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Modernism In Literature : Characteristics & Examples

modernism in literature

Given that the 20th century was the one closest to the beginning of a new millennium, it began with both immense optimism and some trepidation. Many believed that the beginning of a new age for humanity. From the end of the nineteenth century to about the middle of the twentieth, there was an artistic era known as the modern period, which included a number of emerging writing styles that influenced the growth of literature.

Authors had greater flexibility to experiment with their forms of expression thanks to literary modernism than in the past. Modernist works usually feature free-flowing interior monologues and non-linear plots that emphasize the experiences and sentiments of the character. W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and T.S. Eliot are among the authors of contemporary literature.

Definition of Modernism in Literature

Modernism's definition in literature refers to the writers' act of defiance against social conventions. They objected to continuing to follow the rules. Instead, they looked for novel means of communicating their views and themselves. They believed that the rapid social change and the new generation that sprang from it could not be accurately captured in the traditional forms of writing.

Individualism, experimentation, and absurdity are the movement's three defining traits. In addition, it exhibits formalism and symbolism.

The 20th century marks the start of the modern age in English literature, which lasted until 1965. During this time, people abruptly stopped connecting with the world in the old ways.

With the advent of modernism, there were numerous cultural shocks. World Wars 1 and 2 dealt the modern era its greatest blow. Both of these conflicts lasted from 1939 to 1945, starting in 1914 and ending in 1919, respectively. Everyone suffered greatly in the years following the two world wars. Every civilian could clearly see the carnage of World War 1. Nobody knew where the world was going, and there was a general sense of uneasiness.

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What Is Modernism In Literature?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "modernism" as a practice specific to the modern age that entails looking for novel ways to express oneself. Modernism was a literary, artistic, philosophical, and cinematic movement.

The same dictionary also defines modernism in literature as a purposeful rupture with the past and a search for fresh means of self-expression. But Ezra Pound's catchphrase "Make it new" perfectly captures its essence.

Individualism, experimentation, and absurdity are the movement's three defining traits. In addition, it exhibits formalism and symbolism.

What about the literary modernism movement's background? The movement, which had its origins in Europe with Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, and Robert Musil as early modernists, was spurred on by urbanization and the Industrial Revolution. The atrocities of World War I, which upended many modernists' preconceived conceptions about society, had a significant impact as well.

It was affected by Prohibition and the Great Depression in addition to the Industrial Revolution, and it was fueled by a sense of disappointment and loss. Popular American modernists include T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and William Faulkner.

Characteristics of Modernism in Literature

After discussing the modernist genre classification, let's look more deeply at why some works are categorized as modernist. What distinguishes modernist works from similar ones, in other words?

The core characteristics of modernism in literature hold the key to unlocking the solution. Below we have outlined the top five of them:

  • Individualism
  • Experimentation
  • Absurdity
  • Symbolism
  • Formalism

A brief description of every modernism literature characteristics is provided below.

  • Individualism

The individual is more intriguing than society in modernist literature. Modernist authors were particularly intrigued by how people adjusted to a changing environment.

The world or civilization was portrayed by authors as a threat to the morality of their characters. Characters created by Ernest Hemingway who accepted their surroundings as they were and persisted in their actions are particularly cherished.

  • Experimentation

Modernist authors rebelled against conventional methods and styles. Poets stopped using conventional rhyme schemes and switched to free verse. Writers combined historical imagery with contemporary themes and languages to create a stylistic collage.

Modernists often discussed the inner workings of consciousness. This obsession gave rise to a style of narration known as stream of consciousness, in which the novel's point of view wanders in a manner approximating human cognition. The experimental Modernist writings of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others are well known.

  • Absurdity

The devastation of the two World Wars had a significant impact on writers of the time. Many notable English poets perished or were injured during World War One. Global capitalism was simultaneously remaking society on all levels. For many authors, the absurdity of the world was increasing daily. In the bustle of daily existence, the mystique of life was being lost.

This absurdity was portrayed by modernist writers in their works. Modern absurdism can be seen in Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," in which a traveling salesman is changed into an insect-like creature.

  • Symbolism

The authors of the Modernist movement gave things, people, places, and events deep significance. They created a multi-layered, often secretive, or code-like reality in their minds. The notion that a poem is a puzzle that must be solved has its roots in the Modernist era.

