What is Modernist Literature and How Is it Different From Realism?

Updated on June 1, 2016
A young Ezra Pound in 1913 taken by Alvin Langdon.
A young Ezra Pound in 1913 taken by Alvin Langdon. | Source


The aggressively modernist author Ezra Pound made “Make it new!” his battle cry in reaction to the obsolete tradition of the past. He was a small part of a much larger process of renewal that was proliferating through the industrialised culture of western society. This renewal was punctuated by an urge to experiment, innovate and challenge the norm.

In the arts, Modernism is a lofty term. It departs from realism, but not simply as black departs from white. Much like adolescence, modernism represents the accumulation of rebellious attitude against traditional authority. This authority then was the elitist and bourgeois state of realist art or "realism," which normalised the form and content of art as purely faithful imitation of shared "true" reality.

To this, the modernist believes the contrary. He claims that reality exists solely in the mind, and he appreciates and seeks to capture the subjective nature of human being in its beautiful and vulgar entirety.

Nietzsche offered the notion in 1883 that “God is dead,” and questioned where this left human morality. He concluded that we live in a meaningless universe and are therefore truly free to explore the capabilities of human endeavour.

Narrative Form

The modern man was now capable of acting as the creator of the universe around him. This focus on creation drew the artist’s attention to the method of art. Writers began to play and experiment with narrative method and form to express a newly-envisioned form of subjective reality. The narrator could no longer be an outside voice looming over a text; his subjective mind must become engrained in the text.

Therefore many narrative tendencies and techniques arose to best represent this. Examples I will be focusing on include:

  • Impressionism
  • The unreliable narrator
  • Interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness

Impressionist masterpiece 'Starry Night' by Vincent Van Gogh
Impressionist masterpiece 'Starry Night' by Vincent Van Gogh | Source


The emerging desire to capture reality as it exists in the mind began to revolutionize a vast degree of disciplines. Visual art was revolutionized by a new Parisian painting style, Impressionism, which sought to transcribe the immediate sensations of reality, in terms of light and colour, in order to give the visual impression of a scene as it appears to the painter's mind and eye.

In 1913 The British novelist Ford Madox Ford released :On Impressionism," a manifesto of what he understood as impressionism, its application to narrative, and its attitude as underpinning the precursor to modernism: the Imagist movement . Ford believed that “the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind”. This principle is the basis for a range of specific and characteristic impressionist techniques that appear in imagist, symbolist, modern verse poetry and, as Ford writes, in many 19th century novels. These novels sought to make the narrator narrate like a real human telling his story in the way that he would recall it.

First edition of Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier'
First edition of Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier' | Source

Ford and Unreliable Narrators

This kind of narration is especially prominent in Ford's own novel "The Good Soldier," in which the flawed or arguably devious narrator Dowel would make use of inversions, postponements, reversals, skipping back and forward in time, withholding information, forgetting details, repeating himself, and summarizing other characters' speech rather than quote them. “I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way." He tells us the story of his tragic life filled with lies and deceit as filtered through his troubled, chaotic and unreliable mind. However, Dowell’s narration is unreliable, not just in that it is rambling, but because it contains fundamental logical incongruities, within which Ford conceals evidence for a kind of murder mystery reading, with Dowell, the killer, delivering his alibi with a deliberate lack of clarity under the persona of a lovable halfwit so that we overlook his inconsistencies.

Ford is, nevertheless, encouraging our scepticism and playing an ingenious game with genre expectations. If we were to interpret Dowell’s narration in the faithful Victorian realist style, which we expect of Ford, we would be non-sceptical and so we trust our narrator’s word as objective truth. However this alternative reading is possible; it is one of the fundamentals of the Modernist philosophy that the author doesn't give a text meaning, the reader’s interpretation does. In this sense, this reading, like any possible reading, has validity, and we as readers are swimming in a sea of possible interpretations.

But, like many, Ford doesn’t seek to belong to any genre, his purpose is to best project “an illusion of reality” onto his text and especially his characters. His revolutionary experiment with unreliable narrative is done in order to birth real life into his narrator. Here is where we find "Fordian" Impressionism with roots in Realism and movements of the Modernist. Ford’s approach is like climbing into the mind of a character to accurately render what impressions life has left.

