Continuity and Changes in English Modernist Novel


Although there were numbers of different literary era throughout decades since the first form of literature, Modernism could be seen as the most critical period of literature in terms of its contribution to present-day literature. Modernism in terms of literature was a literary movement which began from 1915, which was one of the world’s darkest periods. It is famously known as a strong break from traditional ways of writing and social norms which previous literary eras followed. Followed by the massive impact of First World War had on people, the rising of industrialization and technology acted as catalysts which triggered enormously for the formation of this new literary genre. People started to view the world differently, and also, they started to view themselves in the world. This is the reason of Modernist literatures focusing more on self-consciousness and inner self within outer world. Sigmund Freud’s study on self-consciousness could be said to have created the foundation of these thoughts to be developed. Modernist literatures intended to view the world as what we want it to be, through the act of perceiving it. Modernist literatures also involved the themes that there is no absolute truth, that everything is rather relative.

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English Modernism was developed after Romanticism, a literary movement which occurred right before Modernism. While Romanticism tended to follow the social convention, as previously mentioned, Modernist novels tend to focus more on human minds and lack of communication between people. Romanticism novels had clear beginning and endings and perception of time. On the other hand, Modernism novels did not have specific predetermined place for retrospection, as there are randomly spread out through the entire novel.

Contrast to romanticism, which often implemented third-person perspective, Modernist novels tend to implant omniscient narrator which makes the story more self-centered and self-conscious. Modernist novels adapted this perspective by using different varieties of methods. For example, Modernist novels used a lot of interior monologue, which is one of the first changes Modernism brought in writing. Plus, while Romanticism were accessible to everyone, Modernism literatures provided readers with incomprehensibility, which limited the amount of public readers to engage in reading.

There are many esteemed and famous English modernist writers. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and E.M Foster are three of many authors who contributed greatly to the foundation and further development of English modern literature. Throughout their novels, they tried to depict the lack of humanity in modernised and industrialised 20th century Britain. After the World War I, lots of people felt like their life was shattered into pieces. The de-humanised society made people to feel drained out in having any kind of decent, sincere relationship between each other, making individuals isolated and alienated from society. In ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce, the theme of alienation, paralysis, individual loneliness is well described throughout the novel by depicting the apathetic life of lower and middle-class Dubliners struggling through the paralysed environment of Ireland. Due to the dark and gloomy environment around them, people residing there also felt lonely and depressed, which shows how the surrounding environment can have such a big impact on people’s physical and mental state.

The social convention at the time period also included woman’s rights. As previously mentioned, Modernist novels strived to challenge the social norms from the earlier eras. In Virginia Woolf’s famous modernist novel ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, the author describes a day of the main character, Clarissa Dalloway. In the beginning, Clarissa viewed herself as somebody else she was not. Then she tried to escape from the social mask and then finally saw her true self at the end. This is the self-realisation through the self-observation. The novel provides numerous viewpoints, which makes it more objective, but still persuasive. She is described as a dynamic presentation instead of a mere spectator. The novel focuses on individual’s thoughts and uses the technique of stream of unconsciousness, which is one of the most important features of Modernist novels.

The Modernist literature tried to depict the society in a realistic perception. During the era which E.M. Forster’s ‘Howards End’ was based on had a class system which mere individuals could not achieve to make a change. The novel is based on the encounter of the materialistic and commercial Wilcox family and intellectual and liberal Shlegels. The victims were the impoverished Leonard, who died under the gruesome wheel of class system. The Shlegels are representatives of the challenge against the social convention and rigid class barriers. The novel depicts themes such as double standards of adultery, the vicious aspects of class system, and the limitation of well-intentioned Shlegels’ liberalism. These themes describe the modern society in a crucial but realistic way, which makes the novel more affective in conveying the context and intentions. There has to be something which explains what is actually going on, which could be novels.

Modernist novels went through various changes within, however it can be seen as one of the biggest steps towards the most realistic way to approach life. In contrast to the previous literary eras, Modernism strives to depict individual’s consciousness, loneliness, death, and alienation. Modernism provided a giant fundamental root for the present-day literature to flourish with variety of themes and it will continue to be presented in variety of ways in a broad range of literature.


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