The modern period in literature was at the near end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, after the end of World War I and flowing through the Roaring 20s. This period was marked with a lot of changes from the previous realism/realistic and naturalistic/naturalism eras (Bradshaw & Kevin). There was a lot of revolution in literature in terms of how materialism, crime, depression and social virtues were perceived. There were sudden and unprecedented breaks with the traditional ways of viewing and interacting with the world. Individualism, as well as experimentation, was heartily embraced and considered as literary virtues unlike in the past, where they were seriously discouraged.
This era was actualized by a series of shocks and events starting from World War One. Just like the other literary periods, modernists had a very sense of cohesion and similarities across the genres. The modern era differed from the romantic one in that it did not care much about nature or history, but focused mainly on the vices and alienation that individuals go through in society. The modern period in English literature was a reaction against the Victorian culture, which was dominant for most of the nineteenth century (Oliphant). It was a break from the traditional fundamentals of doing things which modernistic artists and intellectual individuals believed were culturally dead. These individuals aimed to look at the world in such a way that gave more certainty in the uncertain direction towards which the world was headed.
In the modern period, “high” art and “low” art were set apart. The sophisticated individuals from the Victorian era refused to conform to modern art and always found themselves alienated from society. This alienation contributed to the stereotyping of artists, which in turn affected the market. The reading public also supported modern artists more than elitist artists. However, most profound poets, novelists and playwrights managed to assert their influence and made statements that were absorbed and felt across society. In the later years, a form of populism returned to the literary mainstream, as regionalism and identity politics influenced art more.
Modernism, with the “Lost Generation”, introduced a new type of narration that fundamentally altered novel writing. Writers used language freely; without much restrictions to specific styles. A lot of irony and bluntness were applied. Hemingway was among such writers. “There is an irony to this bluntness, however, as his characters often have hidden agendas, sometimes hidden even from themselves, which serve to guide their actions” (Svoboda, 2007). For example, in The Sun Also Rises, there is dominant irony in the dialogue between Brett and the Count, with Jake around: “What were you doing [in Abyssinia]?” asked Brett. “Were you in the army?”/“I was on a business trip, my dear.”/“I told you he was one of us. Didn’t I?” Brett turned to me. “I love you, count. You’re a darling.” (53). The Count never fought in Abyssinia.
In the former periods, artists were more concerned with what they said. However, in the modern period, the concern was more on how they put across their thoughts. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises revolves around some characters who go around from café to café drinking coffee and chatting nonchalantly. This captures the attention of the readers, although, it somewhat seems shallow. The book was very pessimistic and dealt with aimless expatriates in France and Spain who are members of the “Lost Generation”; they have suffered wounds due to the war (Bloom). The main characters in the novel are Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes. The former undergoes various love affairs even though she loves Jake, who is impotent from the war.
In this novel, we see some sense of carelessness towards a life with life itself being viewed as more important than the way of living it. Ashley says to Jake, “I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it, you learned from that what it was all about.” In another instance, Jake lashes out at Ashley for her don’t-care behaviour, which she seems not to care about; “You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”
The nineteenth century was a time when Caucasian male chauvinism was on a high. Women, the poor and the minorities were marginalized and did not matter at all. With the modern period came changes in terms of how the sexes and various cultural groups and races were viewed (Mansbridge). Most literary voices were heard, and what was considered impossible was slowly becoming a reality. There was the Harlem Renaissance in which African-American poets took part. They could put across their views, which laid the foundations for future undertakings for equality. Such artists included Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley.
Imagist poetry dominated the scenes leading up to World War I. Imagists sought to boil language to its absolute essence and make poetry concentrate on the thing itself. For this to be possible, the minimalist language was used, less strict rules on the structure and directness, lacking in the Victorian and Romantic eras, applied. Due to the directness in nature of imagist poetry, the poems were always short. They were unrhymed and did not use a lot of figures of speech. “This was a sharp departure from the ornamental, verbose style of the Victorian era. Gone also were the preoccupations with beauty and nature. Potential subjects for poetry were now limitless, and poets took full advantage of this new freedom” (“Modernism – Literature Periods & Movements”). Thomas Stearns Eliot is an outstanding example of such modern imagist poets. For instance, in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the poem is about a middle-aged man who cannot make progress in life and dare to approach women due to his timidity, Eliot uses different styles showing a lot of freedom in his writing. He carries the characteristics of modernist poetry such as objective correlative, fragmentation, free verse and irregular rhyming
Thomas Stearns Eliot produced the best imagist poetry which fully represented and marked the modern period. He developed highly intellectual and allusive poetry. He brought out the characteristics of imagist poetry and was able to move from very high, formal verses into a more conversational and easy style. However, his greatest mark in poetry was his ability to use irony to use deceptive appearances to hide difficult truths. The title “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is by itself ironic because Prufrock is timid and he neither talks nor expresses his feelings throughout the poem. Women seem to talk a lot about Michelangelo, but he never seems to get them right and keeps postponing her proposal to a lady. He claims “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that/ You meet.” “Do I dare/Disturb the universe? /Ina minute there is time.” This work is more of a depiction of a man going through a lot and having to deal with the negative things that come with civilization in the modern world.
Plays and drama had suffered a decline during the Victorian Era. It was revamped in the twentieth century and has since undergone a lot of changes. Just like novelists and poets in the modern period, playwrights used various styles and tools that had not been used in the previous Victorian eras which constituted realistic and naturalistic views (“Modern English Drama Characteristics | English Summary”).
Realism was widely used by modernistic playwrights to deal with and express real-life problems in more realistic techniques in their plays. They used theatre to bring and reinforce reforms within society. Such was considered Problems Play. Henrik Ibsen’s play: A Doll House takes place in Helmer’s family, a family of five, husband, wife and three children, house to showing a normal family going through the usual things in life. There is no glorification of things and situations with no happy endings or any sentimentality. There are wrangles and disagreements between Norah and the husband as is expected within a normal family. This would, otherwise, be unlikely in the Romantic plays of the Victorian era. When Helmer tells Norah that he does not like her work, Nora retaliates and affirms her position as a modern woman; “Helmer: I would gladly work night and day for you. Nora- bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves/Nora: It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done.” This is also the current state of family affairs.
Ibsen gives a realistic ending as Norah leaves. This is consistent with the circumstances and happenings throughout the play. She knows that her leaving will separate her from her children. However, she still chooses to leave and face the world on her own and despite Torvald making a lot of promises to her (“A Doll’s House, Drama Analysis, Realism and Naturalism | Bartleby”).
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