A bust of the legendary Modernist writer James Joyce, displayed in Kielce, Poland.
A bust of the legendary Modernist writer James Joyce, displayed in Kielce, Poland. | Source

Example of Stream of Consciousness from Ulysses

"Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. Me sits there with his augur's rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here?" -Ulysses ('Poteus' 3.78)

Ulysses and Stream of Consciousness

If it were possible to reduce the entirety of modernism to a single philosophical paradigm, Virginia Woolf does it justly when she describes the effect of James Joyce’s masterpiece of modernist prose fiction Ulysses.

“Reveal the flickering’s of that innermost flame which flashes messages through the brain”.

Ulysses is the major modernist work, and Woolf describes it as being faithfully realistic, “at all costs,” to human psychology rather than to the material world. It sacrifices, if necessary, comprehensibility in the pursuit of transcribing the raw flowing thoughts of his characters. The effect Woolf discusses is the product of Joyce’s mastery of stream-of-consciousness writing as a form of interior monologue so close to the subjective movement of thoughts that we feel we are inside the brain of another. We watch, with exquisite detail, how the external reality shapes the mind of the characters in what they perceive, think and feel. Stream of consciousness allows us to see through the protagonist, Stephen, completely. All that he thinks and feels about his life and death is encoded in his every thought.

Joyce’s "Ulysses replaces coherent narrative with a multi-layered stream of events, sights sounds, thoughts, impressions, emotions, sensations, reflections and observations. These fall together and represent an account of what moves through the active mind consciously immersed in a single day. From this we get a unique transparent vision of the subjective character and we see into the mind of Stephen as he navigates his existence.

Joyce’s use of stream-of consciousness explores the levels of consciousness from what is merely perceived to the way this shapes an underlying thought monologue and presents itself as our opinions, feelings and experience of mind. The juxtaposing of grand narratives and everyday activities gives Ulysses its ability to crystallise and unite all of human culture and existence and insert it into the humble subjective state of one man’s mind through one day, which is arguably the overarching goal of much modernist fiction.


Modernism can be expressed as the accumulation of concepts representing the ideological revolution of the time. Among these concepts, as we have seen, are subjectivity, disillusionment, anti-tradition and the quest for true realism.

Modernism and realism, ultimately, share the same goal: to produce an “illusion of reality” (Ford, 1913). What separates the two is a shift in the understanding of reality.

Scientific, psychological and philosophical discoveries revolutionised our understanding of reality as no longer external but existing solely in the mind, and this understanding meant writers had to reproduce reality in different ways. It was now the task, not to read and transcribe external reality, but to read and translate the mind’s navigation through reality.

More Major Modernist Literary Works

Marcel Proust
In Search of Lost Time (1914-27)
Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis (1915)
T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land (1922)
D. H. Lawrence
Sons and Lovers (1913)
W. B. Yeats
Wild Swans at Coole (1917)
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (1925)
Earnest Hemmingway
The Sun Also Rises (1926)
Jorge Luis Borges
A Universal History of Infamy (1935
Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway (1925)
William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury (1929)
James Joyce
Dubliners (1914)


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      6 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      You wrote:

      "To this, the modernist believes contrary. He supposes that reality exists solely in the mind and with this he appreciates and seeks to capture the subjective nature of human being in its beautiful and vulgar entirety."


      "Nietzsche offered the notion; “God is dead” in 1883 and questioned where this left human morality."

      Modernist = Atheist

      What would happen if someone could prove there is an external reality subject to certain laws?

      In my teens I had several telepathic experiences which were verified by another person. The first experience is when my stepfather told me about a medical condition I had, but could not have had any information about it. Therefore I conclude some form of ESP exists. Every person is a form of energy and we are all connected.

      There is a conscious mind, subconscious mind (telepathic) and an over-mind. For further reading Google: Edgar Cayce or the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE).

    • starbright profile image

      Lucy Jones 

      6 years ago from Scandinavia

      Beautifully written and very, very interesting. Voted up and congrats on HOTD. Very well worth reading. Thanks for sharing.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      6 years ago from Chicago Area

      Now I kind of want to go back and read or re-read some of these! My favorite book ever is The Sound and the Fury. Thanks for a beautiful hub and congratulations on Hub of the Day!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great hub! Beautifully presented and written...

    • profile image

      devang nanavati 

      6 years ago

      the article was very useful.


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