Modernism is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression.” While this explanation does relate what modernism means, the intricacies of the term go much deeper. Modernism began around 1890 and waned around 1922. Virginia Wolf once wrote, “In or about December, 1910, human character changed.” (Hurt and Wilkie 1443). D.H. Lawrence wrote a similar statement about 1915: “It was 1915 the old world ended.” (Hurt and Wilkie 1444). The importance of the exact dates of the Modernist period are not so relevant as the fact that new ideas were implemented in the era. Ideas that had never before been approached in the world of literature suddenly began emerging in the works of many great authors. Two of the pioneer Modernist writers were Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot. The tendencies to question the incontestable beliefs embedded in all thinking and to focus on the inner self dominated. Old viewpoints were tossed aside to make way for the discovery of modern man’s personal spirituality. Two works that are considered important forbears in the Modern period are T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
One attribute of Modernist writing is Experimentation. This called for using new techniques and disregarding the old. Previous writing was often even considered “stereotyped and inadequate” (Holcombe and Torres). Modern writers thrived on originality and honesty to themselves and their tenets. They wrote of things that had never been advanced before and their subjects were far from those of the past eras. It could be observed that the Modernist writing completely contradicted its predecessors. The past was rejected with vigor and Experimentation played a key role in the new Modernist way of writing. The Modernist writers did not try to censure what they felt was the truth. Stepping outside of the box, they wrote what they perceived in their own minds to be reality. The readers in turn were given a new form of literature that was not written on the basis of beliefs that earlier had seemed indisputable. Not only were old belief systems disregarded, they were openly opposed. Even more surprising, the new thoughts were acceptable, and in turn provided an alternative route for thinking that had not formerly been considered.
Anti-Realism is another feature of Modernism. This element included the use of myth and allusion in writing. Description was a prominent feature in literature before the Modernist period; writers had set the scene using an exactness that left little room for a reader’s imagination. With Modernism emerged the allusion, which meant that only certain aspects of the setting or scene were revealed. This provided freedom for the reader to think about what the author was presenting through the text. The work was created through the inner feelings and workings of the characters and the symbols hidden in the plot and setting. The way themes and points of view were selected went against the earlier convention also. Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 opened the door to previously undiscovered value in the human unconscious. This led to a whole new emphasis of individualism in both the writer and the reader, who were given free reign to explore not only who a character was but also why characters operated as they did. Through the workings of the character’s unconscious dimensions began to surface and the entire direction of stories changed.
Modernism was also concerned with Individualism. In this regard a stream of unconsciousness writing evolved, “the use of the irrational logic of dreams and fantasies” (Hurt and Wilkie 1447). In Strindberg’s preface to A Dream Play he described stream of unconsciousness by saying,
The author has sought to reproduce the disconnected, yet apparently logical, form of the dream. Anything is possible and plausible. Time and space do not exist; the imagination, grounding itself only slightly in reality, spins and weaves new patterns, mixing memory, experience, free invention, absurdity, and improvisation. Characters divide, double, redouble, evaporate, condense, float out of each other, converge. But there is consciousness transcending all-the consciousness of the dreamer (Hurt and Wilkie 1447).
Questions posed within the work became hypothetical. It was the Modern author’s purpose to evoke thinking in not only themselves, but in society. Due to the theoretical questions posed in the works of the Modern period, a sense of open-endedness was often left at the conclusion of a piece of writing.
The use of fragmentation became customary in the Modern novel. The Modern writer presented the reader with “fragments”; the plot was often broken into portions that had to be pieced together in the mind of the reader. This went against the normal pattern of placing things side- by- side in logical order, or in “normal” juxtaposition. In Hurt and Wilkie’s Literature of the Western World, evidence of fragmentation is shown through several examples of the style in a few different Modern works. For example, The Wasteland begins to resemble a series of sonnets for a short period, but turning away from its model in blank verse, and Heart of Darkness steps away from its earnest journey into the mind and “reminds us for a moment of a boys’ adventure story” (Hurt and Wilkie 1447).
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad presented the reader with an exploration of the human mind and modern society as well as with a search for the truth. Conrad was a pioneer of many Modernist methods. He used fragmentation through his narration-within-narration technique in The Heart of Darkness. The novella opens with an unknown narrator who introduces the main storyteller, Marlow. The narrative managed successfully to display the characteristics of the modern world in London while at the same time illustrating the precise contrary to that civilization in the dated Congo. This combination of factors helped to fashion the theme of The Heart of Darkness, as well as construct Kurtz’s complex character. C.B. Cox tried to clarify his thoughts on what the title of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness signified in the book Joseph Conrad: The Modern Imagination. He hypothesized by stating,
Heart of Darkness may suggest that the wilderness has a heart, which the reader, guided by Marlow, may discover. At the center of existence we may find the secret meaning of the pilgrimage. But Heart of Darkness may also imply the real darkness is in the heart, and that we journey from the known to the unknown. We are led towards the ultimate darkness, a condition of meaninglessness which negates all civilized values (Cox 48).
