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Modernism

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Modernism

Why is it that a book like Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis (1915) feels like it is more modern and recent to our time period now than Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847)? Even though Kafka and Bronte historically lived closer together than we and Kafka? This is because the Modernist movement separates the two.

And when you read the word 'Modernism,' what is the first thing you think of? Is it perhaps to do with the beginning part 'Modern'?

This text will give a brief introduction to Modernism. So let's start at the beginning: what is Modernism?

Modernism Definition

Modernism is a literary and artistic movement that began in the late 19th century and departed from previous traditional and classical forms of art and literature. It is a global movement where creatives radically produced new imagery, mediums, and means to best portray modern life. The movement not only was embraced by literature but art, music, architecture and other fields of thinking.

Modernism rejected all the movements that became before it, arguing that these forms of representation no longer adequately reflected the new forms of society.

The key points of Modernism are:

  • Many creatives broke from traditional forms of writing as they did not best reflect the struggles and issues of society.

  • Modernism grew out of a critical turning point in nearly every area of civilisation; it is marked by profound shifts in human perception.

  • This was a time of increasing internalisation of narration in literature, with aspects such as stream of consciousness, rejection of narrative continuity, and non-linear chronology.

Modernism Time Period

Modernism was born out of a time of great societal upheaval caused by industrialisation, modernisation and the first World War.

War

WW1 (1914–1918) shattered the concept of progress to many, resulting in fragmentation in both content and structure. The ideals of the Enlightenment claimed that new technology would bring progress to humans: technological advances would improve society and quality of life. Yet this was destroyed by WW1, as technological advances simply increased the mass destruction of life. The war resulted in the disillusionment of society and a deep pessimism of human nature; themes picked up by Modernism such as in the poem 'The Waste Land' (1922) by T. S. Eliot.

The Enlightenment is an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries that focused on scientific progress, rationalism and the pursuit of knowledge.

Industrialisation & Urbanisation

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the western world was using various inventions of the Industrial Revolution, such as the automobile, aeroplane and radio. These technological innovations challenged traditional notions of what was possible in society. Modernists could see the whole of society being transformed by machines.

Yet the Industrial Revolution and resulting urbanisation and industrialisation also led to significant social and economic inequalities. Many modernist authors such as Franz Kafka and T. S. Eliot explored the effects of these events on the population and the disillusionment and sense of loss people experienced.

The mass urban movement meant that the city became the key context and reference point for both human nature and humans. As a result, the city often starred as the main character in modernist texts.

Industrialisation is the development of economies from agricultural to industrial.

Urbanisation is the mass movement of people from the countryside to cities.

Characteristics of Modernism in Literature

The tremendous social upheavals brought everything into doubt that was once fixed. The world was no longer reliable and set. Instead, it became slippery and dependent on one's perspective and subjectivity. Requiring new models to express this uncertainty, Modernism is characterised by experimentation in form, multi-perspectives, interiority and non-linear timelines.

Experimentation

Modernist writers experimented with their writing styles and broke with previous storytelling conventions. They went against narrative conventions and formulaic verse by writing fragmented stories to represent the state of society after great upheavals.

Ezra Pound's 'Make it new!' statement in 1934 about the Modernist movement emphasises the role of experimentation. This slogan was an attempt to encourage writers and poets to be innovative in their writing and experiment with new writing styles.1

Modernist poets also rejected traditional conventions and rhyme schemes and started to write in free verse.

Free verse is a poetic form that does not have a consistent rhyme scheme, musical form or metrical pattern.

Subjectivity & Multi-Perspectives

Modernist texts are characterised by a growing mistrust of language to be able to reflect reality. Modernist writers rejected the neutrality and objectivity of third-person omniscient narrators often used in Victorian literature.

An omniscient narrator is a narrator that has an all-knowing insight into the narrative that is being told (namely, is privy to all the thoughts and emotions of the characters).

A third-person narrator is a narrator that is outside the story (namely, is not present as a character).

Instead, Modernist writers embraced subjective language dependent on perspective.

From a neutral, object perspective, a red apple is simply a red apple. Yet, in subjective texts, this red apple is perceived through the narrator, who will see and describe this apple from their own subjective perspective. Maybe for one narrator, the red apple is actually deep oxblood red, whereas the red apple appears to be light pink for another narrator. So the apple will change depending on who is perceiving it.

Yet if reality changes depending on who perceives it, how can we really trust what we see? And what even is the reality in this new slippery world?

