Modernist Short Stories: Characteristics, Writers & Examples

Instructor: Sarah Bostock
This lesson explores literary modernism during the early 20th century. What influenced the writings of this time? What are the common elements? What are some examples of modernistic short stories? Read ahead to learn more.

Literary Modernism

In the early 20th century, the world was reeling from World War I, but this was also a time when Einstein's theory of relativity introduced the idea that time and motion are relative to the observer. It was around this time that Freud explored the world within the human mind and put forth the notion that unconscious motives can shape conscious awareness.

And this was also the time of Literary Modernism, a movement in the early 20th century when the subconscious monologue of the characters is introduced to the readers. For example, in the ''Odour of Chrysanthemums'', author D.H. Lawrence takes us through the mind of the miner's wife whose husband lay dead as she thinks about how separated they were through their married life: ''The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her--it was so infinite a gap she must look across.''

Modernism and The Stream of Consciousness

Many stories in this movement exhibit the stream of consciousness narrative technique, where abstract thoughts that pass through the mind of a character is expressed in vivid detail. For example, in ''The Garden Party'', by Katherine Mansfield, the narrator thinks:

''There lay a young man, fast asleep - sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream…''

Another example is evident in ''The Mark on the Wall'' by Virginia Woolf. The narrator starts with thinking about what the mark on the wall is and this thought leads into contemplation about life in general: ''I might get up, but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn't be able to say for certain; because once a thing's done, no one ever knows how it happened''.

This leads to thoughts about the ''mystery of life...shot out at the feet of God entirely naked!...With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waster and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard…''

Let us review a few more of the short stories from the modernistic period of literature.

Epiphany in Modernism

An epiphany is an insight or self-realization that a person has that brings them to a new understanding of life and their own self. In James Joyce's story ''The Dead'', Gabriel Conroy experiences an epiphany after attending a dull birthday party that seems to symbolize his existence that he sees as mediocre and pointless.

In modernistic literature, the characters experiences epiphany or self-realization about their life

After learning for the very first time of his wife's lover who died at seventeen, and who she was very much in love with, he ponders life and how there are many ''dead'' people in everyone's lives. Everyone including himself, will be just a memory someday. This experience is summarized in the words: ''His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead…His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world….''

First World War and Modernism

The first world war had a deep effect on the world and the story writers who lived in that generation turned to the inner self. There was a movement away from conventions of materialism and a decadent western civilization. Themes about questioning life, isolation in life, loneliness and death were common.

Modernist stories also reflect changing gender roles. In World War I, women joined the workforce, taking over traditional roles of men at home in their absence.

Society was getting used to changing roles as reflected in the following description from the D.H. Lawrence short story ''Tickets Please'': ''This, the most dangerous tram-service in England, as the authorities themselves declare, with pride, is entirely conducted by girls, and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or by delicate young men, who creep forward in terror. The girls are fearless young hussies.''

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