Start Your Free Trial

Download Postmodernism Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


The term postmodernism has been defined in many different ways, and many critics and authors disagree on even its most basic precepts. However, many agree that, in literature, postmodernism represents the rejection of the modernist tenets of rational, historical, and scientific thought in favor of self-conscious, ironic, and experimental works. In many of these works, the authors abandon the concept of an ordered universe, linear narratives, and traditional forms to suggest the malleability of truth and question the nature of reality itself, dispensing with the idea of a universal ordering scheme in favor of artifice, temporality and a reliance on irony. Many postmodern writers believe that language is inherently unable to convey any semblance of the external world, and that verbal communication is more an act of conflict than an expression of rational meaning. Therefore, much work classified as postmodern displays little attention to realism, characterization, or plot. Time is often conveyed as random and disjointed; commonplace situations are depicted alongside surreal and fantastic plot developments, and the act of writing itself becomes a major focus of the subject matter. Many works feature multiple beginnings and endings. Much postmodern fiction relies on bricolage, which is the liberal use of fragments of preexisting literary material to create a work that places a higher value on newness than on originality. Postmodernism is generally considered to emanate from the social and political ferment of the 1960s. The Prague Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, the Algerian War of Independence, and student protests in France and the United States are believed by critics to indicate a profound distrust in historical and cultural traditions, as well as modernist notions of progress, objectivity, and reason. French philosopher Jacques Derrida is credited as the foremost proponent of postmodern thought, particularly for his concept of deconstructionism. Any work that relies on words to convey meaning, according to Derrida, can be interpreted in many, often contradictory, ways. A thorough textual analysis of such a work reveals that the original author's perception, what he or she declares, is inherently different from what the author describes. Because the term is open to many different interpretations, many diverse works are classified as postmodern. While many works labeled postmodern do not strictly adhere to any formal tenets, a great number of them borrow postmodern techniques and devices, including discontinuous time, recurring characters, irony, and authorial intrusions. Postmodern works also evidence the belief that there is no distinction between reality and fiction, much like there is no inherent relationship between words and the objects they are meant to signify.

Representative Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Ashbery

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (poetry) 1975

Houseboat Days (poetry) 1977

John Barth

The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1960; revised 1967

Giles Goat-Boy; Or, The Revised...

(The entire section is 168,713 words.)