Literary Modernism

“Make it new,”1 ordered the modernist poet Ezra Pound. “Hold my drink,” replied the Dadaists. Literary modernism, or modernism, was the product of the cataclysmic social and economic changes during the world’s transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The conditions surrounding modernism resulted in a period of literary experimentation in Europe and America, whose characteristics remain influential. Explore the examples, characteristics and authors in this article!

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    Modernism/Experimentation The steam engine was one of the technological advancements that fueled modernism StudySmarterFig. 1 - The steam engine was one of the technological advancements that fueled modernism.

    Literary Modernism: Meaning

    Literary modernism is a movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely in response to the rapid societal changes brought about by industrialization and urbanization. Characterized by a break with traditional forms of writing, literary modernism sought to reflect the perceived fragmentation of society and the disillusionment felt by many. Key features include the experimental use of language, stream of consciousness, non-linear narrative structures, and a focus on subjective experiences. Modernist writers often grappled with complex themes such as alienation, psychological depth, and the uncertain nature of reality.

    Literary Modernism: Dates

    The Literary modernism movement was a reaction to life in the early twentieth century. Sources disagree about a definitive time period or range of dates for literary modernism, but the average is from around 1900 until the 1950s. Literary modernism was a time of experimentation. It rejected traditional perspectives and influenced everything from artistic expression to cultural ideas.

    The world began to change rapidly in the late nineteenth century. Widespread industrialization led to a sudden population shift from rural to urban areas. The twentieth century brought scientific advancements, including the rise of psychoanalysis, which changed how people viewed the world. Finally, the horrors of the world wars left people disillusioned.

    Artists, including writers, no longer felt the old ways of creating art and literature were an adequate reflection of their lived experience. So, in the spirit of experimentation, they adopted the attitude that “rules were made to be broken.”

    Literary Modernism: Characteristics

    The main characteristics of literary modernism in literature are that reality is subjective and ever-changing. Literary modernist writers tested this belief by experimenting with literary form and expression, creating a distinct set of characteristics that set literary modernism apart from previous modes of writing.


    Literary modernism’s experimentation with symbolism deviated from conventional writing styles. It discarded stark reality in favor of subliminal representations and suggestions. It used abstract language to illustrate modern people’s inability to relate to each other or themselves.

    Literary modernists believed it was impossible to experience objective reality. As such, literary modernist writers used symbolism to obscure meaning. They left their message purposely open to readers’ interpretation to mirror life’s irrationality.

    Non-linear Storylines

    Narratives that follow traditional guidelines typically present details chronologically. However, literary modernists were fascinated by the idea that people experience time differently from each other. So they began to illustrate this theory in their writing by jumping back and forth between the past, present, and future.

    One technique was to insert a memory into the story to disrupt the present moment. Other literary modernist writers explored time by creating tension between how time feels to a character and the time measured by a clock.


    Psychologists such as Freud and Jung developed ground-breaking theories in psychology that moved the focus to the inner self and consciousness to explain mental illness and people’s behavior.

    Although Freud and Jung saw eye-to-eye on some things, they famously disagreed about the origins of the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is the actions of the brain we don’t control, and Freud believed it was a reflection of a person’s experiences, while Jung argued that it was like a warehouse where the experiences of humanity are stored and shared.

    Literary modernism reacted to this new way of thinking by writing literature that followed the thought processes of its characters in real-time, a technique known as stream-of-consciousness. Unlike classical prose, which depends on a plot for action, stream-of-consciousness writing is a fluid monologue of the character's thoughts and feelings that move the narrative forward.

    Free Verse

    Before literary modernism, poetry followed structural guidelines of various stanza lengths, rhyme schemes, and meters. However, as the value of self-expression increased, modernist poets broke with convention to express themselves more freely. These poets found a home in free verse because its lack of strict rules allowed room for experimentation–its form and rhythm tend to follow natural speech, and if it rhymes, it doesn’t necessarily stick to a pattern.

    Although some poets who wrote during the modern period objected (Robert Frost compared writing in free verse to "playing tennis without a net"2), it gave many writers permission to let loose.


    As a result of psychology’s study of the individual, modernist literature also concerned itself with the individual. Writers placed society in opposition to their characters to explore morality and integrity. Characters no longer depended on their community to decide their fate. Instead, their achievement rested on the knowledge that they had to trust themselves because they had no control over their future.

