherine Mansfield, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot. It is said, Victorian novels all appeal directly to their readers in emotional terms, assuming their experience of life will be sufficiently like these of their authors to claim assent.5

The period from 1910 to 1930 had an economic depression. Yet the period produced works such as T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, James Joyce's Ulysses, D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, Virginia Woolf's To The Light House and W.B. Yeats The Tower. The two decades constitute an intelligible unity from the point of view of the present discussion. There can be valid disagreement about the extent of the interaction between culture and society but it is evident that modernist writers are very much aware of the state of the world around them.

A modern writer has been rendered more self-directed by the influence of psychological investigation, revealing his complexity of the human personality, emphasizing the role of agent in creating the reality which he experiences. Modern novelists do not investigate characters in the term of the morality of their action and motivation but examine human sensibility and perception. Man's exploration of the preoccupation, inevitable language and the nature of human discourse will become a major theme for the modernist along with the sense of rootlessness, lack of valid purpose, flexibility, power of art, contradiction and paradox. 1930 onwards, there is a continuous change: there is an economic breakdown and the means of unemployment of the West formed a grim continuity, while the development of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany initiated a process of violence which led to the invasion of Abyssinia, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. In such a world the new generation of writers were much more political, generally left-wing. Especially in poets there is direct criticism of English society. Michel Roberts, W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, William Plomer, and Stephen Spender wrote of poetry being turned to propaganda and Louis MacNiece and George Orwell did it in prose. The strong political writers included Sartre, Camus, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Baldwin, Mailer and Beckett.

In the 1960s the term ‘modernism' became widely used as a description of a generation of written and a literary phase that was deniable. The word ‘modernity' is first used by Baudelaire in the mid-nineteenth century in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life.” He describes modernity as the fashionable fleeting and contingent in art. Peter Childs observes, In relation to modernism, modernity is considered to be described as a way of living and of experiencing life which arises with the changes wrought by industrialization, urbanization and secularization; its characteristics are disintegration and reformation, fragmentation and rapid change, ephemerality, reality and insecurity. It involves certain new understanding of time and space; speed, mobility, communication, travel, dynamism, chaos, and cultural revolution.6

Modernism has come to be regarded as a distinct cultural movement in the recent past; it has come in for more direct criticism from American critics Edmund Wilson, Robert Conquest and Donald Davie. Modernism is characteristic too of Marxist criticism, depicting the burst of artistic experimentation in the Soviet Union in the years immediately after the revaluation, including the works of Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, Hungarian George Lucks, Tolstoy, Rolland, Shaw, Dreiser, Sterne, Pirandello and Mann. Modernist writers fail to see man socially and historically, and so describe him in alienation, which is a social process. Other modernist writers are Frank Kermode, C.K. Stead, A. Alvarez, Rilkee, Heine, C.M. Bowra, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Soren Kierkegaard, George Crosz, John Hartsfield, Wieland Hezfelde, Raoul Heinemann, Johannes Baader, Otto Schmalhausen, and Henry Levin.

Modernism is regularly viewed as time-bound or as genre-bound art form. When time-bound, it is often primarily located in the years from 1890 to 1930, with a wider acknowledgement that it develops from the mid-nineteenth century and begins to lose its influence in the mid-twentieth century. Modernism favored anti-historicism, it always focused on the micro rather than the macrocosm, and, hence, the individual more than the social. Modernist art stressed complexity and changed in response to the mechanic age. It introduced feminism, homosexuality, androgyny and bi-sexuality besides questioning the constrains of the nuclear family which seemed to hamper the individual's search for personal values. The cultural commentator and poet Matthew Arnold delivered a lecture entitled, “The Modern Element in Literature. He described this modern style in terms of response, confidence, and tolerance, free activity of the mind, reason and universals.”7 Modernist writers and artists take several things, including industrialization, urban society, war, technical change, new philosophical ideas, feminism, identity crisis and the sense of rootlessnesses.

I. Literary Trends and Concepts:

Modernism as a critical term is vast and complex. The following literary trends and concepts help us to understand the same.

Cubism: It is the most revolutionary movement of early modern art. It developed in France between 1907 and the early 1920s. It was a new way of seeing nature and work of art. The painter Problo Picasso was the actual founder of Cubism, who was a follower of Paul Cezanne, the Great post-impressionist and George Braque in Paris. Cezanne has formulated the theory. Cubism as a style emphasized the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture, rejecting the traditional techniques of perspectives, fore-shortening, modeling and refuting time-honored theories of an art as the imitation of nature. It derived its name from remarks made by the painter Henri Matisse and the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who derisively described Braque’s 1908 work as House at L' Estaqu.

The period from 1910 to 1912 is refered to analytical cubism; paintings executed during this period show the breaking of analysis of form, right-angle and straight line construction are favored. Colour schemes are simplified, tending to be nearly monochromatic in order not to distract the viewer from the artist’s primary interest, the structure of form itself. The Renaissance tradition of painting based on perspectives had been devoted largely to the imitation of nature. The painting becomes a painted illusion of a person, still-life, or landscape.

Dadaism: It was an art and literary movement. The name ‘Dada’ a French children’s word for hobby home, was chosen from a dictionary. It flourished during and after World War I as an anti-nationalist protest against established form in both art and society. The movement began in 1015 in Zurich by the German writers Hugo Ball and Richard Hollenbeck and the Roman poet Tristan. Art works were composed of unorthodox materials, with collages of randomly cut collared paper, litter and ready-made objects, which both ignored and attacked conventional aesthetic values. In 1917 Hulsenbeck, one of the founders of the Zurich Group, transmitted Dada movement to Berlin, where it took political character. The German artist Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Hoch, George Grosz, Johannes Baader, Hulsenbeck, Otto Schmalhausen, Wieland Hezfelde and John Hartsfield involved in the movement. The first-international Dad Fair was held in Berlin in June 1920.

