The main difference between Victorian and Modern literature is what Hegel referred to as "The onward march of human progress". The Victorians believed that humanity was headed toward a divine purpose. With each succeeding generation comes progress toward the overarching goal of humanity. This is evident in the chronological order of the Victorian novel. Modernists, however, as a result of WWI lost sight of this progress. Because of the war, writers were devastated and doubted purpose. This is evident in the fragmented style of the writing. Modern prose often begins at the end, and jumps around from event to event. It is more scattered and less hopeful.
The Victorian period, characterized by the forward progression in science and technology and the age of religious doubt, began in 1837 and officially lasted until 1901. By the 1890s, writers began expressing differing opinions on social issues and cultural norms. These Modern writers sought to free themselves from the massive embrace of their predecessors and many believed the Victorians to be repressed, over-confident, and thoroughly philistine. With the onset of WWI, in 1914, British culture saw the most abrupt movement into the Modernist era. The violence and brutality of the war led many writers to question all they know about humanity and life.
Stylistically, the Victorians embraced lengthy, often serialized, realistic novels. Authors such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens saw the height of this movement with their highly constructed, chronological works. In contrast, the Modernist novel is characterized by its non-linear, fragmented style. This stylistic change is attributed to the Great War, which caused many individuals to lose hope in the progress of humanity. Consequently, many Modernist texts – such as those by Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath – have despondent and cynical undertones that question the role of the individual in larger society.
The Victorian Era can be considered to encompass roughly 1830 - 1900. Such a large span of years and such a large number of literary works are difficult to capture within a few sentences. However, generally speaking Victorian literature can be broken into the early Victorian, mid-Victorian, and late Victorian, each with its own characteristics. The early Victorian works are characterized by attention to the social issues created by the rapid industrialization taking place during the years 1830 - 1850. Representative works include "The Cry of the Children" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Thanks to the efforts of many writers and civic leaders during those years, real progress was made on many of those issues. This led to a period in the middle of the century when the British Empire blossomed and pride in the national identity peaked. George Eliot's novels of moral orthodoxy and psychological realism, Alfred Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in poetry typify this heyday of Victorian literary achievement. The later years of the Victorian Era saw a tendency toward the deconstruction of Victorian values. Playwrights Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw were each iconoclastic in their own ways, satirizing the shortcomings of their society, and Robert Louis Stevenson's dark tale of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also pointed out the hypocrisy of those who would live dual lives.
Moving into the Modern Era with the 20th century, literature became significantly more pessimistic and open-ended. Imagism influenced the world of poetry to leave behind traditional rhythm and meter in favor of stark images expressed in fewer words. Poets like Wilfred Owen, William Butler Yeats, and T.S. Eliot created works that incorporated the rhythms of everyday speech and in some cases contained elements of obscurity and ambiguity. In prose, new approaches like James Joyce's stream of consciousness and Virginia Woolf's experimental narrative styles made novels less predictable. The concept of the epiphany was introduced to short stories, making these works more about the psychological revelations experienced by their characters than about plot. In general, Modernist works display themes of disillusionment and alienation, may lack coherence, prefer questions rather than answers, and abandon traditional forms for experimental styles. Heavy use of symbolism, extensive allusions, and shifts in perspective or tone within a single work are also common.
While the Victorian Era embraced traditional values and forms as it dealt with social issues of industrialization and national identity, Modernist literature reflects the disillusionment of the 20th century and introduced more ambiguity in its themes and greater experimentation in its style.