Cox’s estimation proves to be an easily acceptable opinion, which can be justified through the work, but it is also the perfect example of how Heart of Darkness is a truly Modernist novel and Conrad an equally Modernist writer. Cox gives two viable examples as to what Conrad was alluding to in the title Heart of Darkness. Here-in lies the Modernist trait, and Cox gives two completely different opinions, both of which could be defended through references in the text and proved acceptable. The examples of Modernism incorporate Conrad’s obvious allusions with no specifications, an open-endedness at the novella’s conclusion, and an example of human inner exploration in Marlow’s attempt to locate the “inner darkness.”
Reference is made throughout Conrad’s story to both the mental and physical aspects of the journey his protagonist takes. A specific example of a indication Conrad gives the reader would be the haunting last words of Kurtz, where he simply says, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 64). What the author meant by the utterance is never expressly stated in the book. Conrad purposefully left only strong allusions and images for the reader to work with in order to reach the significance of Kurtz’s dying words. Marlow travels into the darkness, literally, by going into the primitive Congo, but at the same time he becomes aware of the inner darkness in people and in society. He represents the median between the two extremes: of dying with knowledge of the darkness like Kurtz, or ignoring it’s existence like the company. Marlow suffers with his awareness and feels obligated to share his story of unearthing the truth for anyone who will listen.
It has been observed that Conrad wrote himself into his character of Marlow. Both were considered storytellers and seafarers and Conrad clearly implemented several of his true life experiences in his design of Marlow. This is a very modernistic approach; by writing through an alter ego, the author can express ideas and display familiarities leading to a more well-developed character, both in his mental states and physical tasks. The use of imagery is very strong in Heart of Darkness. The main image presented is that of darkness of knowledge compared to the light of a modern society. The opening lines show this imagery:
…the sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an intermineable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in the red clusters of canvases sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in a vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest town on earth (Conrad 27).
There is an appearance of tranquility in the description offered by the narrator of the setting. Lightness lies around this “great city” London, but not to be overlooked is the foreshadowing of the malevolence to come through the darkness described in the “mournful gloom” that surrounded the city. When Marlow returns from the Congo, he refers to the “greatest city on earth” as the “sepulchral city” (Conrad 65). So, after his discovery of the darkness, his great city is suddenly something comparable to a tomb. The mythical aspect of Modern writing is also presented in The Heart of Darkness. Kurtz becomes the truth that Marlow will stop at nothing to attain. His journey into this darkness is to bring the darkness to light, and the only way to do that is to meet and understand this figure, Kurtz. Reaching his goal and meeting Kurtz was the only way for him to understand him. Finding his objective led to ultimate clarification for him: darkness did exist within the society where he must continue to function. A myth is the epitome of Conrad’s approach to the unknown, and the primitive setting is part of that myth. So, the Modernist use of myth in the novel is expanded as Marlow becomes enlightened in its darkness.
T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is another principal example of Modernist writing. Notes written by Eliot conclude this early twentieth-century poem. He felt as if, because of his use of incessant allusions to other works of literature throughout history, he should explain his references so that his readers could follow his writing. Eliot’s use of allusions is one of the strongest Modernist traits in The Waste Land, but the appearance of mythological factors and the use of bold fragmentation throughout the poem is also very apparent. The theme is another element in which Modernist traits dominate the work. Eliot also used real-life experiences in his writing, as did Conrad, giving himself a connection to the work through his allusion to personal experiences. Just as it was in Heart of Darkness the theme is elusive, because of the Modernist writer’s ability to prompt a reader to think through their allusions specifying one theme is nearly impossible. With Eliot’s The Waste Land one does not exist. One belief is that he wrote the poem in so fragmented and allusive a way, that in its essence it is simply what it was, a masterful poem that consisted of certain allusions that were immediately cut short to make room for the next. Harriet Monroe writes, “Mr. Eliot’s poem-kaleidoscopic, profuse, a rattle and rain of colors that fall somehow into place” (Monroe 20). Monroe’s review is an example of the profound respect and admiration held for Eliot’s work, but with marked confusion. Conrad Aiken also wrote on the poem, “I think we must, with reservations and no invidiousness, conclude that the poem is not, in any formal sense, coherent” (Aiken 15). In the same critique Aiken says, “We reach thus the conclusion that the poem succeeds–as it brilliantly does–by virtue of it’s incoherence, not of it’s plan; by virtue of it’s ambiguities, not of it’s explanations” (Aiken 18).
The use of the aspect of fragmentation is rampant in The Waste Land. Not only does the poet incorporate fragmentation through the English language, Eliot uses several different languages in his references to literature. Although the story is full of this disjointed form of writing, a specific example of how Eliot uses the art of fragmentation to better his structure is in Section II, “A Game of Chess”. In the beginning of the section the text is in blank verse, the most common form in the poem. As the story continues the lines become unbalanced in length and the meter is irregular. The woman voicing her fears becomes more unbalanced and irrational (like the text). They stop talking briefly to sing a song and then the structure changes again. Near the beginning of the second half of “A Game of Chess” the lines rhyme with each other and the structure is returned to some order. The conversation shifts, and although still not smooth, it’s calming down. This is an excellent example of how fragmentation can be used to improve writing.
