|A Crash Course in Modernism & Postmodernism
Modernism, as a literary style, emerged after WWI, beginning in Europe and then progressing into American literature by the late 1920s. After the First World War many people questioned the chaos and the insanity of it all. The world’s “universal truths” and trust in authority figures began to crumble, and Modernism was a response to the destruction of these beliefs.
The modernist movement in fictional writing broke through in the U.S. with William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), which had a mixture of raving and ranting reviews. If you've read it I'm sure you know why . . . super confusing but brilliant. Faulkner went on to influence future modernist works like Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934), Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), to just name a few.
It was more than a literary movement, though. Modernism can be seen in many types of artistic expression from the period 1928-1945 in America; but this write will address Modernism in writing, so, here’s a list of the characteristics:
Fragmentation – in plot, characters, theme, images, and overall storyline. Thus, for instance, many modernist works are not in the typical linear sequence.
Loss is a huge theme in modernist works.
The “truth” is questionable, as a common theme, and thus, you cannot always trust the narrator to tell the truth, whereas in traditional literature it is the narrator’s job to make the reader understand what’s going on. Also, there may be more than one narrator, showing the diversity of truth.
The destruction of the family unit.
Characters may be given little or no physical description, and one or more characters is usually an "outcast."
Authority figures are often untrustworthy, reflecting the question of truth.
Movement away from religion.
The reversal of traditional roles (Example: women doing something typically “male” and/or vice versa. Or the changing of customary racial roles).
Ambiguous ending; such works often leave a lot of questions with the reader; they don’t tie everything up for you.
Often setting is more than just the setting (i.e. more meaning to it than just where the story takes place), or, maybe there is no setting at all.
The use of improper grammar to reflect dialect.
More sexuality and the use of intertextuality are often found.
More use of the first person narrative, reflecting the lack of universal truth, i.e. there are only individual truths.
As you can see, modernism is more complex than traditional writing, where there is usually one narrator (third person typically) whose job it is to “explain” everything to the reader. Background is just that, background. The writing is in chronological order and all loose ends are tied up for you in the end.
Postmodernism came about around the end of WWII, though not actually studied as a form until the mid 1980s. The characteristics are the same as modernism except postmodernism is more playful or celebratory regarding the world's "insanity." The idea being, okay, the world is chaotic, there are no universal truths, lets see what we can do with that. Examples of postmodern works include: Anais Nin's Under a Glass Bell (1944), William Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987).
Both modernism and postmodernism may have all or some of the above characteristics; it isn’t required that all of the traits are used in order for a piece to be classified as modernist writing. The key characteristics are usually fragmentation, loss, distrust of authority, and the lack of universal truths.
For a more detailed explaination on modernism and postmodernism, please visit Dr. Mary Klages' website at: http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/pomo.html
If you'd like to read some postmodern writing right now, here are a couple of links to two of mine:
I hope this write has been helpful. Let me know if you have questions. Also, if you write in the modern/postmodern form, or if you're about to try it for the first time, drop me a link; I'll give you a review for sure.