Name That Literary Period: Modernism

The names of literary periods are often thrown around as if they’re self-explanatory, but they’re often quite complex! In our ongoing series Name That Literary Period, we want to really explore each literary period in order to better understand the historical context of our favorite books. 

This week, we dive into modernism, which can be a confusing name, because while we think of “modern” as equivalent to “now,” in fact the modernist movement is nearly a century old. Modernism is the early 20th-century movement of English, Irish, and American writers who sought new ways to express and represent the human experience in a so-called modern world. As the prominent modernist poet Ezra Pound said, the goal of modernist writers and artists was to “make it new!” 

Time Period: 1914–1965

Society changed a lot around the turn of the 20th century. The psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had made the public aware of a collective unconscious, the discoveries of Charles Darwin had demoted humans to the class of animals, and the devastation of World War I had many people worried that the industrialization and violence of modern society was inhibiting artistic impulses. 

While realist writers had sought to represent the human experience as accurately as possible, modernist writers saw that goal as far too simplistic. They sought to explore what lay beyond representation, seeking to evoke reactions rather than recognition from their readership. Writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf developed the stream-of-consciousness style to explore the subjectiveness of human thought, poets like T. S. Eliot abandoned classic forms to explore the limits of image and metaphor, and playwrights like Samuel Beckett disoriented audiences with elements of absurdity and ambiguous narrative endings. 

The modernist period included many literary movements within it, including imagism, symbolism, futurism, vorticism, cubism, surrealism, existentialism, Dada-ism, and more. What they all shared was a desire to push the boundaries of expression and discover new ways to understand the human experience.

Let’s look at these 8 modernist works that did just that: 

1.) “Oread” by Hilda Doolittle (1914)

Hilda Doolittle, who published under the pen name H. D., was part of the imagist movement, a group of poets who depicted precise visual images through simple and clear language. “Oread” is a great example of her lyrical verse and terse, compact style.

2.) “Araby” by James Joyce (1914)

This short story from Joyce’s Dubliners is about a young boy who is infatuated with the neighbor girl. He promises to buy her a gift at the Araby bazaar, but when he arrives there, he finds himself disillusioned by the crudeness of the environment and his own expectations. Joyce’s wandering plot and anticlimactic ending are classic examples of modernist style.

3.) “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats (1920)

While Yeat’s poem initially references the Second Coming of Christ, the poem subverts readers’ expectations by describing the eternal cycle of history, a cycle of declines and regenerations. Through his depiction of a world descending into chaos and barbarism, his poem is thought to comment on the disasters of WWI and the desperate conditions in his homeland, Ireland.

4.) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) 

This classic novel depicts the emptiness concealed by the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties. Amidst affairs, raucous parties, and multiple murders, Fitzgerald’s novel explores themes of decadence, idealism, and social upheaval through the new-money Jay Gatsby, the unhappily married Daisy Buchanan, and the narrator, Nick Carraway. 

5.)  Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) 

This groundbreaking novel, written in a stream-of-consciousness style, follows Clarissa Dalloway through the course of one day as she prepares for a party she will host that evening. The narrative recounts Mrs. Dalloway’s every thought and recollection, providing a full picture of her life and relationships as she remembers them. The novel explores themes of mental illness, bisexuality, and gender constraints, and a general search for meaning.

6.) “A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner (1930)

Faulkner’s short story narrates the life of Miss Emily Grierson, a woman from an aristocratic Southern family. She is revered by the townspeople; though following the death of her father, she suffers a mental breakdown and retreats to her house. She takes an interest in a laborer, Homer Barron, and many years later when she dies, his skeleton is found in her bed. Faulkner’s subversion of social expectations and hierarchy in this story is classically modernist.

7.) “Love is not all (Sonnet XXX)” by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1931)

Edna St. Vincent Millay liked to combine modernist attitudes with traditional forms, as she did in this poem, which uses a traditional sonnet form. In this poem, she contemplates all the things love cannot do for us and ponders why we still seek it so desperately. At the end, she considers selling or trading her own love away for the things it cannot give her, an example of her ability to portray new images of femininity and female desires. 

8.) “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway (1933)

In his distinctive and influential minimalist style, Hemingway writes in this short story about two waiters in a Spanish cafe who are waiting for their last customer, an old man, to leave. The old man had previously attempted suicide, which strikes a chord with one of the waiters, who realizes he needs the company of others and the well-lit cafe to cope with his own loneliness. This story explores the modernist theme of searching for meaning in an irrational world.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series to learn more about the literary movements that preceded and followed modernism!