Modernism in Literature: Definition, Characteristics, Examples, & More

What is your honest reaction to the sudden changes in layout or setting in your favorite app? You are puzzled, and adjusting to things takes you a while, right?

That’s exactly what the entire human race felt at the end of the 19th century. Modernism is often called the “age of alteration in consciousness”.

Where man let go of faith and adopted new sets of beliefs and ideas for survival. The era of pure confusion and chaos is best reflected in modernist literature.

In this post, PaperPerk has given you a detailed account of modernism in literature. What are its important characteristics and themes with examples?

What is Modernism in Literature?

Modernism in literature was a movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It began as a response to the changing world characterized by industrialization, urbanization, and the aftermath of World War I.

It challenged conventional forms of writing as an act of rebellion against the massive changes. This movement sought out new ways to express the complexities of modern life.

Modernism ended around the mid-20th century, giving way to postmodernism. However, learning about this movement is important as it helps us understand the transformative power of art, the evolution of literary techniques, and the cultural shifts that shaped our modern world.

5 Key Characteristics of Modernist Literature

Specific publication dates do not solely define modernism in literature; it encompasses a broader shift in artistic and literary practices.

Modernist artists and writers rejected traditional approaches and embraced new ways of expression. They employed various characteristics that had never been utilized before.

And even when they incorporated familiar techniques, they employed them innovatively, giving the text new meaning.

Thus, this modernist era brought a distinct and transformative approach to literature. Below we will explain some of the major characteristics that represented new forms of artistry and human existence.


Modernist writers emphasize the importance of individual experiences, opinions, and emotions over those of entire societies. This was to discontinue the conventional motifs and characteristics of literature which were no longer relatable.

This element of subjectivity included concerns like,

  • how people perceive their own reality and social event on the individual level
  • how they survive the circumstances and move through life
  • What set of beliefs do they adopt along the way

The modernist movement artists wrote characters that struggled to compromise and adapt to their new settings.


  • Rudy Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 protagonist questions the conformity and censorship prevalent in his dystopian society.

His journey represents pursuing personal autonomy and preserving individualism in the face of oppressive systems.

  • Hemingway wrote characters who embody individualism, such as Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Despite the odds, Santiago’s determination to catch the giant marlin symbolizes his unwavering individual spirit and refusal to succumb to societal expectations or pressures.

  • In 1984 by George Orwell, the protagonist, Winston Smith, rebels against Big Brother’s totalitarian regime and strives to maintain his individuality and independent thoughts.


Most literary modernists discontinued the old style of form and writing. They experimented with new techniques like

  • Non-linear narratives
  • Stream of consciousness
  • Free verse
  • Questionable narrator (chaotic or exaggerated accounts from the characters)


  • In Ulysses, James Joyce experiments with non-linear narratives, where the events are fragmented and non-chronological.

The stream-of-consciousness technique delves into the character’s inner thoughts and perceptions, offering a complex, multi-layered reading experience.

  • The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot experiments with fragmented structure, incorporating different voices, languages, and historical references.

It employs free verse and incorporates multiple narratives to depict the fragmented and disillusioned post-World War I society.

  • In As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner utilizes multiple narrators with varying degrees of reliability, presenting different perspectives and accounts of events.

The narrative structure experiments with non-linear storytelling, showcasing the subjective experiences and perceptions of the characters.


During the modernist era, the world underwent a rapid transformation marked by capitalism, the devastating impact of wars, and the relentless advance of globalization.

Writers of the time reflected the grim reality, portraying existence as utterly meaningless, hopeless, and marked by human aggression.

The structure and development of plots in modernist works took surrealistic and fantastical turns, adding to the sense of absurdity.

These unexpected twists might appear bizarre or disturbing to those unaware of the context or unable to interpret the unconventional settings.

They often conveyed a sense of nonsensicality, bordering on mockery. The rise of absurdism in modernist literature gave birth to the “theater of the absurd,” where European playwrights explored the notion that human existence lacks fundamental purpose or meaning.


  • In “Waiting for Godot” Beckett portrays two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting endlessly for someone named Godot, who never arrives.

The play explores existentialism, futility, and the absurdity of human existence through its repetitive and circular dialogue, lack of traditional plot development, and nonsensical events.

  • Kafka’s “The Trial” follows the absurd journey of Josef K., who is arrested and put on trial for an unknown crime.

The story is marked by its surreal and illogical events, bureaucratic absurdity, and the sense of powerlessness and confusion experienced by the protagonist

  • Catch-22” by Joseph Heller: This satirical novel depicts the absurdity of war and military bureaucracy.

