The Modern and Postmodern Periods

 First, it is worth acknowledging that there is
considerable debate over which literary works the
terms “modern” and “postmodern” should apply
to, or even what exactly those terms mean.
 It is possible, however, to provide the most
commonly accepted definitions of “modern” and
“postmodern” so that you can begin to understand
and use these terms on your own.
Modern Literature
 The term “modern literature” is most frequently
applied to the novels, poems, and dramas of the earlyto-mid 20th century.
 This is the literature written immediately before,
during, and following the first and second world wars.
Modern Literature
 Modern writers’ work was often highly charged by
the politics of global expansionism, mass
industrialization, and both the positive and
negative aspects of modern technology.
 It also tends to be less realistic than literature of
the Victorian Period. Instead, many modern
writers used symbolism and imagery to explore,
and often to try to explain, their world.
 One of the key themes of many modern literary works is
“disillusionment,” particularly in the works written following
World War I (1914-1918).
 Sometimes referred to as the “the lost generation,” writers of the
20’s and 30’s explored the gap between the early promise of
technological and social advancement (i.e.– Utopia) and the harsh
realities of modern life (i.e.—world wars, mass death, etc.)
 The cynicism of the lost generation was, for many, validated by the
horrors of World War II (1939-1945), which included the holocaust,
air bombings that decimated London, Dresden, and Tokyo, and the
eventual atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Losses and Gains
 The modern period saw an end to British Imperial
dominance. Losses in the early part of the 20th century
 Irish independence from Britain
 Colonial rebellions in Asia and Africa
 The destruction of London by the “Blitzkrieg”
 In perhaps its most important victory, however, the British,
under the leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill,
and along with allies like the United States, were able to
defeat Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II.
Emerging Media
 The advent of motion pictures and radio in the late
1800’s, and television in the mid 1900’s, had an
immediate impact on all types of literature.
 Many “literary” artists, who considered their work
more important than pop-art, continued to eschew
realism and verisimilitude for more symbolic,
representational forms.
Realistic vs. Abstract Art
 Just as these two portraits demonstrate the difference between the
realistic and the abstract, so many written works can be said to
either embrace a realistic, or a more symbolic depiction of life.
Woman with a Pearl by Jean Baptiste Camille
Dora Maar au Chat by Pablo Picasso
 If modernism was a literary movement that
pursued explanations, postmodernism is a
movement that rejects the entire notion that
explanations are possible.
 Modernism: why do we suffer?
 Postmodernism: what’s the point of asking?
 Postmodernism exists as response to modernism,
often parodying or satirizing the principal
characteristics of modern literature.
 Many postmodern works rely heavily on the
reader’s familiarity with the conventions of
modern literature, because their originality stems
from the artists’ willingness to turn convention on
its ear.
 Some conventions altered or even totally ignored
by postmodernists include:
 The need for a coherent and logical plot
 The need for a single, reliable narrative voice
More Characteristics of
 Illogical or nonsensical leaps in time and place
 The mixing of various genres
 Black humor
 Self-referential humor
The Dividing Line
 Some critics argue that postmodernism starts as early
as the 20’s, but there is little doubt that by the late 50’s
and early 60’s, many writers were working in the
postmodern style.
Contemporary Literature: Where
Are We Now?
 As we move closer to our own time, it is difficult to
say what literature will survive and continue to be
read in the future, and what will be forgotten.
 In the future, what books of our era will be
considered the most important and influential?
 Will it be the work of popular writers, like Stephen
King and J.K. Rowling? Or the work of some little
known author, unappreciated in his/her own
lifetime, but discovered by future generations?
One Thing is Certain:
 There are some writers of the last 100 years that are, at
least at present, considered masters of language, and
whose work is widely regarded as the best of the
modern era.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
 The author of haunting
symbolic poems like
“The Second Coming,”
and “Sailing to
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
 The most famous
English poet of the
early 20th century, he
is best known for his
bleak, despairing
world view in poems
like “Preludes,” “The
Hollow Men,” and
“The Waste Lands.”
George Orwell (1903-1950)
 A political novelist (real name:
Erik Blair) best known for
coining the phrase “big brother”
when describing the oppressive,
totalitarian government in his
most famous work, Nineteen
Eighty-Four, and for attacking
the oppressive communist
government of Russia years
before the outbreak of the cold
war in Animal Farm.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
 A writer whose “stream of
consciousness” novels (in
which the narrative shifts
and turns, often at
random, with the shifting
thoughts of the
protagonist) such as Mrs.
Dalloway and To the
Lighthouse are a precursor
to experimental
Other Notables Include
 Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness)
 James Joyce (Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a
Young Man)
 D.H. Lawrence (“The Rocking Horse Winner”)
 Graham Greene (“A Shocking Incident”)
 William Golding (Lord of the Flies)
The British Tradition
 From the earliest poems, like Beowulf and The
Canterbury Tales, to the most recent popular novel
series like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of
Narnia, and Harry Potter, British literature continues
to be among the finest produced around the globe.