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Modernist Classics

By Megan Powell, Michael Calder and Hannah Spruce


The modernist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century materialised from an alteration in the western worldview. The world had grown exponentially during the nineteenth century and the stigmatism of traditional values no longer bore pertinence. Accessibility and acceptance of other cultures increased. Science shaped industry and progression, capitalism dominated economic polarisation and theocentric notions declined with the rise of secularism. Some artists yearned for the simplicity of the past. Others felt misguided by tradition and embraced experimentation. In this issue we discuss some of our favourite literary works that challenged the literary norms and defined the modernist era.



A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce


Born on 2 February 1882, James Joyce became one of the twentieth century’s most accredited literary contributors and revered as a cornerstone of Irish literature. Though the Irishman left his home nation for Zurich, Switzerland, at a relatively young age in 1904, being only twenty-two years old, his fiction continued to be vexed by the turmoil, individuals and geography of his adolescent experiences, writing frequently of Dublin and Ireland. First producing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce followed with a plethora of anthologies, poetry collections and his seminal work, Ulysses (1920), which continued to erode the traditional techniques and values of literature, fuelling the modernist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


The first novel published by Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was an uniquely experimental work of fiction which endeavoured to explore themes of individualism, religion and the Irish political landscape through fresh technique. Adopting a narrative style which provides unfettered transcription of Stephen Dedalus’ thoughts and perceptions, including his digressions and indiscretions, Joyce expertly shatters the preconceived notions of linear narrative and coherent storytelling. This exquisite example of modernist literature breaks the backbone of typical narration and delves unapologetically into the murky interior of the male psyche as it develops through youth, adolescence and maturity.


The Waste Land by T.S Eliot


T.S Eliot’s complex and innovative poem The Waste Land is often referred to as one of the most important texts of the modernist period. The combination of its disjointed structure and narrative voices serves as a harrowing commentary on the society which has collapsed after World War I. The title, The Waste Land is derelict and broken, evoking the sense of destruction and impermanence, whilst emphasising a need for restoration. The poem combines many obscure literary and cultural references with allusions to modern society to emphasise the connections between different eras and provide a sense of new beginning. Although the different segments within the poem are disorientating, the reader is forced to create parallels and connect the narratives, as Eliot himself remains detached and observational. As the reader navigates the literary debris of the poem, there is a sense of a forced cultural shift. However, the many languages used within The Waste Land suggest that despite sentiments of loss and isolation, there is universality in this societal movement. Civilisation is presented as fragile and constantly changing due to events beyond human control or prediction. The imagery of mourning and rebirth run parallel and disrupt and confuse the narrative, with traditional ideologies struggling to survive in the modern landscape. Although the poem is daunting, its intricacies offer an interesting and unique perspective on the post war collapse and struggle to rebuild.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad


Published in 1902, Heart of Darkness follows Charles Marlow, who recounts his story of becoming captain of a boat for the ivory trading company, to friends while moored on the Thames. This story-within-a-story structure, takes the reader on a journey through Marlow’s experience in Africa. He witnesses brutality and devastation within the Company’s station and the suffering of those working for them. While at the Central station, Marlow learns more about Kurtz as he waits for his ship to be repaired. Once fixed, Marlow, along with a team goes to find Kurtz, when it is revealed that he left the wood in search of ivory and poses as a god to the natives. Marlow tries to bring Kurtz back to the ship but his health falters. Kurtz entrusts Marlow with some personal documents before he dies, leaving Marlow to return home.


Conrad’s novel explores colonialism and imperialism in the twentieth century and reflects on the brutality and exploitation witnessed by the protagonist. Throughout the novel Conrad reproduces elements that were popular in the modernist period, such as the structure and narration, but more importantly the complex ability to use language to express the unspeakable and difficult. This allows for reader interpretation from the ambiguity. This novel has received a lot of literary criticism and there is still debate over where this classic stands.


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