Realism to Modernism: how Modernist Literature Renovated Literary Realism

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Modernist literature came about with a distinct goal in mind. It was designed, on its face, to “renovate” literature. The implication in this statement is that literature had in some ways fallen behind and it needed to be improved in some respects. There was a self-consciousness that came along with this form of writing, as authors came to recognize what the rules of their discipline happened to be, and they actually broke the rules with intent. Many modernist authors believed that the old ways of writing, and in particular realism, had grown stale and were no longer connecting in the proper way with the people reading stories.

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One of the realities of modernism, of course, was the recognition that society had changed in many ways, and they needed new forms of expression in order to rise up to meet the changing needs of society. To understand the modernist movement, one must first understand literary realism, which came just before. Literary realism was critically important in part because it aligned with the rest of the realism movement. It sought, on its face, to explain the world as it was in plain terms, describing mundane everyday elements. It, for instance, would take the routine day of an average priest and turn it into something noteworthy. The plain language there did not so much represent the changing of the guard in a new society that saw exciting developments because of the industrial revolution and the growth in the Western economy around the turn of the century. With this in mind, the modernist movement did succeed in renovating literature. While it is difficult to say that modernist writing was necessarily “better” than realist writing, it did better reflect the changing nature of the era, and to the extent that literature must be judged on how well it represents the era in which it is written, modernist literature accomplished this goal.

Kate Chopin technically came before the great modernist writers who would eventually come to characterize the form. Writing in the late 1900s, she was considered to be well before her time, and in many ways her work served as a bridge between realism and its plain language and plain values, and modernism, which bucked the trends. Chopin on some levels showed that there was some value to be had when it came to realism. She wrote in a very simple way about the mundane and helped to make it stand out. This type of writing was easy to read and easy to connect to. For instance, in “The Story of an Hour,” Chopin wrote, “There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul” (Chopin 1). In this, she described the simple act of sitting back in a chair, but in the realist way, she made it seem to be something special. However, there were many ways in which her work crossed over into modernism, and in doing so, it helped to show that the new way of writing was superior to the old way. At the very least, it was better able to communicate the themes of that era and that time, cutting across trends in the way that literature is supposed to. “The Story of an Hour” is a story about how a woman breaks free from the chains of marriage. Marriage, of course, was an unassailable institution. The fact that she chose to break free from that was significant in many respects. She wrote about the way in which a woman had been liberated by the death of her husband, being allowed to live free and pursue her own goals. While modernist literature was often about form and the way people wrote, it was also about the content they chose and how this represented the changing nature of society. This was the case with Chopin, and her ability to explore the limits of marriage as an institution demonstrated the quality of writing embedded in modernism. It could make people think about their own time and whether their own norms were good or not. This made it “better” in some ways than the realist writing that simply sought to describe.

Another of the elements of modernist writing was the epiphany. Modernist writers were always exaggerating things and making sure that they could push big themes on their readers. This was a time when people thought about the big and hard questions that the world had to offer. For instance, it was during this time, when things were changing in such a quick nature in the industrial world, that men had to think about their place alongside the major machines. This meant that much of the literature had to reflect this theme of self-doubt and self-discovery. Jack London’s work “To Build a Fire” is modernist in this way. It describes a man who is out on a journey to find himself in nature. In the classically modernist mode, this was a story about much more than just what met the eye, and this made it better just the same. In a realist approach, one might have just sought to describe nature, as it is an object that must be understood in some respects. However, with the modernist approach, it is about much more than that. It is not just about describing things as they are seen in the world. It is about using things as metaphors and symbols for something bigger in order to get people to think. London’s work does describe the elements of nature, but it only does so in service of a bigger goal. The bigger goal was to show that a man could go out into nature and have an epiphany in order to find out some bigger theme about himself. London’s “To Build a Fire” is an excellent example of how this takes place, and it also shows the ability of authors to use big themes to explore deeper meaning. While this might not make it “better” necessarily than other works, it does make it more instructive and more helpful for readers.

Kafka explored themes in literature that were also classically modernist. The modern approach was about bucking trends, and one of the biggest trends was just going with the flow and not asking questions. Kafka did not believe in this, and his literature reflected the desire for him to question specifically what was going on with the Industrial Revolution all around him. He did not necessarily believe that this was good for society, as he saw it coming that human beings would be isolated and in some ways replaced by the machines that had been developed. With this in mind, his work “Before the Law” is a good modernist example and details the ways in which the modernist writers were able to “renovate” literature in order to make it more applicable for their time. Kafka writes of the isolation that comes when men are pitted against men in a time when the machines are making profit, writing, “During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law” (Kafka 1). This Kafkaesque sentiment comes across to show the ways in which men can waste their entire lives with tunnel vision in the new world that had been created. In this, one can see the modernist themes of analogy and darkness. Modernists were concerned that the world was careening in a way that did not make sense. The realists before them sought to just chronicle the world as it was, but the modernists were trying to draw bigger trends about where it was going. Kafka was among the many who saw the sputtering existence associated with rapid industrialization as something that would ultimately try the patience of men over time. In doing so, he helped to modernize writing and make it more applicable for his period, where modernist approaches were unable to do so.

Ultimately it is hard to say that one period of writing is better than another on its face. At the end of the day, all writing is just writing, and some people prefer varying styles. However, if one is asking the question of whether modernist writing achieved its goal of being able to renovate literature, then the answer has to be yes. At the end of the modernists were successful in renovating literature in the sense that a carpenter is successful in renovating a house. A carpenter might be said to have made the house “better,” but this is not really his goal, because better is an aesthetic idea prone to preference. In reality, his job is just to bring it up to relevant contemporary standards. The modernist writers did the same thing with literature. They created a new form of writing and also new topics of writing that were designed on their face in such a way that they could reflect the modern sentiments of the day. They were successful in this goal.

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Realism to Modernism: How Modernist Literature Renovated Literary Realism. (2022, Jun 28). Retrieved from