    Modernism/Experimentation Some Modernists expressed their disillusionment with absurd imagery StudySmarterFig. 2 - Some Modernists expressed their disillusionment with absurd imagery


    Absurdity is when a situation is entirely outside the realm of making sense. It was a natural reaction to a rapidly changing society, the rejection of social norms and religious beliefs, and the violence of war.

    An offshoot of literary modernism known as the Theatre of the Absurd originated in Europe. Its underlying point was that meaningful communication is impossible since there is no reason for human existence. Therefore, an argument that begins logically descends into gibberish and then silence.

    Literary Modernism used absurdism to explore the relationship between meaninglessness and the human condition. Writers observed that the world was not easily categorized and could be a pretty frustrating place as a result. The world wars left people disappointed and bitter, and literary modernists found irony and satire to be good outlets for social critique.


    Relativism argues that specific truth, morals, and knowledge are defined by the groups in which they exist rather than applying to everyone. Technology and science changed so fast during the literary modernist time period that it was difficult to believe anything was absolutely true.

    In keeping with the theme of individualism, literary modernist writers left it up to their characters to define their beliefs. Literary modernism rejected the idea of one reality. Psychology explained that each person’s reality was a unique construction of their experiences and limitations while interacting with the world around them. It followed that literary modernist literature explored worlds that lacked traditional structure.

    Literary Movements within Literary Modernism

    Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are credited with creating American literary modernism because of how influential they were to the movement. Modernist writers pushed the boundaries of literature in their pursuit of self-expression. As a result of their experimentation, several influential styles bubbled within modernism.


    Modernists began to redefine poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century. In contrast with romanticism, simple and concise language was paired with solid imagery. In addition, concrete images shouldn’t just enhance the poetry–they should be the heart of the poem.

    The image-driven poetry of ancient Greece and Japanese haiku influenced Imagism.

    Influenced by philosopher-poet T. E. Hulme (1883-1917), Ezra Pound (1885-1972) began sharing his theories with other writers in 1912. Around 1914, the core group started to splinter because some poets believed Pound was becoming too restrictive in his definition of poetry. Poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) took over at that point and continued forward until the group disbanded in 1917.

    Before in-fighting dissolved the group, they determined imagism was defined as poetry that:

    • Used direct language and avoided abstractions, whether the poem's subject was an idea or an object
    • Eliminated words that didn’t strengthen the image
    • Thought of the rhythm of the poem in terms of a musical phrase rather than a steady beat


    Surrealism, and Dadaism, erupted after WWI to counter middle-class clichés and scientific rationality. It worked to erase the line between the conscious and unconscious. Freud’s ideas figured prominently in surrealist techniques as artists and writers believed in the creative powers of dreams and desires.

    Dadaism was a part of modernism that emerged in 1916. It was an artistic movement that influenced Surrealism, which began around 1920. Politically, Surrealism and Dadaism were very similar in that both ridiculed materialism and complacency. However, a significant difference between Surrealism and Dadaism is that Dadaism didn’t offer any substitute beliefs because they were all absurd. On the other hand, Surrealism idealized the subconscious.

    Unrevised, automatic writing tapped into the subconscious and presented an unfiltered text. Collaboration allowed space for random innovation. Ultimately, Surrealism was a crossroads between politics, science, psychology, and the occult.

    Modernism/Experimentation Allusion is substituted for direct representation of reality StudySmarterFig. 3 - Modernism substituted allusion for a direct representation of reality,


    Expressionism rebelled against the cold logic of positivism and naturalism and depicted emotions and ideas rather than objective reality. Experimentation with stream-of-consciousness narration and hyperbole was meant to cause an emotional and imaginative reaction in readers.

    Hyperbole intentionally exaggerates its subject wildly out of proportion.

    Positivism is the theory that every rational argument can be supported scientifically or mathematically.

    Naturalism is the belief that reality is based on natural laws and forces rather than spiritual ones.

    Expressionism shows the urban landscape to be a wasteland of emptiness and absurdity. Humankind’s future wavers between destruction and rebirth.

    Literary Modernism vs Postmodernism

    Literary modernism is usually argued as literature published between the 1900s to 1950s. In contrast, literature published after 1945 is known as postmodernist works. These are works that explore the late twentieth century with skepticism, the rejection of binary concepts (such as good and evil), and the criticism of a universal idea of truth or morality. The characteristics of postmodern literature include:

    • Irony
    • Metafiction
    • Intertextuality
    • Pastiche
    • Unreliable narrators

    Literary Modernism: Examples

    Literary modernism is represented by a wide array of influential works, many of which are considered classics in the field of literature. Some notable examples include:

    • Ulysses (1920) by James Joyce
    • The Waste Land (`1922) by T.S. Eliot
    • To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf
    • The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner
    • In Search of Lost Time (1922-1931) by Marcel Proust
    • Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce
    • Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf
    • The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway

    These works embody the principles of modernism, using innovative narrative techniques and exploring themes that delve into the human psyche and the complexities of modern life. Literary modernist works discarded society's institutions, like religion, in favor of exploring individual experiences.