The term “catch-22” refers to a paradoxical situation where the individual is trapped in a no-win scenario due to contradictory rules. The novel uses dark humor and absurd situations to highlight the absurdity and illogical nature of war and human institutions.


In the modernist era, writers sought new and original ways to express themselves. They approached writing as a creative process, discarding the tiring formalities of classical literature that focused on lengthy craftsmanship.

Unlike in the past, where the form precedes the material or theme, modernists emphasized the significance of the content itself.

Their literary works needed a clearer beginning or end, often resembling unfinished thoughts typed on a broken typewriter, leaving a vague impression.

Modernist writers used words as brush strokes, capturing their scattered thoughts and emotions, which resonated with readers, evoking empathy and meaningful results.

Modernist literature embraced unconventional structures or the absence thereof, allowing for diverse and unrestricted forms of expression.

A renowned example is E. E. Cummings, who skillfully spread words and phrases across the page like an artist on a canvas. Following are other examples that are helpful for writing a paper.

  • In Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s avant-garde novel is a prime example of formalistic experimentation. It presents a complex and challenging narrative with intricate wordplay, puns, and multilingual references. 

The novel pushes the boundaries of traditional narrative coherence and demands active reader engagement and interpretation.

  • Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” experiments with narrative form, employing stream-of-consciousness technique and shifting perspectives to delve into the inner thoughts and perceptions of characters.

The fluid and subjective narrative structure reflects the fragmented nature of human consciousness and challenges traditional linear storytelling.

  • Eliot’s poem The Waste Land exhibits formalistic elements through its complex structure, intertextuality, and fragmented narrative.

Eliot incorporates a variety of literary and cultural references, multiple speakers, and different poetic techniques, creating a rich and layered work that requires careful analysis and interpretation.


Symbolism became a powerful tool for modernist writers during the modernist movement, although it had existed in literature long before.

The 20th-century writers infused new meanings into old symbols and created new symbols for previously unnoticed aspects.

Unlike the clear explanations of symbols in earlier works, modernist writers preferred to leave things open to interpretation, leaving spaces that created an air of mystery.

Most of the symbols they used relied on the reader’s own understanding and perspective. Modernist literature is rich with symbolic details that can be interpreted in various ways, depending on the reader’s viewpoint.

Modernism is remarkable because all the symbols are carefully chosen to highlight individualism.

This individualism not only matters in the writing itself but also in how readers interpret the work. Modernism introduced the idea that “no interpretation is wrong,” valuing the diverse interpretations readers bring to the text.

Two prominent writers in symbolism were T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, who masterfully employed symbols to enhance their works. However, here are some useful examples for your next paper.

  • In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald utilizes symbolism to convey deeper themes of the American Dream, wealth, and moral decay.

The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolizes Gatsby’s unreachable dreams and his pursuit of a romanticized past. At the same time, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg represent a detached and judgmental society.

  • In the novella The Metamorphosis Franz Kafka depicts the transformation of the protagonist Gregor Samsa into a giant insect serves as a powerful symbol.

It represents Gregor’s alienation, dehumanization, and the absurdity of his existence within a society that rejects him. The insect is a metaphor for his isolation and disconnection from the world.

  • The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot: This modernist poem is packed with symbolic imagery that represents themes of decay, disillusionment, and fragmented modern society.

The recurring symbol of water, for instance, symbolizes both life and death, purification and destruction, reflecting the complex and contradictory nature of the modern world.

  • Ulysses” by James Joyce is rich in symbolic detail, with various objects, characters, and events carrying symbolic significance.

For example, the character of Stephen Dedalus represents the artist struggling for self-realization and spiritual growth. At the same time, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the novel’s end symbolizes a celebration of feminine sexuality and liberation.

  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a poem by T.S. Eliot is laden with symbolic imagery that captures the internal struggles and anxieties of the speaker.

The yellow fog, the evening sky, and the mermaids are all symbolic elements that evoke a sense of existential crisis, social alienation, and the fear of aging and missed opportunities.

🗨️ Keep in view that all these characteristics had the same derivative notions behind them. That’s why they might seem to give the same meaning at certain times.

On the other hand, it might also look like all of these characteristics branched out of one main characteristic

5 Recurring Themes in Modernist Literature

Modernism in literature reflects how modern man had to deal with the consequence of two great wars in only two decades.

