University of Toronto

Graduate Department of English

ENG5520Y: Narrative, Narratology, and Modernist Fiction


Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Modernism; Modernists; Modern Fiction

This site features a compilation of quotations defining or characterizing Modernism, organized chronologically by decade. All views on Modernism are relevant, but the intended focus is on the relation between Modernism and Narrative roughly between the years 1890 and 1945, with a particular emphasis on style, form, discourse, narration. The selection is intended merely to represent diverse views; no canonization is intended.


"In the modern period . . . the novelist may have no assurance that it is the outward action that reveals the significant fact about his character, nor is he convinced that the public gestures provided by society--even by language, the most basic of all social instruments--can ever achieve real communication between individuals. (4)

. . . The reasons for this breakdown of the public background of belief are related to new ideas in ethics, psychology, and many other matters as well as to social and economic factors. The relative stability of the Victorian world gave way to something much more confused and uncertain, and the shock to all established ideas provided by the First World War and the revelation of its horrors and futility helped to "carry alive into the heart by passion (in Wordsworth's phrase) the sense of this breakdown. Of course, most ordinary people went on living their lives in accordance with the traditional morality and conventions of their fathers. It was only the sensitive avant garde who responded to this new feeling in the air and who believed, with Virginia Woolf, that they could no longer take it for granted that their impressions held good for others. (5)

David Daiches, The Novel and The Modern World (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago P, 1960).


In much modernist literature, one finds a bitter impatience with the whole apparatus of cognition and the limiting assumptions of rationality. The mind comes to be seen as an enemy of vital human powers. Culture becomes disenchanted with itself, sick over its endless refinements. There is a hunger to break past the bourgeois proprieties and self-containment of culture, toward a form of absolute personal speech, a literature deprived of ceremony and stripped to revelation. (16)

The Romantic poets break loose from the classical-Christian tradition, but they do not surrender the wish to discover in the universe a network of spiritual meaning which, however precariously, can enclose their selves. . . . For them the universe is still alert, still the active transmitter of spiritual signs.

For the modernist writer the universe is a speechless presence, neither hospitable nor hostile; and after a time he does not agonize, as did nineteenth-century writers like Hardy, over the dispossession of man in the cosmic scheme. He takes that dispossession for granted and turns his anxieties inward, toward the dispossession of meaning from inner life. Whatever spiritual signs he hears come from within his own imaginative resources and are accepted pragmatically as psychic events. (21-22)

Irving Howe, ed., Introduction: The Idea of the Modern, The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts (New York: Horizon, 1967), pp. 11-40.



[Modernism] is the art consequent on the dis-establishing of communal reality and conventional notions of causality, on the destruction of traditional notions of the wholeness of individual character, on the linguistic chaos that ensues when public notions of language have been discredited and when all realities have become subjective fictions. (27)

Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds., "The Name and Nature of Modernism," Modernism 1890-1930, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp. 19-55.



The current polemics about ego psychology, the various philosophies of the subject, the rising countervalue of psychic fragmentation with its counteraesthetic in the schizophrenic text, all these straws in the wind suggest a perspective from which the Jamesian operation, on the level of the construction of aesthetic discourse, may be grasped as part of the general containment strategy of a late nineteenth-century bourgeoisie suffering from the aftereffects of reification. The fiction of the individual subject--so-called bourgeois individualism--had of course, always been a key functional element in the bourgeois cultural revolution, the reprogramming of individuals to the "freedom" and equality of sheer market equivalence. As this fiction becomes even more difficult to sustain . . . , more desperate myths of the self are generated, many of which are still with us today. Jamesian point of view, which comes into being as a protest and a defense against reification, ends up furnishing a powerful ideological instrument in the perpetuation of an increasingly subjectivized and psychologized world, a world whose social vision is one of thoroughgoing relativity of monads in co-existence and whose ethos is irony and neo-Freudian projection theory and adaptation-to-reality therapy. (221-2)

Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981.


Thus the key cultural factor of the modernist shift is the character of the metropolis: in these general conditions, but then, even more decisively, in its direct effects on form. The most important general element of the innovations in form is the fact of immigration to the metropolis, and it cannot too often be emphasized how many of the major innovators were, in this precise sense, immigrants. At the level of theme, this underlies, in an obvious way, the elements of strangeness and distance, indeed of alienation, which so regularly form part of the repertory. But the decisive aesthetic effect is at a deeper level. Liberated or breaking from their national or provincial cultures, placed in quite new relations to those other native languages or native visual traditions, encountering meanwhile a novel and dynamic common environment from which many of the older forms were obviously distant, the artist and writers and thinkers of this phase found the only community available to them: a community of the medium; of their own practices.

Thus language was perceived quite differently. It was no longer, in the old sense, customary and naturalized, but in many ways arbitrary and conventional. . . . Even within a native language, the new relationships of the metropolis, and the inescapable new uses in newspapers and advertising attuned to it, forced certain productive kinds of strangeness and distance: a new consciousness of conventions and thus of changeable, because now open, conventions. (45-6)

Raymond Williams, "Metropolitan Perceptions and The Emergence of Modernism," (first published 1985), The Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 37-48.


[The forties and fifties] was also the time of the triumph in our discipline of the New Critics, who not only established the modernist canon as male and white, but also valorized, at the expense of the progressive implications of its forms, modernism's reactionary features: hierarchical, totalizing myth, externally imposed order, ahistoricity, deadlocked irony, the idea of "well-wrought," perfectly balanced form not only as an end in itself but as the only interesting end of art. . . .

This version of modernism, still entirely predominant despite the ostensible overthrow of its promulgators, suppresses, by means of its no-longer transparent ideology, not only the facts that women writers were just as instrumental in the production of modernist form as male writers, and that a crucial episode in American modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, was black, but also that modernism's affiliation with the political left predates, even in America, its absorption into the grainy fields of Southern agrarian reaction. (681)

Marianne DeKoven, "The Politics of Modernist Form," New Literary History, 23 (1992): 675-690.


Modernism, as we are now beginning to see, is as much a strategy of reading as it is a style of writing; and when those same Modernist texts are reread from the vantage point of postmodernism, they appear rather different. (13)

Perhaps, then, we are just beginning to appreciate what was apparent to the Modernists all along--that the edifice of Modernism was always vulnerable, and that the best Modernist writing always betrayed the artifice of its construction in ways we have begun to call postmodern--that the monuments of High Modernism already contained within them the seeds of their own (de)construction. (14-5)

Kevin J.H. Dettmar, ed., Introduction, Rereading the New: A Backward Glance at Modernism. (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 1-24.