    Here are some literary modernism examples for you to explore:

    What will you do, God, when I die?

    I am your jar (if cracked, I lie?)

    Your well-spring (if the well go dry?)

    I am your craft, your vesture I–

    You lose your purport, losing me.

    When I go, your cold house will be

    Empty of words that made it sweet.

    I am the sandals your bare feet

    Will seek and long for, wearily.

    Your cloak will fall from aching bones.

    Your glance, that my warm cheeks have cheered

    As with a cushion long endeared,

    Will wonder at a loss so weird;

    And, when the sun has disappeared,

    Lie in the lap of alien stones.

    What will you do, God? I am feared.

    Rainer Maria Rilke: "What Will You Do?" (1922)

    Rilke rejected Christianity, and in "What Will You Do?," rather than presenting the traditional belief that people rely on God, he asserts that God relies on him for comfort. Rilke articulates the angst and questions swirling around human existence that the literary modernists tried to come to terms with in their work.

    Literary modernist writers' experimentation with structure reflected their desire to express that there was no such thing as a one-fits-all reality.

    Kezia liked very much to hear him. Whenever a cart appeared in the distance she looked up and waited for his voice. He was an old friend; and she and her grandmother had often been to his place to buy grapes. The storeman lived alone in a cottage that had a glasshouse against one wall built by himself. All the glasshouse was spanned and arched over with one beautiful vine. He took her brown basket from her, lined it with three large leaves, and then he felt in his belt for a little horn knife, reached up and snapped off a big blue cluster and laid it on the leaves so tenderly that Kezia held her breath to watch."

    Katherine Mansfield: "Prelude" (1918)

    Using a Modernist technique, Mansfield interrupts the action of the story with stream-of-consciousness interludes such as the above quote to put the reader in the mind of her characters. By including Kezia's memory of buying grapes from the storeman, she plays with the fluid nature of time that fascinated literary modernist writers.

    Literary Modernism- Key Takeaways

    • The literary modernism movement began around the end of the nineteenth century and extended into the middle of the twentieth century.
    • Literary modernism was a time of experimentation and a global phenomenon that rejected traditional perspectives and influenced everything from artistic expression to cultural ideas.
    • The main idea of literary modernism is that reality is subjective and ever-changing.
    • Characteristics of literary modernism include symbolism, non-linear storylines, stream-of-consciousness, free verse, individualism, absurdity, and relativism.
    • Examples of movements within literary modernism are Imagism, Surrealism (and Dadaism), and Expressionism.


    1. Pound, Ezra. Make It New: Essays. 1934
    2. Author Unknown. "Composing Free Verse Is Like Playing Tennis Without a Net." Quote Investigator. Website
    3. Fig. 1: Steam Engine and Train No. 83 Public Domain: (
    4. Fig. 2: En Attendant Godot, Festival d'Avignon, 1978 Gallica Digital Library ( Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Modernism

    What is Literary Modernism? 

    Literary Modernism was a time of experimentation and a global phenomenon. It rejected traditional perspectives and influenced everything from artistic expression to cultural ideas.  

    Why is literary modernism important? 

    Literary modernism in literature is important because it explores how reality is subjective and ever-changing. It also criticises society between the two World Wars. 

    What are the characteristics of literary modernism? 

    Characteristics of literary modernism include: symbolism, non-linear storylines, stream-of-consciousness, free verse, individualism, absurdity, and relativism.

    What is an example of literary modernism? 

    Some examples of literary modernism are:

    • Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926): The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) 
    • Gertrude Stein (1874-1946): Tender Buttons (1914) 
    • Franz Kafka (1883-1924): The Metamorphosis (1915) 
    • Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): Mrs. Dalloway (1925) 
    • William Faulkner (1897-1962): Light in August (1932) 

    Who started literary modernism? 

    Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are credited with starting literary modernism because of how influential they were to the movement.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Modernism was influenced by:

    Surrealism was similar to:

    These are all characteristics of modernism EXCEPT:


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