Most writers revolted against the complicated systems and incorporated new themes that mirrored the dilemmas of common folk. These themes served as a voice for the devastation and hopelessness people felt.

Let’s delve into five major themes of modernist literature, each accompanied by insightful examples.


Modernity has helped people connect with others like never before, but there is no denying the ever-present sense of Isolation in the post-war era.

Modern writers depicted this “isolation” as a fragmented sense of self. Their characters often struggle to find coherence in their lives.

Social or personal Isolation in those times was often attributed to the loss of traditional values and beliefs.

Here are some examples for you to quote in your paper on the theme of Isolation in modernist literature 

  • The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger explores the isolation and alienation of Holden Caulfield, a disillusioned teenager who feels disconnected from the adult world.
  • “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett depicts the existential isolation of Vladimir and Estragon as they wait for an elusive character, highlighting the human condition of uncertainty and despair.
  • F. Scott Fitzgrald’s “Great Gatsby” reflects Gatsby’s Isolation even with all the wealthy parties he threw, he hardly socialized with anyone.

Loss of Faith 

The turn of the century was a big question mark for all human existence. The destruction of war and its aftermath deeply affected people’s psyche and behaviors.

Like the philosopher Niszche had predicted, “God is dead, and we have killed him”, people had a hard time believing in any divine force and its influence on human life.

This disillusionment is a key factor in all of modernist literature. It explores the existential crisis, moral ambiguity, and the struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world devoid of hope and certainty.

For those who struggle with finding the perfect topic for a literary essay on modernism, choose this theme as plenty of material is available on it. For example:

  • The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  • In “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, the fragmented and disillusioned characters depict a society in moral decay, where faith and hope have been shattered.
  • In “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, the characters navigate a post-war world filled with disillusionment, reflecting the loss of faith in traditional values and institutions.
  • In “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, the protagonist, Meursault, embodies a sense of nihilism and detachment, questioning the meaning of life and exhibiting a loss of faith in societal norms and moral values.
  • This theme is also prevalent in works like “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, and “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, where characters grapple with the loss of faith in humanity, society, and their own selves.

Search of Truth

The search for truth or search for meaning was one of the main concerns of human existence post-war. As most people rejected traditional beliefs, they desperately looked for something that might give them “hope” for existing.

Many writers of modernism toy with the idea of “subjective truth”. Most main characters in modernist literature seek and construct their truth about life and the world around them.

If you’re organizing a paper on this theme, you can use these examples

  • The WasteLand by T.S Eliot beautifully reflects how the modern man is trying to look for meaning/ truth within the fragments of past and present that are left to him.
  • Conrad’s Heart of Darkness displays a lack of truth that pushes every character to search for it. 
  • The Trial” by Franz Kafka: The story revolves around Joseph K.’s bewildering encounter with the enigmatic and absurd legal system.

As he navigates a labyrinthine bureaucracy, Joseph K. seeks answers and strives to uncover the truth behind his arrest, embodying the futile search for truth and justice.

  • Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” is Set before and after World War I. The novel delves into the inner lives and thoughts of characters.

It explores their longing for understanding, connection, and meaning, exemplifying the introspective search for truth and the elusive nature of human experience.

Rejection of Social System

Modernism in literature proves how rejecting the social system was a natural reaction to disastrous circumstances rather than an intentional stance.

People, skeptical about their place in the world, began questioning the significance of understanding and fitting into society.

Factors such as wars, the Great Depression, and widespread destruction led to a rejection of the social system that had previously existed. 

Simultaneously, individuals felt abandoned by the social system, creating a two-way road of disillusionment.

They pondered over the importance of society to their well-being and self-actualization, questioning whether it held any significance.

Here are some of the rich examples that you can quote in your literary essay.

  • Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” portrays a futuristic society where individuality and personal relationships are suppressed in favor of a rigid and controlled social order.

The protagonist, Bernard Marx, questions and rejects societal conditioning, seeking meaning and freedom outside the constraints of the oppressive system.

  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Set in the Jazz Age of 1920s America, the novel explores the disillusionment and corruption of the American Dream.
  • In Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” the protagonist, Meursault, exemplifies the rejection of the social system.

Meursault’s detached and indifferent attitude, particularly in the face of societal expectations and norms, goes against the established conventions of his society.


The theme of psychoanalysis in modernist literature explores the depths of the human psyche, unveiling repressed desires, unconscious motivations, and the complexities of the human mind.

It is evident through the portrayal of the character’s internal conflicts, dreams, and psychological transformations.

