Literary modernism is characterized by a break in traditional forms of literature such as poetry and prose. The modernists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experimented with the structure of their work, striving to create new styles of literature by rejecting conventional forms of expression.
Before the outbreak of World War I, early modernists like Ezra Pound favored positive and exuberant styles of writing that embraced life and innovation. All that changed rapidly at the turn of the century. By 1914 the world was at war and literature, especially the imagery used by the modernists, became darker and more cynical in nature. The modernists began to emphasis a growing sense of mistrust with the world around them, particularly of government and religion.
Consequently the work of the modernists in this period became irrational. They created untrustworthy narrators and surreal plots as a representation of the damaged world around them. The modernists strove to reinvent literature and in doing so they isolated the general populace from understanding their often-convoluted work at first glance. In the past authors often helped bridge the gap between the classes. The modernists chose to write for themselves and for those who understood high literature, such as the academics.
Modernists developed new and complicated writing styles during this time period. Plots were no longer linear and did not always contain a beginning, middle, or end. The modernists wanted to capture “the moment” of a story and often began their narratives mid -action with little to no introduction to setting or background information on characters. Stories’ climaxes were reached through distracted, often fragmented storytelling with unresolved or ambiguous endings.
Changes in narrative style were also develop during this time period and included the use of multiple points of view, internal monologues, and stream of consciousness. The modernists used these techniques as a reflection of a growing population that was more self-aware due to the harsh realities of war and because of advances in psychology, which emphasized the importance of the mind and its influence on individuality. All of this contributed to the modernists’ thriving representation of realism, which has carried over to contemporarily literature as have many of the literary techniques they commonly used.
The stream of consciousness narrative technique, for example, was developed and mastered by authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf as a new form of storytelling. Stream of consciousness is defined as a narrative style that details the abstract and often mundane thoughts that pass through the mind of a character. The thought associations that make up stream of consciousness narratives are based on emotions, recollection, and perception, which serve to enhance character development and mood rather than plot. An example of stream of consciousness in the “The Garden Party and Other Stories” is Constantia’s rambling thoughts on why she and her sister were never married in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” The stream of consciousness technique broke new literary ground and introduced the subconscious monologue to readers. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf used this technique in their celebrated modernist works Ulysses (1922) and To the Lighthouse (1927).
In addition to Joyce and Woolf, early modernist writers include: Ezra Pound, Franz Kafka, Dorothy Richardson, D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Elliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, F. Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. Cummings, H.D., William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Katherine Anne Porter, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and Katherine Mansfield among others.
In the United States and Britain, literary modernism ended in the 1930s, although some critics argue that it continued well into the 1940s especially within the performing arts. By forgoing traditional forms of narration and structure the modernists changed the face of contemporary literature and challenged future writers to forgo linear forms of storytelling and to find new methods in which to explain an ever changing and complicated world.