Modernist texts tried to deal with these questions by using new narrative perspectives, which became increasingly fragmented and turned inward into the characters.

Many Modernist writers wrote in the first-person but with different characters to present each character's individual thoughts and add complexity to the story. This multi-perspectival narration used several different viewpoints to present and evaluate a novel.

A first-person narrator is a narrator that is inside the text (a character in the story). The story is filtered through their perspective. An example is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (1925).

Multi-perspectival narration includes various perspectives in one text. Namely, a text is created through multiple narrators, who each bring in their own perspective. James Joyce's Ulysses (1920) is an example.

Modernist texts had an increased awareness of the unreliability of perspective, so they did not include fixed viewpoints but used techniques like paradox and ambiguity to add depth to the story.

Interiority and Individualism

Believing that traditional forms of storytelling were no longer fit to describe the world they were in, many experimental forms of writing increasingly turned inward into the characters. The following literary techniques allowed the writers to enter the interiority of the characters and emphasis the individual:

  • Stream of consciousness: a narrative device that attempts to express the character's thoughts as they come. A type of interior monologue, the text is more associative that often has sudden leaps in thought, long sentences and limited punctuation.

  • Interior monologue: is a narrative technique where the narrator enters the characters' minds to present their thoughts and feelings.

  • Free indirect speech: a narrative technique where a third-person narration uses some elements of first-person narration by presenting characters' inner workings.

By turning inward into the individual characters, modernist texts attempted to explore the diverse and ambiguous sense of self. Yet by doing this, the external reality and the perceiving mind become blurred.

Critics of Modernism thought that Modernist texts focused too much on characters' interior world without inviting social change.

Do you agree with this criticism?

Non-Linear Timelines

In 1905 and 1915, Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity, which proposed that time and space were relative to one's perspective. This means that time is not neutral or objective but changes depending on who perceives it.

So the next time you come late to a class, why not whip out Einstein's theory that time is only relative?

This theory exploded the linear perspective that ordered the world: that time can be easily categorised into past, present and future.

Drawing on this, modernist writers often rejected linear timelines. Modernist texts often dissolve the different time periods of past, present and future. Time becomes discontinuous, creating a text in "flux". Just as human thought processes are non-linear, so too became the plots and timelines.

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) has a non-linear structure that frequently uses flashbacks.

Modernism Movement: Themes

Individualism & Alienation

Modernist writers focused on individuals instead of society. They followed the lives of these characters, coming to terms with a changing world and overcoming their trials and tribulations. Often these individuals felt alienated from their world. Caught up in the rapid pace of modernity, the characters are unable to find their bearings in the constantly changing environment through no fault of their own.

Nihilism

Modernism was inspired by the philosophy of nihilism in the sense that it rejected moral and religious principles that were perceived as the only way to achieve social progress. Modernists often believed that for people to be their authentic selves, individuals needed to be free from the overwhelming and restrictive control of conventions.

Nihilism is the philosophy that holds that all beliefs and values are intrinsically senseless. As such, life has no intrinsic meaning.

Absurdity

War made a significant impact on the public and also on writers. As poets and writers died or were greatly wounded during World War I, globalisation and capitalism re-created society. This contradiction in people's lives created a sense of absurdity. Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis (1915) presents the absurdity of modern life when the protagonist, a travelling salesman, wakes up one day as a giant cockroach.

Absurdism is a branch of Modernism that finds the modern world meaningless, and thus all attempts to find meaning are inherently absurd. Unlike Nihilism, Absurdism found positivity in this meaninglessness, arguing that if all is meaningless anyway, you might as well have fun.

Modernism's Writers

James Joyce

James Joyce is regarded as one of the great masters of modernist writing, with his incredibly complex texts often requiring intense studying to grasp them fully. Joyce pioneered the radical use of narration, turning such texts as Ulysses (1922) into the modernist canon. The experimental novel Ulysses (1922) mirrors Homer's Odyssey (725–675 BCE), yet in the former, all the events take place in one day. Joyce uses symbolism, stream of consciousness and various types of narration to explore the complexity of the inner consciousness.

James Joyce's work: Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka's work is so unique that it has even received its own adjective, 'kafkaesque'. Yet it clearly draws on many hallmarks of Modernism. Kafka's experimental use of narrative perspective blurs the subject and object. Moreover, his non-linear use of time is framed through the characters' subjectivity. For example, the passing of time in the novella The Metamorphosis (1915) is inextricably linked to the protagonist Gregor Samsa. The length that Gregor passes out at the end of each part is directly linked to the length of time passing in the novella.