Compared to earlier authors, they allowed far more to the reader's imagination, creating open-ended stories with numerous possible interpretations. For instance, each chapter of James Joyce's "Ulysses" contains unique, open-ended symbols.

  • Formalism

Modernist authors viewed literature more as a craft than as a creative peak. Instead of the intrinsic, organic process that earlier generations had portrayed, they thought that poems and novels were composed of smaller pieces.

Foreign languages, extensive vocabularies, and invented terms are frequently used in modernist poetry. E.E. Cummings, a poet, completely abandoned structure and smeared his thoughts all over the paper.

Key Themes of Modernist Literature

Modernist literature explored a variety of themes that may most effectively represent the author's perspective on the world around them as a rebellious gesture against established conventions of the craft.

It would be hard to include them all here due to their diversity. The modernist elements vary in prominence, nevertheless, from some to others. Four of them are listed below, along with illustrations.

  • Transformation

The idea of metamorphosis is practically inextricable from modernism. The movement is founded on the concept of radical change, whether it is the modification of form, expression, or standard. Start with Ezra Pound's manifesto, Make It New, to see this theme in action.

Transformation as a theme also refers to a symbolic rebirth, a shift in values and identities. This component of the theme was fueled by loss, destruction, and the authors' personal experiences with war, which led to fragmentation.

Franz Kafka's absurdist novel The Metamorphosis has examples of change as a topic. Regarding modernism in American literature, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and William Faulkner's Barn Burning both have this theme.

  • Mythological Tales

Modernist authors and painters did not just allude to Greek-Latin and other mythologies, unlike their predecessors. Instead, they retold those stories in the context of the contemporary world. Mythological stories and characters are used as symbols or as plot-relevant characters to characterize modernism in literature.

S. Eliot's The Waste Land is one of the best works from the modernist era in terms of myth instances. T. S. Eliot utilizes Tarot cards and the Holy Grail as symbols in this poem to reinterpret the Fisher King stories. Additionally, T. S. Eliot included Latin and Greek words to deepen the poem's meaning.

Ulysses by James Joyce has references to Homer's Odysseus and Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O'Neill, which are two more examples of myths in modernist literature.

  • Loss, Separation, and Destruction

The harsh realities of war are mostly to blame for the rise of this theme in modern-period literature. Many authors lived through these events, which were laced with grief, separation, and destruction. Therefore, the works created in the years following the war reflected these experiences.

Separation, loss, and destruction were also universal events that many people shared at the same time and had similar effects on them. Because of this, readers generally favored modernist literature.

Virginia Woolf, a British author and a leader of modernism in English literature, has several instances of this theme in her writings. The best representations of these subjects in American literature can be found in T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.

  • Love and Sensuality

Individualism, one of the traits of modernism, drove the literary themes of sensualism and love throughout this time. However, these concepts were rather cynically or, others could say, realistically reinvented, so they did not escape disappointment and demystification. Love isn't characterized in modernist literature as a mystical emotion capable of moving mountains. The tone of love stories instead becomes grimmer and more fatalistic, which adds to the evidence that society is eroding.

Modernist works were characterized by conversations and reflections on sexuality, gender roles, and feminism in addition to love and sensuality. D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf are a few well-known writers in this field.

Read and consider Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby for literary examples of love and sensuality modernism. Another excellent example is Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, which explores the issue from the perspectives of emancipation and gender equality.

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50 Essay/Research Paper Topics on 'Modernism in Literature

The period of Modernism sparked a series of events that changed the mindset of the entire world of Literature.

So, its importance cannot be denied. 

Respective literature students frequently get assignments (essays and research papers) on Modernism in Literature. 

While writing a research paper or descriptive essay on Modernism in Literature always promises to be an enlightening experience, students often struggle to come up with suitable topics for their writing assignments.

Of course, that changes right here. The below section indexes a variety of research topics on the Modernism period! So pay attention to them.

Prominent Modernist Authors and Their Works

Check out the writings of the ten authors and poets to get your hunt for the topic going! These authors are among the most well-known modernists who developed the movement's qualities and experimented with its key tenets.

