Modernism is a literary term that is difficult to define because it encompasses so a broad range of literature. It was a response to the increasing mechanization of life brought on by industrialism and the machine, and by the disorienting effects of World War I. However, it began before that war as more and more intellectuals began to question Victorian and Edwardian assumptions about social and political organization.
Literary modernism is characterized by experimentation in language and form. It was influenced by writers and thinkers such as Nietzsche, who termed language a "prison house," Marx, who questioned capitalism, and Freud, who uncovered unconscious patterns of thought and sexual impulse. In response, writers began to move away from "objective" narrative, in which words were expected to function as a "clear window pane" on reality. Instead, they opted for subjective, interior narratives, often written either in the first person or through a third-person stream-of-consciousness technique that sought to capture the inchoate nature of thought.
The Sun Also Rises is a textbook modernist novel. Its viewpoint is first person and highly subjective, told from the point of view of Jake Barnes, whose body and psyche have been damaged by World War I. He is physically impotent but also psychologically and spiritually impotent, part of a "Lost Generation" of people shattered by their war experiences. Jake is cynical, and like a good modernist, distrusts what seem like apparent truths or truisms. He says the following:
"I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together."
Jake spends much of his time drinking and escaping from modern mechanized society. He picnics and drinks out in nature with a friend, and ends up in Pamplona, a medieval city whose running of the bulls represents a time untainted by modernity. Romero, the virile bull fighter, fixed in a traditional social order, stands in opposition to hopeless and drifting Jake Barnes. Bull fighting, an unmechanized form of combat, stands in implicit contrast to the dehumanizing mechanization of World War I.
The novel captures the deep disillusionment of people in the 1920s who felt betrayed by their social institutions.