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    Modernism in British and Irish literature Essay

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    The modernist period in British and Irish literature was one of the most important and exciting times in literary history. The term modernist stemmed from the beginning of the 20th century labelled the modern period. The modern period was a time of confusion and transitions, mostly due to the result of people returning from World War I. The modern period was an era of massive unemployment and technological changes. Freud, Jung, and Marx were redefining human identity, Assembly lines and factories were being introduced, and gender differences were starting to crumble. The modern period was a time of change, and the field of Literature was no exception. Susan Gorsky, in her book titled Virginia Woolf, states that ” Virginia Woolf perhaps spoke for the writers coming of age around WWI:” ” We are sharply cut off from our predecessors. A shift in the scale – the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages has shaken the fabric from top to bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly conscious of the present.” (Virginia Woolf, 280). The continuous change in life and the constant “shift in the scale” forced writers to take a new approach to literature, creating some of the most read work of the twentieth century.

    Modernist authors of the twentieth century reinvented literature. Instead of placing the main focus of storytelling on the story itself, they went one step further and based their novels on the concepts of truth, and the understanding of self. They explored the ideas of consciousness, alienation, and inner conflict within the mind, and asked important questions of the reader while testing the boundaries of the soul. Susan Gorsky, perfectly defines literary modernism, in her book Virginia Woolf “In striving to present the rapid and often disturbing changes in their world, the writers of this era felt it essential to reform their means of expression. Poetry, Drama, and fiction were subjected to intensive scrutiny and extensive redefinition, producing some of the most unusual and often difficult literary creations in English: Eliot’s Wasteland, Yeat’s Plays for Dancers, and the fiction of Joyce and Lawrence is some examples. Modernist literature reflects in it’s structure as well as in it’s content the overturning of tradition; the instances upon new design produced plays and stories without plots or recognizably human characters, poems without rhyme or meter”(16, 17). The Modernist author was able to identify with their audience by creating stories that not only asked important questions, but also got under the reader’s skin. In George Orwell’s essay titled Inside the Whale, he addresses the fact that James Joyce’s Ulysses is remarkable due to the fact of its “commonplaceness of its material.” (Inside The Whale and Other Essays, 11). The reader is able to put themselves in the characters shoes, the characters are very three dimensional, and like modern life their stories are not so much like a fairy tales, as they are of everyday life. The character Joyce creates in Ulysses enters many different states of consciousness, dream states, drunkenness…. demonstrating the ability modern literature has in relating the ideas of consciousness, in a way that the reader would be able to identify with. Orwell goes further to say that Ulysses was filled with a “Whole world of stuff which you supposed to be of it’s nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives.”(12) Joyce, like many authors of his time experimented with new forms of style, and In Writing Ulysses Joyce modernized Homer’s classic the Odyssey. The Modernist took the old and “made new”.

    The Glossary of Literary terms 5th edition by M.H Abrams, defines modernism as ” The term that is often used to identify what are considered to be distinctive features in the concepts, sense of form, and style of literature and art since World War I (1914-1918). The specific features signified by “modernism” vary with the user, but most critics agree it involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional base of western culture and of Western art.” (Glossary of Literary Terms, 108). Modernist writers of the early twentieth century wanted to break away from tradition and “make new”. In the this time of radical change, people felt no ties with the writings of the past, and although it is important to keep tradition, and though many important modernist authors, and critics (such as T.S. Eliot, or Harold Bloom) viewed tradition as an essential part of any literature, most authors wanted to free themselves from the constraints of past writers and traditional literature. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of Gig-Lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi- transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. (Virginia Woolf, 34). Virginia Woolf felt that a writer was bound to tradition and was a “Slave” to convention, when really all she wanted to do was write for the sake of writing not for the sake of the story itself. Woolf and some of her contemporaries felt that an artist should write for the sake of art, not for the sake of the story. She felt that the modernists needed to break away from the convention of the “accepted style” and write only for the sake of art.

    In his essay Inside the Whale, George Orwell argues the idea of writing art for art’s sake. When discussing the modernists Orwell points out that “what is noticeable about all these writers is what “purpose” they have is very much in the air. There is no attention to the urgent problems of the moment, above all no politics in the narrower sense…. When one looks back at the twenties, nothing is queerer then the way which every important event in Europe escaped the notice of English intelligentsia…. Literature was supposed to consist solely in the manipulation of words. To judge a book by its subject matter was an unforgivable sin, and even to be aware of its subject matter was looked on as a lapse of taste.” (Inside The Whale 27-28). This was very interesting to read due to the fact that most of the subject matter of the modernist theories dealt mainly with the idea of alienation and the inner self. Many of the modern writers overlooked writing about world events, as their stories were for the sake of art and art alone. Susan Gorsky’s in her book Virginia Woolf, points out that Woolf once argued in an essay entitled The Narrow Bridge Of Art “That art no longer serves the modern writers as it has their predecessors, because “the mind us full of monstrous, hybrid, unimaginable emotions. That the age of the earth is 3,000,000,000 years; that the human life lasts a second; that the capacity of the human mind is nevertheless boundless; that life is infinitely beautiful yet repulsive, that one’s fellow creatures are adorable but disgusting; that science and religion have between them destroyed belief; it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create.”(Virginia Woolf, 31). The nature of life and death, man versus nature and alienation, occupied the minds of the modernist writers, and the purpose of the modernist literature seemed to be that though “art never improves” (Virginia Woolf) it is always changing. The modernist period proved that literature had been stagnant for too long, and the purpose of the literary modernist “movement” was to inspire, and create, to make new.

    The world of modernism is still an exciting world to visit, even today. Though some of the ideas no longer seem new to us, one must imagine what it must have been like to live in a world of so much change and creation. To imagine what it would have been like to read a literary work of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S Eliot, or Virginia Woolf, for the first time, and honestly say you had never in your life read anything remotely similar, as. Writers alike stepped away from traditional values, and radically changed the rules of perception, and literature, as we now know it. Without the modernist period, many of the great authors, painters, and musicians of the world today may not have been inspired, and life as a whole would have suffered. Modernism is a very important, not only in the history of Literature, but in humanity itself.

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