Character in modernist and postmodernist literature

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Modernism is a movement begun after the disillusionment of the World War I in which men were asked to sacrifice their lives for what some felt was a rather nebulous cause.  As a result, men were disorientated and the literature reflects this as stream-of-consciousness is employed, pessimistic tones pervade the narratives, and characters have multiple personas and are given to interior monolgue. Novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises are characteristic of Modernism.  While Fitzgerald's novel epitomizes the demoralization of American society with such immoral characters as Daisy and Tom Buchanan and villainous characters like Tom Buchanan and Meyer Wolfscheim along with the amoral Jordan Baker, Hemingway's novel portrays the directionless "lost generation" of American expatriates in Europe during the post-war era.

Whereas in Modernist characters there is much disillusionment and disorentation, there is yet a desire to obtain some structure to one's existence.  In Postmodernism, a movement that rejects Moderism's unity, identity, and authority, there is plurality, differences, and skepticism.  Therefore, in Postmodernism there appear much more chaotic characters. For instance, in William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, there is a plurality to characters, or a virtual disappearance and reappearance of a character in the narrative.  Paranoia and irony and black comedy abound in Postmodernist characters. In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Yossarian is a character of many parts:  While he toys with the bureaucracy, signing his name as "Washington Irving" and questioning his commanding officers using words from the French poet Francois Villon--"ou sont les neiges d'antan"[Where are the snows of yesteryear]--as he asks about Snowden. Yossarian is traumatized by the horrors of the war, he is desensitized; agonized, confused, unable to deal with his consciousness, wishing to escape some of life's responsibility.

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