Here are some of the major example

  • The Interpretation of Dreams” by Sigmund Freud is a pioneering work in psychoanalysis.

It influenced modernist literature by introducing the concept of dream analysis and the interpretation of symbolic elements in dreams.

  • In Mrs. Dalloway Woolf utilizes stream-of-consciousness narrative technique to explore the inner thoughts and perceptions of characters.

It delves into their repressed desires, traumas, and psychological struggles, showcasing the influence of psychoanalytic principles.

  1. Plath’s Bell Jar explores a modern person’s struggles with identity, societal pressures, and mental illnesses.

These themes are thought-provoking and can serve as excellent starting points for engaging discussions and impactful academic papers.

However, writing one of these themes can sometimes get complicated or even exhausting, so seek assistance from our professional college paper writing service to enhance your analysis.

7 Notable Modernist Writers in the Literary Movement

Writing a paper on literary movements requires a lot of research. Here are detailed accounts of seven of the most influential writers of the modernist movement in literature. These explanatory notes will help you write the appropriate length of literature reviews in your paper.

Prose Writers

Kafka (1883-1924)

Austrian-Hungarian writer Delves in themes of existentialism, isolation, and transformation Best known for The Metamorphosis Peculiarity of work won him a personal term “Kafkaesque”

Though most of his work was published after his death, Franz Kafka proved to be one of the most influential figures of the modernist movement.

His works had a unique combination of absurdity, anxiety, and alienation, often paired with a light and nonchalant tone.

Other aspects of Kafka’s writing are social control, dark humor, pessimism, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and surrealistic elements.

For example, in the short story “Metamorphosis,” a salesperson transforms into a big insect (a cockroach). The salesman is still consumed by “going to work”.

These distinctive features have led people to coin the term “Kafkaesque”. The term describes complicated situations that occur due to common or mundane reasons.

Notable Writings

  • Amerika
  • The Metamorphosis
  • The Trial
  • The Judgment
  • Meditation
  • Letters to Father
  • Letters to Milena

James Joyce (1882- 1941) 

Irish author Influential among the Modernists Known for his novel “Ulysses”

Joyce is considered one of the most significant authors of the 20th century. He produced many impactful works as one of the earliest contributors to the modernist literary revolution.

He explored the themes of identity, sexuality, the human condition, politics, nationalism and religion, along with his techniques of using a stream of consciousness, complex narration style and language.

To this day, his writing is praised for its fragmented structure, nonlinear narratives, and the incorporation of everyday language and colloquialisms.

Joyce’s take on the complexities of a post-war world can benefit many generations still suffering the consequences of those devastating effects.

Other Noticeable Works: 

  • Dubliners (1914)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
  • Finnegans Wake (1939)

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

English Writer One of Pioneers of Modernist Movement Best known for her use of “Stream of Consciousness”

Woolf is regarded as the keystone of the modernist era. She contributed significantly to its development with her innovative writing style, exploration of consciousness, and feminist perspectives.

Her most notable works challenged traditional narrative conventions and delved into the complexities of human experiences.

She was among the first writers to experiment with elements like a stream of consciousness, gender identity, time and memory, power dynamics in domestic life, and the interplay of individual thoughts and external realities.

Notable Works:

  • Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  • To the Lighthouse (1927)
  • Orlando: A biography (1928)
  • The waves (1931)


Ezra Pound ( 1885-1972)

British-American poet, critic and entrepreneur of arts Contributed to Modernist movement Consider an influential figure of the 20th century literature Major works include: Make it New, The Cantos, In a Station of the Metro Won Bollingen Prize

Ezra Pound is mostly considered the “north star” of modernist poetry. As the most influential poet of 20th-century literature, Pound composed unmatchable verses.

He perfected the use of major poetic characteristics of the modernist era, including; free-verse, symbolism, allusions, and imagism.

His work is packed with powerful themes that he brought to life with stark images. Pound’s dedication to creating detailed images in the reader’s mind sets him apart as an artist.

Colleagues like T.S Eliot and Donald Hall praised Pound’s work and declared them the “beating heart” of modern literature. The famous serial collection “The Cantos” blends politics and history to warn and caution the reader of past mistakes.

Other famous works:

  • In a Station of the Metro (1913)
  • The Return (1917)
  • Make It New (1934)

T.S Eliot ( 1888-1965)

English-American poet, playwright, and criticWrote one of the most influential poems of modernist era Famous word “The WasteLand”Won Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Symbolist movement heavily influenced Eliot’s early work in poetry. He wrote poems that focused on creating an atmosphere or mood; this technique was known as “suggestive” writing.