Franz Kafka's works: The Metamorphosis (1915), The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926)

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is often hailed as one of the great modernist writers. Her texts pioneered the literary device of stream of consciousness. Through interior monologue, she created developed and inward-looking characters that exhibited complex emotions.

Virginia Woolf's work: Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927)

Ezra Pound

As well as being well known in Modernism in which he used allusion and free verse extensively, Ezra Pound was also one of the first to use imagism in Modernist poetry.

Ezra Pound's works: 'In a Station of the Metro' (1913), 'The Return' (1917).

Modernism vs Postmodernism

While some critics argue that we still are in the movement of modernism, others suggest that a new literary movement of postmodernism has evolved since the 1950s. Postmodernism is characterised by fragmentation and intertextuality in a hyperconnected world.

Modernist literature rejected previous forms of poetry and prose as it felt that they were no longer sufficient to represent modern life. In contrast, postmodernism consciously used previous forms and styles to comment on intertextuality.

Intertextuality is the relationship between texts. This can be achieved by writers directly referencing texts within their own work, creating a dialogue between writers and works.

Modernism - Key takeaways

  • Modernism is a global literary and artistic movement born out of major societal upheaval.

  • Modernism desires to break from all previous movements, holding that they are inadequate to reflect the turmoil of modern life.

  • Modernist texts experiment with form to emphasise subjectivity, multi-perspective narration, interiority and non-linear timelines.

  • Key themes of Modernism are individualism and alienation and the philosophies of nihilism and absurdism.

  • Famous modernist writers include James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound.


1 Lumen Learning, 'The Rise of Modernism,' 2016

Frequently Asked Questions about Modernism

The main idea of Modernism is to break from previous literary movements and create new experimental forms that emphasise subjectivity, individualism and the inner world of the characters. 

The experimental novel Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce is an example of a Modernist text as Joyce uses symbolism, stream of consciousness and various types of narration to explore the complexity of the inner consciousness.

Characteristics of Modernism are experimentation, subjectivity, multi-perspectives, interiority, and non-linear timelines. 

Three elements of Modernism are breaking from traditional forms of writing, profound shifts in human perception and increasing internationalisation of narration. 

5 aspects of Modernism are experimentation, subjectivity, multi-perspectives, interiority, and non-linear timelines. 

Final Modernism Quiz

Question

What is Dadaism?

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Dadaism is the deliberate denial or subversion of traditional art conventions.

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What are the characteristics of Dadaism?

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Humor, spontaneity, irrationality.

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Who are the main Dadaist artists?

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Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Andre Breton.

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What was the purpose of Dadaism?

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Dadaism sought to challenge everything, especially the arts, science and society.

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When did Dadaism start?

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Dadaism was founded in 1916. 

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Complete: As the movement was anti-rational, much of its creativity centred around the ... and the ....


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As the movement was anti-rational, much of its creativity centred around the absurd and the irrational.

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Choose: The word Dada was ‘discovered’ by randomly opening a ...and choosing the first word that met the eye:


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recipe book

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True or false? Tzara moved to Berlin at the end of 1920.

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False. Tzara moved to Paris at the end of 1919.

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Complete: On July the 14th of 1916, Tzara read his first Manifesto of … at the gallery. In it, Tzara attacked and derided the … science, … and psychology.

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On July the 14th of 1916, Tzara read his first Manifesto of Dadaism at the gallery. In it, Tzara attacked and derided the arts, science, philosophy and psychology.

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True or false? Duchamp, disgusted with ‘high’ or traditional art, devised a new form of expression which he called ‘Ready-Made’.

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True.

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True or False? The Dadaist movement was born in Paris.

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False. The Dadaist movement was born in Zurich.

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Who tried to ‘expel’ the Dadaists from Paris? 

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The Section d’Or, a group of ‘serious’ artists.

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Choose: Duchamp’s 'Mona Lisa' is an example of his ‘found’ or ‘ready-made’ form of expression. Duchamp took a ready-printed copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting 'Mona Lisa' and drew … on her face.


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glasses


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Complete: Hugo Ball created … Poems that he would perform while dressed in a paper and … costume. The poems were intentionally incoherent, and Ball invented his own … to write them in. 

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Hugo Ball created Sound Poems that he would perform while dressed in a paper and cardboard costume. The poems were intentionally incoherent, and Ball invented his own language to write them in.