James Joyce and "Ulysses"


James Joyce (1882–1941), was an Irish poet and writer. He belonged to the generation of artists that experimented with many means of expression. His writing style was meticulous, filled with internal monologues, and disregarded conventional plot and character techniques. Ulysses is written by James Joyce.

It is widely considered a masterwork, stylistically complex, and exciting. Numerous volumes of discussion and analysis have been written about it. The Odyssey, an ancient poem by Homer, is retold in Joyce's novel about the Greek hero Odysseus' homecoming from the Trojan Wars. Odysseus' journey took 10 years, but Joyce condenses it to one day in Dublin on June 16, 1904.

Since his school days, Joyce had been drawn to the myth of Odysseus, or Ulysses, as the Romans named him. Joyce structured Ulysses around eighteen episodes, each of which is designed to resemble a scene from Homer's epic. Joyce had a remarkable eye for detail.

Virginia Woolf and "To the Lighthouse"

To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), a pioneer of modernism in English literature, and her body of work helped to define the movement. She was among the pioneers in employing the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique to show the nuanced interior lives of her characters.

Woolf incorporated feminism into her writing as well. Simone de Beauvoir was one of the three female authors of the time to examine "the given." Her work also heavily incorporates other historical topics from the era, such as the war, destruction, and the influence of social class.

Virginia Woolf's book “To the Lighthouse” was released in 1927. This piece is one of her more successful and approachable attempts at the stream-of-consciousness literary form.

The three parts of the book, which take place between 1910 and 1920, center on various Ramsay family members who are visiting their Scottish island vacation home on the Isle of Skye. The struggle between the universe's dominant male and feminine forces is a major theme in the book.

S. Eliot and "The Waste Land"

S. Eliot and "The Waste Land"

T.S. Eliot, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, is renowned for his work as a poet, literary critic, playwright, editor, and publisher. One of the most well-known examples of literary modernism is T S Eliot's lengthy poem The Waste Land, published in 1922.

Eliot paints a gloomy image of the landscape of the modern world and its history in the poem's five sections, "The Burial of the Dead," "A Game of Chess," "The Fire Sermon," "Death by Water," and "What the Thunder Said." The "old man with wrinkled dugs," in his words, is "the most important personage." Greek mythology's hermaphrodite character Tiresias is blind but has precognitive powers.

The poem was started by Eliot in 1914, but it wasn't finished until a breakdown brought on by the death of his father in 1919. It is usually interpreted as a critique of the hopelessness of post-war European history. The ubiquitous metaphor of dryness is typically interpreted as signifying spiritual emptiness.

Franz Kafka and "The Metamorphosis"

Franz Kafka and "The Metamorphosis"


Franz Kafka (1883–1924), an Austrian–Hungarian writer, is one of the most well-known modernist authors in the German-speaking world. In his writings, Kafka addressed the concepts of metamorphosis, existentialism, and alienation.

The German-language short story "The Metamorphosis" was written by Franz Kafka (1883–1924), a Czech author who was born in Germany. It was first published in German in 1915, and the first English translation appeared in 1933. It is his best-known shorter work. There have been many different interpretations of "The Metamorphosis," therefore it would be worthwhile to delve more into this captivating tale.

Gregor's main priority is his family rather than screaming or doubting his own sanity. This is the strength of his character rather than a flaw. In everything, Gregor puts his family first. His commitment to his family is shown as the narrative develops and the reader learns more about Gregor's life from his perspective.

Scott Fitzgerald and "The Great Gatsby"

The Great Gatsby

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was an American novelist and short story writer whose works have been compared to the Jazz Age, a time period he is said to have invented. He is regarded as one of the best authors of the 20th century. Fitzgerald belonged to the "Lost Generation," a group of Americans who were born in the 1890s and came of age during World War I. He produced a large number of short stories that explore themes of youth, sadness, and aging while also finishing four novels and abandoning a fifth. His wife was Zelda Fitzgerald.

The third book written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, was released by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1925. The novel, which is set in Jazz Age New York, chronicles the tragic tale of self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby and his pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, a rich young woman whom he once loved. Despite being a failure upon release, the book is today regarded as a classic of American literature and is sometimes referred to as the Great American Novel.

Gertrude Stein and “Tender Buttons”

Tender Buttons

One of the most significant American modernist writers is Gertrude Stein (1874–1966), who is frequently referred to as the "mother of modernism." Stein worked with stream of memory and other storytelling elements, similar to the other two authors on this list. Her writing, on the other hand, might be characterized as unique and playful.

