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Overview of Literary Modernism: Authors, Context, and Style

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  • 0:39 Major Authors
  • 3:17 Why Modernism Emerged
  • 5:21 Literary Elements of Modernism
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

This video provides an introduction to the literary movement known as Modernism. Encompassing such writers as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Modernism developed out of a sense that the art forms of the late nineteenth-century were inadequate to describe the condition of Europe after World War I.

Literary Modernism

We're talking about Literary Modernism, which is a subset of a larger artistic movement called Modernism that embraces painting and music. In the literary realm, it's basically responsible for some seriously weird literature produced roughly between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. We're going to give a little introduction here and go over the who, the why and the what.

Literary Modernism: Who

There are some pretty famous names associated with Modernism. We're mainly going to talk about British Modernism and a few sort of interlopers from other countries who mostly wrote in Britain or are more associated with that part of the movement. There are some American Modernists; we're not going to touch on them right now.

Ulyssses by James Joyce is one of the most significant books to come out of Literary Modernism
James Joyces Ulysses

When you think of Literary Modernism, really the king of it is James Joyce. He's actually Irish, so right off the bat we've got one of these interlopers. His book, Ulysses, is really considered one of the most significant books that's ever been written.

Another person who's also famous and also an interloper, not really British, is T.S. Eliot. He's an American, though he actually does become a British citizen at a certain point. He's a poet and what he is most famous for is a poem called The Waste Land. He also wrote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. He has a lot of great poetry. He won the Nobel Prize. He's a pretty cool dude.

Next, we've got Virginia Woolf. Now she actually is British. She's a novelist and she writes some pretty famous things, like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. She's also interesting for having written a lot of essays about women's rights and suffrage that are pretty cool as well. Her novels are cool. Her essays are also very interesting.

Next, we've got D.H. Lawrence. He's a little different. He got in a lot of trouble for writing a book called Lady Chatterley's Lover which, as you might be able to anticipate from the title, had a lot of sex in it. That was something that was problematic for people at the time. So that's a reason right there to take a look at those books.

Next, we've got Samuel Beckett, who's another Irishman. He's most famous for a little play called Waiting for Godot, which is basically just two dudes on stage waiting for Godot. It's kind of unclear who that is; it might be God. So that's his most famous thing.

So that's an overview of the big players: Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Lawrence and Beckett. There are some subsidiary people, who maybe didn't produce as much work that's interesting, but are still big movers and shakers. Those are people like Ezra Pound; he's a poet who was good friends with T.S. Eliot for a while. Also, Gertrude Stein, she wrote these little absurd poems and she was a big mover and shaker in the movement. Same with Wyndham Lewis, he and Ezra Pound were friends. So these are people you should know as Modernists, but you probably don't need to know specific works that they produced. Just know who they are. It's kind of a good idea.

Literary Modernism: Why

Literary Modernism is seen by many as an artistic response to World War I
Literary Modernism World War I

Now we're going to talk about why these novels and poems are the way they are. It's seen by many people as a response to a lot of the destruction and disruption caused by World War I. Remember, like I said, this movement gets going right after World War I has concluded.

To give a little overview of what happened in World War I that was so upsetting, it was actually a way more destructive war than was predicted. This is because they had technology that was better than the warfare style it was designed for. So trench warfare with people shooting at each other wasn't really what was anticipated. And when it happened, it turned out that tons and tons of people died.

At the same time, you have the industrialization of weapons getting better. And the city transforms in a way that's upsetting, but also interesting, and certainly different than it was before. It's this difference that really provoked a lot of artists, including these writers, and also painters and musicians, to really think that they need a new art to make sense of this new world. It makes a certain amount of sense, right?

You've probably seen some modern art and you've probably made fun of it. It doesn't really look like anything. It's kind of abstract. It might be a picture of a woman, but she's got three faces. That's Modernism in visual form.

We have the same thing going on in Modernist Literature. It doesn't always make sense. In fact, it's a good way to test: if you're reading something and it seems to be written in contemporary, modern English, but it doesn't make any sense, chances are that you might be looking at a work of Modernist Literature. So that's a good little trick to use if you're trying to identify it.

Literary Modernism: What

So that's an overview of why and what they're getting at with some of their weird techniques, and why they get there. Now, for our last little segment, we've gone over the who and the why, and now we're going to take a look at the what. What actually is going on in these works that makes them so weird?

We're going to boil it down to four things: nonlinearity of plot or sequence of things; irony and satire (these people love making fun of stuff and that's a characteristic); voices and the idea of stream of consciousness - that's going to be really important; and also allusions - basically, shout outs to other works, like you put in a little quote from something else and you're suggesting that the reader might want to go take a look at that other thing. With these four things, we're going to go over quick examples of all of them.

Nonlinearity: basically, like I said, Modernist works don't always necessarily have plots, first of all. When they do have plots, they don't always seem to go in the way that you'd expect, like from beginning to middle to end.

This shouldn't be an unfamiliar concept to you. There are tons of movies right now or recently that have taken advantage of this. Think Pulp Fiction. You never know what's totally going on, like where things are or what's happened before. Also, think Inception and Memento.

The thing about all of these movies - first of all, they're all great movies - they all become puzzles. Part of the fun of it is trying to figure them out. With Inception, did the top keep spinning or did it not keep spinning? There are people debating it all over the Internet.

Part of the fun of the movie is that you don't know and that's true of Modernist works as well. Part of the fun of reading it, or the intent of reading it, is that you're putting together the pieces of this puzzle and trying to figure out why it's presented the way it is.

So now irony and satire play a big role because these people are always saying things halfway. Verbal irony is just saying one thing and meaning its opposite. Let's say someone's got their cat and it's crawling up your leg and they ask you how you are. If you say, 'Oh yeah, I'm fantastic,' that's verbal irony.

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