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Complete: Tzara’s play The Bearded Heart has no … and little or no coherence. Dialogues are held in a nonsense language between a Nose, …, Mouth, Eye and Eyebrow, accompanied by confusing … and music.

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In Tzara’s play The Bearded Heart has no storyline and little or no coherence. Dialogues are held in a nonsense language between a Nose, Ear, Mouth, Eye and Eyebrow, accompanied by confusing ballet and music.

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What was the Harlem Renaissance?

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This was an artistic movement in Harlem, largely during the 1920s, that saw the explosive revival of African-American culture, art, politics and more.

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When did the Harlem Renaissance occur?

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The movement lasted approximately from 1918 to 1937.

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What caused the end of the Harlem Renaissance?

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The 1935 Harlem Race Riot.

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What caused the Harlem Renaissance to start?

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The beginnings of the movement started when many African Americans moved to Harlem from the South. This was called the Great Migration.

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What movement did Imagism branch off from?

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Modernist movement

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What does Imagism mean? 

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Imagist poetry is a 20th-century movement branching off from the Modernist movement in which poets used free verse and clear and precise language to describe images.

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What was Imagism reacting against?

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Victorian and Romantic poetry

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What is the difference between Victorian/ Romantic poetry and Imagist poetry?

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Victorian and Romantic poetry encouraged long, embellished descriptions of events and things while Imagism stressed simplicity, clarity and precision in the description of images. 

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What Is the central focus of an Imagist poem?

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Rhyme

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From whom did Imagism start?

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T.E. Hulme

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Who is the founder of Imagism?

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Ezra Pound

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Which of these are T.E. Hulme’s’ poems?

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‘Oread’ (1914)

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When did Imagism start?

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1912

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What form of Japanese poetry is John Gould Fletcher’s ‘Blue Symphony’ (1914) influenced by?

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Japanese Haiku

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What themes are present in Imagist poetry?

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World War I, nature, modernism, Greek poetry and literature, sense of place, Japanese Haiku, alienation, analysis of the inner self, life in urban populations and the effect of industrialisation and modernism

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Who wrote ‘Images of War’ (1919)?

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Richard Aldington

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What social class did Imagist writing appeal to?

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The masses/ lower class

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What are the three tenets of Imagism?

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  • Direct analysis of the subject 
  • Simple language (using no extra words that do not add to the description of the subject)
  • Imagist poetry must be written in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not in the metronome (basically meaning that Imagist poets had to write in new rhythms)

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What are the characteristics of Imagism?

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Focus on the image, simple language, clarity of expression, free verse, polyphonic prose and Haiku.

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What is free verse?

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Poetry that doesn't follow a particular rhyme, rhythm or meter. 

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What is polyphonic prose?

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A form of prose that is similar to the free verse in that there is no particular rhythm to follow but contains poetic devices such as assonance and alliteration. 

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When did the Modernism movement begin?

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Modernism started in the late nineteenth century.

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What is Modernism?

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Modernism was a literary and artistic movement that departed from previous traditional and classical forms of art and literature. 

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What is Modernism marked by?

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Profound shifts in human perception.

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Why did Modernism break from traditional forms of writing?

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Modernists argued that these forms of representation no longer adequately reflected modern society.

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How did Modernism develop?

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Modernism developed from the rapid growth of modern industrial cities, worldwide industrialisation, and the consequences of World War I.

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What are the characteristics of Modernism in literature?

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Experimentation

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Which famous scientist influenced Modernism?

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Albert Einstein's theory of relativity influenced Modernist writers to reject linear timelines. 

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Who is regarded as the pioneer of the stream of consciousness?

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Virginia Woolf

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What is stream of consciousness?

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Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to express the character's thoughts as they come. A type of interior monologue, the text is more associative that often has sudden leaps in thought, long sentences and limited punctuation. 

Show question

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What is an interior monologue?

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Interior monologue is a narrative technique where the narrator enters the characters' minds to present their thoughts and feelings. 

Show question

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What is free indirect speech?

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Free indirect speech is a narrative technique where a third-person narration uses some elements of first-person narration by presenting characters' inner workings. 

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What are key themes of Modernism?

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Individualism 

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What makes James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) a modernist text?

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 Joyce uses symbolism, stream of consciousness and various types of narration to explore the complexity of the inner consciousness.

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Who are key Modernist writers?

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Ezra Pound

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