One of the very first novels to examine a coming-out story was Stein's debut book, Q.E.D.Q.E.D. (1903). Being a lesbian herself, Stein made an unusual choice for the era by focusing on sexuality in several of her works, such as Fern Hurst (1904).

The collection of poetry Tender Buttons (1914), which captures the monotony of everyday life, is Stein's best-known work as a poet. In the book, Stein tries out different sounds and word fragments to try and paint the reader a picture.

The Making of Americans (1902–1911) and Three Lives (1905–1906) are two of Stein's most well-known prose novels.

William Faulkner and “The Sound and the Fury”

The Sound and the Fury

If you're seeking literary works that explore symbolism and different viewpoints as examples of modernism, go no further. American novelist and short story writer William Faulkner (1897–1962) is one of the renowned modernist writers who concentrated on these issues.

Faulkner, a Nobel laureate and native of Mississippi, is well-known for his works of Southern Gothic literature set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Along with symbolism and many perspectives, Faulkner also experimented with the unreliable narrator and nonlinear narrative techniques.

The Sound and the Fury (1929), The Wild Palms (1939), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932) are some of Faulkner's best-known books. Between 1932 and 1954, he also had a screenwriting career in Hollywood. He wrote the screenplays for movies including Flesh (1932), The Big Sleep (1946) and To Have and Have Not (1944) at that time.

Ezra Pound and “Make It New”

Make It New

Ezra Pound (1885–1972), an American poet who lived abroad, is one of the most well-known representatives of modernism in the 20th century. He was unmatched in his use of references and free-verse poetry throughout his body of work.

Pound was one of the first poets to use imagism, which he did masterfully in his writings. His poetry is enlivened and compelling for the reader's imagination because of this.

The modernist movement's manifesto, Make It New (1934), by Ezra Pound, has already been mentioned a number of times. That, however, is not what defines Pound's literary legacy. Read the Cantos (c. 1917–1962), an 800-page epic poem, In a Station of the Metro (1913), or The Return (1917) to explore more into it.

E. Cummings and “1 × 1”

Cummings and “1 × 1”


One of the most prolific American poets and writers of modern-period literature was E. E. Cummings (1894–1962). He produced almost 2,900 poetries during his career, along with four plays and two autobiographical novels.

The best way to describe Cummings' poetic approach is as eccentric. The poet ignored more than just the accepted rules of rhyme and rhythm. He even went so far as to disregard the grammar, punctuation, and spelling norms. His poetry frequently conveys themselves through the use of lowercase letters.

We advise you to start with [I Carry Your Heart with Me (I Carry it in)] (1952) and [may I Feel Said He] (1935) if you wish to become familiar with E. E. Cummings' best works. Both of his poetry collections, 1 1 (1944) and No Thanks (1935) are well worth reading and serve as excellent introductions to the poet's distinctive style.

Ernest Hemingway and “The Sun Also Rises”

The Sun Also Rises


Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) was an American novelist and short story writer who is regarded as one of the most significant figures in both the modernist movement and American literature as a whole. He is well known for his distinctive prose. There aren't many evocative words in the text, making it economical, clear, and matter-of-fact.

Hemingway witnessed the horrors of war firsthand after working as a journalist on the front lines for years. As a result, he wrote about topics like war, love, destruction, loss, and disillusionment in his works.

Six collections of short stories and seven novels make up Hemingway's literary output. His most well-known works were The Sun Also Rises (1926) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), both of which were inspired by his experiences during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Modernism Essay Example

You are welcome to use this brief essay example as a manual for how to create a well-written essay on this literary trend. Additionally, our writers and editors are eager to hear from you if you'd want to hire them to edit or write a superior modernism essay for you.

“Modernism and the Disapproval with Ornament”

Long and impassioned discussions about the examples of modernism in literature and the future of decoration erupted in the lives of decorative arts theorists and practitioners. It was done in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. These discussions resulted in the conclusion that ornament had no future. Or is that the case? America and Europe in the 19th century have the key to the solution. A lot changed throughout this time, not only in the fields of science and technology but also in the study of human communities. The world was inundated…

Modernist Poetry

Modern poetry deviates from conventional poetic forms and subjects, and it captures the spirit and culture of the 20th century. It began as poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats, Edward Arlington Robinson, and others started to doubt everything they had ever learned about life in the years following World War I. They observed that the world had radically altered, shifting from an agrarian and rural to an urban and industrial one.

