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Modernism Vs Postmodernism

3047 words (12 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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Chapter One: Modernism vs. Postmodernism

The aim of this first chapter is to point out the main differences and similarities between two literary trends: modernism and postmodernism. Although the later is usually defined through the former, theorists like Ihab Hassan, Fredric Jameson, argue that postmodernism has clear-cut margins and characteristics. It’s very important to mention these aspects because the two novels dealt on later in the thesis belong to these trends. I will not only mention the theoretical aspects, but I will also provide clear examples to assert my affirmations.

Theoretical issues

There are lots of controversies concerning the beginning of modernism. Some argue that it certainly began in 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, others claim that it began in 1912 with the debut of Imagism in the tearoom of the British Museum. Virginia Woolf herself states that modernism began in 1910, the date of the first post-Impressionist exhibition in London. Irrespective of the year when it emerged, modernism represents a “a deliberate and radical break with the traditional bases both of Western culture and of Western art” and those who made this break “are thinkers who questioned the certainties that had hitherto provided a support to social organization, religion, morality, and the conception of the human self”( M.H Abrahams 108).

Despite the difficulty to delimit modernism, there are established features that define it thematically and historically. One of these is the need to escape or at least transcend the certainties of the nineteenth century. Modernism is like the need to awaken from “the nightmare of history,” as Nietzsche said, and also the need to “make it new”. Another important such feature is the challenging of realism, in the literary field. Realism itself was once a new innovative way of writing, with authors such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson etc. Throughout the modern literary history, realism remains the favorite style of writing, but many writers have come up with alternative ways of representing reality. In prose modernism is associated with the rendering of human subjectivity more real than realism. In order to achieve this, writers have started representing consciousness, perception, emotion, the relation of the individual with the society through all kinds of tools such as the stream of consciousness, interior monologue, defamiliarisation.

Norman Cantor has offered a Model of Modernism with the following characteristics: anti-historicism— truth is not evolutionary and it requires lots of analysis—focus on the micro-cosmos, self-referentiality, leaning towards the disjointed and the disintegrated. All these features are considered a kind of response to the great changes brought about by the new century: industrialization, urban society, war and even the new philosophical ideas, but also instruments with which the authors attempt to throw off the burden of realism.

English authors whose works best reveal complex combinations of these features are Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Golding etc. Many critics argue that the latter belongs to postmodernism, but there are many traits in his work that clearly bind him to modernism, as it will be revealed later in this thesis.

Jean-François Lyotard speaks about modernism and postmodernism as two aesthetics of the sublime. The sublime is defined as what is conceived even though there are no representations of it either in reality or imagination. Therefore a common feature of these trends is self-reflexivity.

modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure[…]The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations [. . . ]in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable (Lyotard 46).

Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature. However, unifying features often coincide with Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of the “meta-narrative” and Jacques Derrida’s concept of “play.” For example, instead of the modernist quest for meaning in a chaotic world, the postmodern author avoids, often playfully, the possibility of meaning, and the postmodern novel is often a parody of this quest. This distrust of totalizing mechanisms extends even to the author; thus postmodern writers often celebrate chance over craft and employ metafiction.

Ihab Hassan in his essay Beyond Postmodernism states that postmodernism is over and that we have entered the age of Postmodernity. “Hype and hyperbole, parody and kitsch, media glitz and ideological spite, the sheer insatiable irrealism of consumer societies all helped to turn postmodernism into a conceptual ectoplasm.” He also argues that in this new world that was created there is a constant need to redefine oneself, to discover new relations between selves and others, margins and centers, fragments and wholes. These aspects theorized by Hassan are perfectly applicable to literature. Postmodern novels deal with an inner reality which is constantly at change according to the experiences of the characters. While in modern novels the relation to reality, the attitudes toward it are seen as an experimental reflexion of the inner reality, realized through defamiliarisation, in postmodern novels this relation represents a refraction of commodified, mass-reproduced discourse and also a return to pleasure and to plot.