Experimentation with different techniques, tones and characteristics marked Eliot’s work. He used heavy imagery, symbolism, allusion, and free verse with no rhyme or meter.

Later, Eliot’s work had a similar touch to Pound’s modernity. In 1922 he published The Waste Land, considerably the most important poem of the modernist period.

The poem talks about how humans have lost touch with the past while. And what our future might look like if we continue down this path of destruction.

Famous Pieces: 

  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrok (1917)
  • The Waste Land (1922)
  • Four Quartets (1943)

W.H Auden (1907- 1973) 

English poet and playwright Influenced by Marx and Freud Won the Pulitzer Prize

Another key player of the modernist era, W.H. Auden, produced many influential works. He is one of the writers who keep evolving as subtle shifts in his writing are noticeable throughout his career.

Auden used a psychoanalytical approach to express himself on love, loss, and alienation themes. In later writings, he explores moral, social, and political issues.

His most famous work is probably “The Age of Anxiety”, a long poem that deals with themes such as existentialism, war, and death.

Noticeable Poems:

  • Stop all the clocks
  • Lullaby
  • Night Mail
  • In Memory of W.B Yeats
  • September 1st, 1939
  • If I Could Tell You


Albert Camus (1913-1960)

French Algerian writer and philosopher A crucial figure for Philosophical Modernism Best Known for his contributions in Absurdism and Existentialism Awarded Nobel Prize for contributions in literature 

Albert Camus’s works explore existentialism, absurdism, and the human condition, reflecting the uncertainties and challenges of the 20th century.

His philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” reflects the idea that human existence is meaningless and we need to find meaning and joy in things we consider meaningful.

Camus talks about the absurdity of human existence and moral and ethical dilemmas in a light, almost enjoyable tone. He explores alienation, isolation, freedom, and the search for authenticity in a world devoid of inherent purpose.

He argues against the gravity of the conventional “absurdist” ideas and claims that not being bound to a higher purpose means enjoying the freedom of choosing our way of life.

His exploration of existential themes, critique of societal norms, and pursuit of individual authenticity have made him a highly influential figure in the modernist era.

Famous Writings

  • The Stranger (1942)
  • The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
  • The Plague (1947)
  • The Fall (1956)
  • The Rebel (1951)
  • The Guests (1957)


We are ending this guide on modernism in literature with the hope that it was helpful for many of you. But we understand how hard composing a paper on literature or any historical movement can be.

But don’t worry; our professionals are always ready to assist you with your academic projects. Avail of our research paper writing service at student-friendly discounts and impress your professors with well-versed and impacting research papers.


plus-icon What are the 5 aspects of modernism ?
The 5 most important aspects of literary modernism are; Experimentation, subjectivity, multi-perspective, interiority, non-linear timelines
plus-icon What are the major features of modernism?
Main characteristics of that era are individuality, absurdity, experimentation with different narratives and perspectives
plus-icon Which fields did modernism take over?
Modernism had a significant influence on various fields, including literature, visual arts, architecture, music, and even philosophy. It revolutionized artistic expression, challenging established norms and embracing experimentation and innovation. Its impact extended across multiple disciplines, shaping the way we perceive and engage with art and culture in the modern era.
plus-icon Who came up with the concept of Modernism?
The wee beginnings are often associated with the painter Edourard Monet. However, The concept of modernism was not attributed to a single individual, but rather emerged as a collective response to the cultural, social, and artistic changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was shaped by the contributions and ideas of numerous artists, writers, thinkers, and cultural movements during that time.
plus-icon When did Modernism start in America?
Modernism started in America in the early 20th century, gaining momentum around the 1910s and 1920s. It emerged as a response to the rapid changes and cultural shifts occurring in American society during that time.
plus-icon Does the theme of love exist in modern literature?
Yes, the theme of love exists in modern literature, but it is often portrayed in a more complex and unconventional manner, showcasing the darker and more distorted aspects of love.
plus-icon Who are the 13 most famous writers of the modernist movement in literature?

Here is the list of thirteen most famous writers of the literary modernist movement 

  1. James Joyce
  2. Virginia Woolf
  3. T.S. Eliot
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Ernest Hemingway
  6. Franz Kafka
  7. William Faulkner
  8. Gertrude Stein
  9. Marcel Proust
  10. Ezra Pound
  11. D.H. Lawrence
  12. Samuel Beckett
  13. Jorge Luis Borges
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