The Modernists saw this shift as a chance to redefine language in order to convey this brand-new reality. They intended their poetry to capture all facets of life, even the unpleasant or ugly ones. Their poetry attempted to convey what it was like to live through such turbulent times.

The Legacy and Impact of Modernism

No specific incident or item had an impact on the modernist movement. In its brief history, modernism was a cultural movement that included a wide range of artistic forms.

The personal voice, fragmentation and dislocation, emotional numbness and detachment from society, alienation, and the use of sarcasm are traits that can be found in all modernist literature despite these distinctions.

Beginning in the late 1800s, modernism had a significant impact on society. It was a cultural movement that changed the course of history. It involves artists rejecting conventional wisdom and embracing fresh approaches to meaning-making.

Here are a few examples of how modernism altered our world:

  • The Arts: Abstractionism was emphasized in modern art, and new forms of sculpture, painting, and poetry also evolved.
  • Technology: With inventions like the vehicle, airplane, radio, and television, the 20th century saw a remarkable increase in technology.
  • Worldviews: Modernists had doubts about conventional notions of culture since they held the concept that reality was not set in stone and could be altered.
  • Society: Modernists disapproved of antiquated systems of tyranny, such as marriage and religious institutions.
  • Gender positions: Women's positions in society substantially increased, with many of them taking on traditionally male roles.


Modernist literature generally reveals the perspectives of various poets and writers of literature. Modernist writers' writings will be more realistic and will depict the many lifestyles and social cultures of individuals. You should study extensively or get guidance from any English literature assignment helpers if you want to learn more about the present age in English literature. Don't be afraid to seek assistance if you need USA Essay Help or if you have any questions about your assignments. Our writers are accessible around the clock to provide all students with low-cost assistance with their English literature assignments.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Modernism Literature


FAQs Related to Modernism In Literature

What is Modernism in literature? arrow

Modernism in literature is a literary movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is characterized by a break from traditional writing styles and a focus on experimentation, fragmented narratives, and a sense of disillusionment.

Who are some key authors associated with Modernism? arrow

Prominent authors of Modernism include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner, among others.

How did World War I influence Modernist literature? arrow

World War I had a profound impact on Modernist literature, as it shattered many traditional beliefs and values. Authors often used the war as a backdrop to explore themes of alienation, disillusionment, and the breakdown of society.

What are some common themes in Modernist literature? arrow

Common themes in Modernist literature include individualism, existentialism, the loss of faith in traditional institutions, and the search for meaning in a chaotic world.

What literary techniques are frequently used in Modernist writing? arrow

Modernist writers often employ stream-of-consciousness narration, nonlinear storytelling, symbolism, and allusions to other works of literature or art.

How did Modernist literature challenge conventional narrative structures? arrow

Modernist literature frequently abandoned linear storytelling in favor of fragmented narratives that could be nonlinear, non-chronological, or presented from multiple perspectives. This challenged readers to actively engage with the text.

Why is "Ulysses" by James Joyce considered a landmark work of Modernist literature? arrow

"Ulysses" is celebrated for its complex narrative structure, stream-of-consciousness writing style, and its ability to capture the inner thoughts and experiences of its characters. It is often regarded as a pinnacle of Modernist experimentation.

What role did urbanization and industrialization play in Modernist literature? arrow

Urbanization and industrialization are often depicted as disorienting and dehumanizing forces in Modernist literature. Many authors explored the alienation and isolation experienced by individuals in rapidly changing urban environments.

How did Modernist literature pave the way for postmodernism? arrow

Modernist literature's emphasis on subjectivity, skepticism, and the rejection of absolute truths laid the groundwork for the postmodern literary movement that followed, which questioned even more the concept of a single, objective reality.

What is the legacy of Modernism in literature today? arrow

Modernism continues to influence contemporary literature, as authors draw from its innovative techniques and exploration of complex themes. It remains an important part of literary history, shaping the way we approach storytelling and meaning in literature.

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