Mythological references are also abundant in the poem. One of the obvious examples is the myth of the Fisher King and his sickness and the infertility of his lands.The myth states the curse can only be lifted when the destined Deliverer asks the magic question or performs the magic act (Brooks 63). The Fisher King is used as one of the many symbols of sexuality in the poem. Another example is Eliot’s protagonist, Tiresias. Tiresias is a figure from classic mythology who possesses the physical parts of both man and woman. He was the blind prophet in Oedipus Rex, and was believed to have journeyed to Hades and walked among the dead, a feat that meant he had experienced the worst of life and humanity. In The Waste Land both of his prior roles remain with him, he is blind and is the possessor of the knowledge of all horror. Eliot portrays him as the character that does not denounce the actions of society, but can see all facileness and emptiness of humanity. Although he can distinguish what is truly taking place, he like all Eliot’s other characters, is unable to discern the ability he possesses.
These two works of literature though very different in context, share many similarities because of there strong Modernistic qualities. In fact T.S. Eliot considered using part of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in The Waste Land. In T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays, the author, Grover Smith, tells us how Eliot was going to use Kurtz’ dying words, “The original epigraph for The Waste Land was the climatic outcry of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “`The horror!’ `The horror!'” (Smith 68). Both works contain many of the same symbols in their imagery and allusions. For example, each story contains a reference to Buddah. Eliot uses Buddah to join with St. Augustine and complete his union of the chief types of Eastern and Western simplicity. He also uses Buddah in Part III, “The Fire Sermon”; in which Buddah preaches a sermon evoking his people to give up their earthly possessions. Joseph Conrad used Buddah in the unknown narrator’s description of Marlow prior to Marlow’s tale and when following his tale. Another significant sign mentioned in both Modernist works is the Thames River. In Heart of Darkness, the story opens with the shipmates waiting for the tide to turn, they are overlooking the Thames River as they begin listening to Marlow tell his story. When Marlow completes his narrative the unnamed narrator takes back over and says, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the Earth flowed somber under an overcast sky-seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” (Conrad 72). Therefore offering an insight to belief that the waterway led to the evil, providing foreshadowing of what was to come. The river is also described in The Waste Land; it is one of the few things that Eliot was tranquil in his description of. The presence of allusions to Dante and The Inferno in Heart of Darkness can be paralleled to the more obvious stated references to Dante in the poem. Mentions of Dante’s Inferno are abundant in The Waste Land where they are not specifically mentioned in The Heart of Darkness. Symbolically Marlow is comparable to Dante and his journey through Hell. Marlow can easily become the Dante-figure and his “hell” the dark Congo. He, like Dante, was forced to live through the journey, and therefore to live with the memories and horrors of it.
Through close examination of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land Modernism can be identified through its features. These two pieces of literature embody the Modernist period, as do their creators. Conrad and Eliot showed that to understand Modernism one must understand that it is entangled with the reality of isolation and extreme disorder. Marlow, through avoiding the extremes of Kurtz and the unenlightened society is isolated from everyone because of his understanding and knowledge of the truth and his ability to live with the knowledge. Eliot delves into a world of disorder in The Waste Land by displaying characters that couldn’t see what they embodied, referring to works of literature and twisting them to develop his purpose, and his use of fragmentation. Allusion is encrusted into both works exemplifying the idea of thinking for oneself and personal interpretation of the Modernist period.
Aiken, Conrad. “An Anatomy of Melancholy”. The New Republic XXXIII (1923): 294-295. Rpt. in Studies in A Waste Land. Ed. Matthew Bruccoli and Joseph Katz. Columbus: Merrill Publishing, 1971. 13-18.
Brooks, Cleanth. “The Waste Land: Critique of the Myth”. Modern Poetry And The Tradition (1939): 136-72.
Rpt. in Studies in A Waste Land. Ed. Matthew Bruccoli and Joseph Katz. Columbus: Merrill Publishing, 1971. 37-66.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.
Cox, C.B. Joseph Conrad: The Modern Imagination. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.
Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1936.
Holcomb, John, and Patricia Torres. “Modernism in Literature”. 2002. LitLangs. 6 September 2003
Hurt, James, and Brian Wilkie. Literature of the Western World Volume II Neoclassicism Through the Modern Period. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.
Monroe, Harriet. “A Contrast”. Poetry A Magazine of Verse XXI (1923): 325-330.
Rpt. in Studies in A Waste Land. Ed. Matthew Bruccoli and Joseph Katz. Columbus: Merrill Publishing, 1971. 19-22.
Smith, Grover JR. T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1956.