Examine the significance of Modernism in literature.

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Themes regarding alienation and individualism are key in understanding Modernism, for the movement's goal was to upend the Determinist ideas that had characterized 19th-century literature. In other words, the shock of the First World War had shown the West that there were no longer fixed truths and that the institutions on which they had previously relied—the Church and the family—could no longer insulate them from horror.

Virginia Woolf was bold enough to put a date on Modernism—December 1910—but, part of what is interesting about Modernism is that there is no agreed upon fixed date as there is with other literary and philosophical movements. Scholarship on Modernism starts as early as 1850 in places as disparate as London, Paris, and Vienna. British and American Modernism, which encompass the Modernist era in art and literature, are dated in the 1920s.

Experiments with language are also important to consider. Modernist literature had been influenced by subsidiary movements, such as Dada and Surrealism, which allowed them to break from established conventions in grammar and narrative. Virginia Woolf and the Irish writer James Joyce used the "stream of consciousness" method in their novels, which allowed them to shift the narrative from the mind of one character to another with no noticeable break. In Joyce's case, he sometimes dismissed punctuation altogether when doing this. Joyce took his individual style further by inventing his own language in his book Finnegan's Wake, which is deemed the most difficult novel to read in the English language.

Modernist literature also included more profane language, which had not been present in literature before this era, as well as more sensitive subject matter, such as sexual dysfunction (The Sun Also Rises) and suicide and shell-shock (Mrs. Dalloway).

novelist224 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Modernism was a period in English literature that lasted from around 1900 to around 1965. It was significant in that it brought big changes to how writers thought and wrote, leading them to focus more on themselves than on the world around them.

Inspired by events like World War I that shook the entire world to its foundation, writers (and the rest of the citizens of the world) saw that everything was changing and that the future was uncertain. Instead of writing wistful odes to nature and love like the Romantics that came before them, Modernist writers focused inward, on their own inner self and consciousness. Modernism was about how each particular writer saw things and how they saw themselves becoming more and more separated from the rapidly advancing world and society around them.

In contrast to the Romantic world view, the Modernist cares rather little for Nature, Being, or the overarching structures of history. Instead of progress and growth, the Modernist intelligentsia sees decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse. (The Literature Network)

This new self-interest in writing caused a large shift from Victorian literature, in which most writers seemed to strive toward a single ideal and style. Writers began crafting a new style that was highly individualized. This led to a multitude of new and different styles of writing that emphasized the individual, and these ideas still influence today's writers.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most significant influences that Modernism had on literature resided in how it changed individual perception.  Modernism changed the way in which individuals looked at and interacted with one another and the literature that binds their experience.  This becomes one of the most dominant influences that Modernism had on literature.  Woolf describes this as a "shift" in human consciousness:

All human relations shifted, and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.

This "shift" was a fundamental way in which individuals saw themselves and their world.  Literature was a reflection of this transformation.  In analyzing Modernism's influence on literature, it becomes clear that the reconfiguration of the individual becomes of vital importance.  The alienation, technological dehumanization, and fundamental disconnect that can exist between individuals and their world became relevant in literature.  Its exploration in the realm of writing is the embodiment of the profound influence that Modernism had on literature.