Modernism in the Novel

This section provides Handouts that recap the important features of Modernism and the Modernist tendencies observed in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

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Major characteristics of Modernism

Defining terms:

Modern – Recent time/the present day or time

Modernity – the quality of being relevant to the present time; being current

Modernism –     It is a philosophical movement in the arts, literature, psychology; it is a radical way of thinking that reflects a shift away from the traditional concepts.

Modernist –        a believer, supporter of modernism; a practitioner, a writer, an author or a poet who has the tendencies which can be said to fall under the philosophical movement called Modernism.

Dates: (no generally accepted date) – 1900 – 1940; 1910 – 1939; 1890s – 1950s. Late 19th century to early 20th century.

Broad strokes of Modernism:

  • A deliberate, radical shift from tradition
  • Use of new and innovative forms of expression
  • Seeing traditional structures, organisation and beliefs shaken, questioned, challenged, rejected and abandoned
  • Loss of faith in the existing structures (institutions, religion, government etc.)
  • Feeling of alienation and isolation
  • Man seen as having the power to shape and influence through experimentation, technology and scientific advancement
  • Defying and eschewing beliefs, ideas associated with the previous age
  • Technology and science the new saviours
  • Fragmentation seen at all levels beginning with the individual
  • The individual asserts his or her own rights and feelings
  • Looking back to myths for structure and for role models

Modernist Tendencies:

Life:       reflection of what is real, stark realities and taboo subjects are highlighted

Pioneered by Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880)

Novel: Madame Bovary (1856)

His depiction of intimate and sexual relationships brought upon him the wrath of a conservative society and that of the court which made the following observation, art “must be chaste and pure not only in its form but in its expression.” (Trial of GF, 1857)

In his novel we see the use of free indirect discourse where the lines are blurred to the extent that it was no longer possible to differentiate between narrator and character. His novel also presented the readers with a moral ambiguities and ironies that raised many questions about their beliefs and their attitudes towards life.

Time:     Seen as fragmented. Follows the thought patterns of the character.

Plot:       There is no plot in modernist novels. Time and plot follow the thought flow of the characters and shifts from one character to another without warning or structure. This technique is called the ‘stream of consciousness’ by William James, brother of Henry James. William James was a psychologist.

Characters:         The characters in modernist novels are not morally and physically superior beings. They are in fact shown to be very ordinary and flawed humans.

Themes:              Depiction of truth or reality as being relative in the absence of absolute truth/reality.

Settings:              The psychological/mental space in the mind of the character. The setting is whatever the character is thinking of at the very moment which is depicted by the author.

Language:           Tend to be colloquial, dry, factual and at time fails to communicate or to express the thoughts of the characters.

Joyce & Woolf


Both Joyce and Woolf Posed questions on the:

  • Literary history
  • Aesthetic theory
  • Artistic strategy

Both felt that novel had reached a moment of crisis

Its conventions out of date and irrelevant for the expression of the character and conditions of a new age

Both shared a heightened awareness of the disjunction between social action or language and internal states of consciousness

Both were committed to the belief that art could reveal the ‘truth’ beneath our familiar assumptions about the look and feel of reality

Joyce and Woolf believed fundamentally in an underlying rhythm and connectedness to modern life

Yet they offer no answer to the questions that they have raised

No critical concept of the ‘modernist novel’ emerged directly from their work

They did not embraced any single and homogenous theory of the novel

They were on a constant exploration and renegotiation of modern fiction’s limits and possibilities

James Joyce (1843-1941)

His Novels:

  Dubliners, 1914

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916

Ulysses, 1922

Finnegan’s Wake, 1939

He is regarded as one of the leading high modernists

He did not belong to any of the literary groups/movements


Joyce’s Subjects

Joyce is a serious novelist

His chiefly concerned with human relationships

Man is relation to himself

Man in relation to society

Man in relation to the whole race

He is acutely aware of the pettiness and meanness of modern society

He is also acutely aware of the evils which spring from it

He is unsurpassed in his knowledge of the seamy side of life


Joyce’s Mastery

He is a keen and subtle analyst of man’s inner consciousness

He found a way to make literature capture the ephemerality of modern life

Attention to style and form is central to Joyce


Joyce’s Technique

The 21st  Century Novelist and the Quest for a new technique

James Joyce was a pioneer

His lead has been followed by many major writers

He was a ceaseless experimenter

In his use of the stream of consciousness:

He focuses our attention on the complex workings of his characters’ inner life

He allows us access into his characters’ most private thought and sense impressions

He paints a humanistic portrait of modern life


Joyce’s Techniques

In his handling of the internal monologue

Joyce went further and deeper than any other writer

He sometimes combines stream-of-consciousness, absurdist drama, mythical parallelism in his writings

Joyce’s Style

His style develops from the straight-forward, simple writing on Dubliners to the complex allusiveness and the bewildering originality of Finnegan’s Wake

Finnegan’s Wake:


Broken narrative

Abrupt transitions

Logical sentence links omitted

Introduction of new vocabulary

Production of a writing that is purely private in its significance

Introduction of new vocabulary

Words coined by breaking up one word and joining its part to parts of other words

He has sensitive ear for verbal rhythms and cadences (Tempo)

Influenced by his interest in language

Uses language as part of an elaborately conceived artistic pattern

His writing has a musical quality

Driven by his need to experiment

Joyce’s Genius

His genius is for the comic rather than the tragic view of life

His work is full of wit, puns and startling conceits

His humour varies from broad comedy to intellectual wit

Tone is usually sardonic (sarcastic)


Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Her Novels

    The Voyage Out

Night and Day, 1919

Jacob’s Room

Mrs. Dalloway, 1925

   To the Lighthouse

  The Waves, 1931

The Years, 1937


Woolf’s Themes

Woolf reacted against the novel of social manners as produced by Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy

She was at the same concerned with the realities of life

But her realities were inward and spiritual rather than outward and material

Her characters are seen in search of this inward and spiritual reality

She never solved the problem of the ultimate meaning of life


Woolf’s Theory of Novel

The Stream of Consciousness’ Technique

VW rejected the conventional conception of the novel

She adopted the method of psychological truth (JJ)

She aimed at expressing in her novels the reality of life of the spirit

In doing so, she became one of the pioneers of literature


Woolf’s Theory…

She abandon plot as too restrictive

She believes that all novels deal with character, that is, they express character and not preach


The Novel and the Representation of Reality

What is reality? And who are the judges of reality? VW, Essay on Character in Fiction, Criterion, 1924

Is life like this? Must novels be like this? VW, Modern Fiction

Have I the power of creating the true reality? VW, Diary II:248


Woolf’s Conception of Reality

Communication through fiction of a sense of reality

Reality for her meant an inward subjective awareness

The writer must abandon the external world brick and devote himself to the building of character through the complexity of consciousness


Woolf’s view of Life

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. VW, Modern Fiction

Representation of this reality called life

..if the writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, nor what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. VW, Modern Fiction