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According to Trent Lorcher in "Lesson Plans: Modernism in Literature,"
Modernism is marked by a strong and intentional break with tradition. This break includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views.
The Modernist movement began after the Realist movement. Some of the most prominent writers during this time period are William Faulkner, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, among many others.
The Realist movement reflected a writer's desire to present a story objectively, without any personal response to the material in the story. It was the relaying of the truth of a moment or series of actions without making a subjective judgment.
"There is not embellishment or interpretation... [literature of the Realism movement was] "purport[ed] to be undistorted by personal bias.
So where the Realist movement was guided by presenting literature without prejudicial assessments, the Modernists were not only interested in defying the approach to religious, political and social norms, but passed "judgment" on their subjects, rather than simply reporting, in a clinical or empirical way, what they had observed.
In other words, the Realist authors were more objective in their perceptions of the world, and the Modernists were more emotionally involved, and committed to questioning the conventions of what had been previously been assumed or "cleaned up" without question.
As an example, William Faulker's "A Rose For Emily" lifts up the general norms of a Southern society not too long after the Civil War, especially in terms of a woman of the elite class; the developing plot exposes the mysteries and secrets of this woman that are unexpected by Faulkner's readers. Emily is not a woman above reproach, not a sophisticated, southern "rose:" she not only kills someone, but sleeps beside his dead corpse until her death. This shows how the author pushes the reader's perceptions and blows apart the social norms in the 1930s when it was printed.
True to the modernist period, you will get a variety of answers and you will have to try to make sense of all that you get with it. When Woolf writes, that "All human relations shifted," she is not kidding. Modernism rooted itself in "shifting" what consciousness meant and what it was considered to be. This becomes one of the critical elements of the Modernist time period. The idea of how human beings see themselves was one of the critical elements of Modernism. As opposed to seeing themselves as pioneers of a new era of technology, Modernist thinkers sought to examine how alienated the individual actually was. While technology and rationality heralded a new future, Modernist thinkers sought to examine how individual identity is a tableau of all time periods, including, but not limited to, the past and future. Time shifts around in the Modernist time period. The figments and fragments of what was considered to be "truth" occupies the central importance of the Modernist thinker. All the progress and advancement in the world could not offset World War I and the damage wrought in the process. The decomposed nature of both bodies and truth became a critical theme in Modernism. In the end, Modernists were the lone voices of shrill dissent in a period of conformist ascent.
This article is quite helpful in offering an overview of modernism and what it sought to respond to:
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