Modern Period Handout
Characteristics of the Modern Period:
Modernist period in English literature: begins with WWI in
1914; 1965 marks the end of the modernist period.
Your handbook has good sections on “modernism” and the
A few important events prior to 1914:
- Queen Victoria died in 1901.
- The Boer War: 1899-1902. The British tried to
establish political and economic control over the Boer republic of South
Africa. The British won, but the protest at home was the sort that we
experienced re. Vietnam.
- Edward VII: King between 1901-10—this decade was a
period of conspicuous enjoyment.
- 1905: Einstein published his Special Theory of
Relativity, and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published.
- George V: King starting in 1910—a time of stability
prior to WWI.
- 1911-15: Sir James G. Frazer published The Golden
Bough, a compendium of mythology; abridged version in 1922. Eliot made
use of this.
- 1914-18: WWI: a major theme in Eliot is the sickness
of modern civilization, identified as death-in-life, a direct result of
WWI. A feminist writer like Virginia Woolf would view WWI as the height of
masculine egotism. Cf. uncertainty in "Prufrock."
- 1918: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry posthumously
published (experimentation with language and rhythm).
- 1922: Eliot’s The Waste Land (reflected
post-war disillusion of the 1920s: literal and spiritual waste land). N.B.
Eliot was American, but he lived in London and wrote about local places. He
is considered a British writer.
- 1922: Joyce’s Ulysses (about a single day;
stream of consciousness technique reflects modernism’s emphasis on the
conscious and unconscious mind; this in turn is a reflection of Freud’s and
- 1928: Women’s suffrage fully won.
- 1930: Period of depression and unemployment begins;
the rise of Hitler.
Re. poetry, the main innovation was the emphasis on the
image; on both sides of the Atlantic, an emphasis on “hard, clear, precise
images.” Key figure: American poet Ezra Pound. The image’s purpose was to
describe and evoke a particular mood. See Eliot's term "objective correlative"
in Harmon and Holman, page 347.
In fiction, there were three major changes in attitude:
- A common sense of significance and shared values had
disappeared because of the pervasive uncertainty.
- A new view of time: no longer viewed as a series of
chronological moments to be presented in a sequence; now considered a
continuous flow in the consciousness of the individual.
- Developments in the nature of consciousness:
- Stream of consciousness—a key new
technique—explores the fabric of a character’s consciousness. Important
new technique for the English novel (Joyce’s Ulysses = best
example). The isolation of consciousness and the importance of
emotional/human bonds were themes of the novel (e.g., Conrad).
- The past is always present in consciousness at
some level and affects our reactions. Jung’s theory of archetypes—hence
the importance of the primitive and the interaction of the primitive and
the civilized. See page 1515 in the introduction: “that the primitive
affects our conduct…became almost the most important single idea of the
new century.” Conrad’s Marlow gives us a negative version of the return
to the primitive (he journeys backward in time).
- In the short story particularly, there was a
heightened use of ordinary objects and incidents to convey symbolic
Drama: Major figures were Yeats (Abbey Theater) ITO the
Celtic revival; Yeats employs the image, but he also relied on the Irish
national heritage, esp. the mystical and supernatural material of Celtic
legend. Most famous playwright: Samuel Beckett. His most famous play:
Waiting for Godot.