Brian McHale, another important postmodern theorist differentiates modernism from postmodernism through the concept of the dominant. He states that the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological, that is, modernist fiction foregrounds questions like: What is there to be known? Who knows it? How can I know this world of which I am a part? What are the limits of the knowable? And so on. Postmodernism, on the other hand, has an ontological dominant, therefore it foregrounds questions like: Which world is this? What is to be done? Which of my selves is going to do it? This shift of dominant, from epistemological to ontological is actually a shift from problems of knowing to problems of being.

In order to point out, and to make clear the common elements and the divergent attitudes of modernism and postmodernism, I have included a table including most of these.

Common elements

Divergent attitudes



Formal fragmentariness






Drawing on popular culture

Foregrounding of constructedness



Cultural progress


Cynically resisted

Radically doubted










Crono-topical contextualization of the text



William Golding and Modernism

William Golding was born on September 19, 1911, in Cornwall, England, the son of Alec Golding, a distinguished schoolteacher. He was an unusual reader as a boy, and at the age of twelve he was decided to write a novel on the trade union movement. His parents didn’t support him in his writing and urged him to study natural sciences. Golding followed his parents’ wishes until the second year at Oxford, when he changed his focus on English literature. After graduation he worked as an actor and as director, and in his spare time he wrote poetry.

In 1940, a year after England joined the war, Golding joined the Royal Navy. This experience had a great impact upon his view of humanity, as it can be seen in his novels. After the war he dedicated his time to teaching and to writing novels. His first published novel Lord of the Flies, and his greatest success, became a bestseller both in Britain and in America, after more than twenty publishing houses rejected it. Although he never matched the popular and critical success he enjoyed with Lord of the Flies, he remained a respected and distinguished author for the rest of his life and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. Golding died in 1993, as one of the most acclaimed writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of English schoolboys. They are the only survivors of a plane crash during a war, and they find themselves on a deserted island. The boys soon realize that they need a leader so they elect Ralph. As a leader, Ralph selects Jack to be responsible for hunting. After an exploration of the island, Simon comes up with the idea that they should light a fire to draw the attention of the passing ships. Unfortunately the unmonitored fire engulfs the forest.

At first, the boys enjoy their life without adults, and spend most of their time playing. But after a while they split in two groups; some work together to maintain the order, while the others rebel, they descent into savagery seeking for violence.

Lord of the Flies is a novel which from its publication was interpreted in many different ways. Some critics claim that the novel is a modernist one, while others strongly disapprove this idea stating that Lord of the Flies is undoubtedly a postmodernist novel. In order to prove that Golding’s novel is modernist, I will begin by mentioning one very important element which the modernist authors often embrace: history.

History is not rejected in Golding’s novel. The English boys find themselves during a war. Their plane has crashed apparently because an atomic bomb. Their rupture with the English civilization is a symbol of Nietzsche’s need to awaken from the “nightmare of history.” Here, on the deserted island, the young boys create a world of their own, a new world, which in fact is not very different from the one they already knew. Golding’s experience with the war let him know the very different ways in which people respond to stress, change and tension.

Another important aspect of modernism which is present in Golding’s novel is the epistemological dominant. When they get on the island the children are eager to know everything about it and therefore questions like: What is there to be known? Who knows it? How can I know this world? emerge in their minds. Slowly every one of them gets the answer to these questions. The children are not the only ones who are left with these questions, the reader also. When beginning to read the text, numerous questions emerge in the reader’s mind, and in the case of Lord of the Flies they are related to the epistemological dominant. In this respect, the reader epistemological progress through the novel imitates the way we acquire empirical knowledge of the actual social and physical world by means of observation of details, behavior and events.

An important trait that differentiates modernism from postmodernism is the crono-topical contextualization. While modernism tries to avoid, and sometimes even reject it totally, postmodernist authors foreground it. Therefore in Golding’s novel there are no exact dates or names of places, everything is vague. The reader only gets to know that the boys find themselves during a war, they are the only survivors and they are on a deserted island. What we know exactly is that they are British and that the action takes place at the dawn of the next world war. We can only assume that this is the Cold War, since the book was written in the 1950’s.