Existentialism: It is a philosophy, a literary and cultural impulse, with roots in ancient Socratic and Biblical thought; it became a conspicuous self-conscious movement in France after the Second World War. It is a response to experience of nothingness and absurdity which attempt to discover meaning through experience. Existentialist writers begin from a sense that as an ontological dimension, it has been forced out of consciousness by the institutions and system of a society which overvalues rationally, will power, acquisitiveness, productivity and technological skill.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian, was a founder of existentialism in the 19th century. Other three figures who shaped existentialism were Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Metzsche. In the 20th century, existentialism remained part of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger of Germany, who steeped in classical philosophy and Nietzsche who steeped in Socratic philosophy. Karl Jaspers, carried medicine and psychiatry to philosophy. In the 20th century Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel Marcel, and Maurice MerleauPonty are mainly existentialists. Existentialism may be defined as a school of thought based on a concept of the absurdity of the universe and the consequent meaninglessness and futility of human life and action. Sartre says, all human activates are equivalent, all are destined to defeat. One of the basic tenets of Sartre's Existentialism, on the other hand, is that man can shape his own destiny by the exercise of his will in the face of the given set of potentialities which is his life . 8

Expressionism: It is a German movement in literature and other arts. It flourished from 1900 to 1935. It is an artistic style characterized by extreme subjectivity, violent emotion, and the stretching of any given medium. It turned against the objective representation of nature and society and gave preference to the expression of subjective or inner reality. Expressionists rejected the established authority of the army, the schools, the patriarchal family, and the emperor and they openly sided with outsiders: the poor, oppressed, prostitutes, madmen, and tormented youth; it developed most powerfully in the visual arts, it was found in many antecedents in past art, naive, primitive and children's art. Line and colour were given independently from nature and used freely to express emotional response. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Cezanne, and the Fauve group- which included Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy, Keesran Donges and Georges Roualt have exhibited their brilliantly colored paintings at successive salons. Persian artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Sonia Delaunay, Joan Miro and Mare Chagall developed a frenzied painterly style virtually unmatched in its intensity of emotional expression.

Expressionism was a historical movement. It began in Germany before First World War. Two groups of artists, Die Brucke (The Bridge) (founded in Dresden in 1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rindr) were founded (in Munich in 1911). The members of Die Brucke are Ernst Lowing Kirchner, Erich Heckle, Kari Schmidt, Rottluff, Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, and others. The major theme of expressionist literature was the struggle between generations and the evolution of the new man. Many talented younger painters and poets were killed in First World War.

Futurism: It was a movement in 1909. It was founded by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinette, which spread to art and music as well as to literature. Filippo launched the idea in his manifesto, published in a leading Paris newspaper, Le Figaro in 1990. The Manifesto is extreme in its advocacy of the necessary brokenness of traditional forms of text. It has some European influence. It was influenced by cubism, Dadaism, expressionism, and surrealism. Futurism is a study of the future with a view toward anticipating, preparing for and influencing future events; it seeks to develop better ways of thinking about the future. It helps individuals develop knowledge, attitudes and skills that can help them deal with the rapid changes taking place in a highly complex technological society.

Imagism: This is an Anglo American literary movement of the early 20th century. The term ‘Imagism’ was coined by Ezra Pound to denote the principles agreed on by him and the other members of a literary group he formed in London in 1912. Amy Lowell and Richard Aldington rejected the didactic, the decorative and insisted on economy in verse, employment of ordinary speech, absolute clarity and complete freedom in the choice of subject.

The movement began in 1909 and flourished through 1918. It represented a revolt against conventional ideas of the nature and function of poetry. The anti­romantic ideas of Thomas Hulme, debated and discussed in England, stressed the need for experimentation in modern verse, freedom from the constructions of tradition, and grater attenuation to the use of exact, efficient imagery. The imagism looked back to the French symbolism. Thomas Hulme started the discussion of the image in poetry with his friend Ezra Pound, who first gave it practical application. All these poets pursued the ideals of orderliness, conciseness, and strict objectivity, and they found inspiration in Greek and Latin, Chinese and Japanese poetry. The chief aim was to attain accurate and definite description. It was essential to prove that beauty might be found in small, commonplace thing.

Impressionism: In literature, its broadest application refers to a style of writing in which characters, sense or actions are presented. It is a major movement. It was first in painting and later in music and literature that developed chiefly in France during the latter part of 19th and 20th centuries. Adherents sought to express the general tone or impression produced by a sense or idea, departing from the strong directed structure and themes of the earlier Romantics or realists. The term Impressionism was coined by a Parisian critic to ridicule of a picture called ‘Impression. The subject matter was whatever it found usually in the mere public aspects of the middle-class pleasures and distractions that became fashionable in the reign of the French Emperor Louis Napoleon. They are free from traditional themes as Biblical, historical or allegorical stories; they choose new and subjective position relative to their subject matter. The individual sensations of the artist under the influence of the specific transitory experience, such as a particular time of day or a condition of weather became dominant themes.


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Literary modernism and English fiction
English literature
Technical University of Berlin  (Hu)
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Bs English Fayaz khan (Author), 2020, Literary modernism and English fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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