Even if Golding doesn’t mention the exact place and time when the novel takes place, it can still be considered a realistic novel. Of course that I do not mean realistic in the sense of the Enlightenment. During the twentieth century realist writing became the focus of critical attack, because both modernism and postmodernism, have tried to define themselves against their own versions of realism and have created a many-faceted critique of realist forms. Both trends tend not to focus anymore on the external reality. They have moved the idea of reality to the inner world. In this sense, Golding tries to present the inner life of the boys, their feelings, their ideas. He manages to do this magnificently because of his own experience with the war.

Ian McEwan and postmodernism

McEwan was born in Aldershot, Hampshire, on 21 June 1948, the son of David McEwan and Rose Lilian Violet. He spent much of his childhood in East Asia, Germany and North Africa, where his father, a Scottish army officer, was posted. His family returned to England when he was twelve. He was educated at Woolverstone Hall School; the University of Sussex, receiving his degree in English literature in 1970; and the University of East Anglia, where he was one of the first graduates of Malcolm Bradbury’s pioneering creative writing course.

Considered as a great innovator of British literature and often compared to D.H. Lawrence, McEwan published for the first time in 1975 a collection of short stories entitled First Love Last Rites, collection which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976. He achieved notoriety in 1979 when the BBC suspended production of his play Solid Geometry because of its supposed obscenity. But his best writing came in 2001; Atonement is a novel that was named by the Times Magazine the best book of 2002, and which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, although at first it was considered his weakest novel.

Atonement is a book written in three major parts, with a final denouement from the author. Part one tells the story of one day and night in 1935 at the Tallis family estate north of London, England. It focuses on Briony Tallis, the thirteen-year-old youngest daughter of three, who aspires to be a writer. Briony witnesses a scene between her older sister Cecilia and the son of the family charwoman Robbie Turner. What is an innocent act is greatly misunderstood by the young imagination, and this sets off a series of events with eternal consequences. Part Two takes place five years later. It follows Robbie Turner as he retreats through France as a soldier during the war. The reader has learned he served three years in prison for his crime and is now able to exonerate himself by serving in the army. Part Three picks up the eighteen-year-old Briony who has signed up as a nurse in London. Suffering from guilt for her crime as girl, Briony hopes nursing will act as a penance for her sin. The final section, London, 1999, is a letter from the author to the reader. It is revealed here that the author of the novel is Briony herself.

Many readers have been disappointed by this unexpected authorial ending. Briony even anticipates them: “I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened ?” The answer is simple McEwan has Briony write , and in this way fiction triumphs, a thing achieved not by many authors. This postmodern kind of ending is really striking and at the same time very likable for readers.

In Atonement the author decides what really happened. That is what fiction is. And here, for once, the author has presented his decision in a near-perfect manner , in particular because he shows so well how this particular reality (or un-reality) came about (and leaves the inevitable lingering questions of what can be believed, of what is truth and what is wishful thinking and what pure invention). Questions remain but McEwan makes a convincing case for their needing to remain, and for readers needing to confront them.

Fiction doesn’t offer certainty, or absolute answers. It is nothing like factual, literal truth. But McEwan here shows why this fiction-truth is better, and what amazing power fiction has. In other words, the truth in Atonement is constructed by Briony with the help of the author. This is a postmodern characteristic by definition.

Another postmodern trait in the novel is the presence of history. If in the modern novels, history is embraced and treated as such, in postmodern novels it is diversified; it becomes histories, herstory. In McEwan’s novel we are faced with herstory, Briony’s. She presents us her life, the crime she committed, but also the story of Cecilia’s and Robbie’s lives.

The story of Briony’s life is full of questions concerning herself and others. She is questioning most of all the validity of what she has seen the night when her cousin was raped. The ontological questions she’s asking herself, of the kind What is to be done? She alone decides that she has to accuse Robbie of raping Lola. This thing is ruining two lives, Cecilia’s and Robbie’s. Later on in the novel, in order to make the things right she decides she has to do something, so she gets a job as a nurse in a hospital, just like her sister. There she begins to write, what becomes by the end of the novel Atonement. But will she obtain it? Will she be forgiven by her family and by her readers? These are questions that remain unanswered.

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