What Is Modern Literature?

Here, we’ll explore the definition of modern literature, common themes from authors during the modern period, and the most famous examples of modern literature.

Contrary to how it may sound, the term “modern literature” doesn’t refer to current-day novels and poems; instead, it refers to the literary period at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s.

In the world of literature, the late 1800s and early 1900s showed a stark difference from the classic and Victorian periods. Previous period authors tended to stick to a stream-of-consciousness approach to their writing. The work was conversational and wasn’t as creative as in later periods. While characters were written dramatically, they were used as devices to move the plot forward rather than explore the intricacies of being human.

During the modern period, authors began to take more risks, using their creativity to tell stories considered too controversial or shocking for earlier audiences. Authors in the modern period often influenced society’s behavior through their writing rather than simply trying to tell a story. While classic and Victorian authors tended to stick to writing about love and war, modern authors were willing to write about anything and everything–including topics that could upset audiences.

The themes, ideas, and style of writing in modern literature are different from those of other periods, and modern authors created a style that would have been shocking to authors before their time. So let’s dig in and learn more.

Check out our canonical literature and classic literature explainers.

What Is Modern Literature?

Modern literature authors used writing to explore what it means to be human. Rather than telling life stories, modernist authors dug into art, philosophy, and other modalities to discuss how human beings live and function.

Much was changing in the world when modern literature began to take root. The world was undergoing industrialization, and many people found that their way of life was changing. Farming and small family businesses gave way to people leaving to work in factories and other industrial facilities. In many cases, this meant that once-tight family units were growing apart. People were leaving home for opportunities in larger cities, and the day-to-day interaction of families was changing rapidly.

The First World War also impacted how modernist authors approached their work. As the roaring twenties came and went, modernists, saw prosperity and fun enter their lives–and then leave. This provided a different perspective on the world and life and created an eye-opening perspective for many. As a result, modernist authors were forced to see the human experience differently than previous generations and expressed themselves in new ways.

Common Themes in Modern Literature

Classic and Victorian literature moved stories forward with ease through solid plotlines and dialogue. Modern literature was different. Authors showed readers the characters’ innermost thoughts, walking them through the plot by showing them what their protagonist was thinking about next. Modern literature lets readers genuinely get to know characters rather than only knowing the story the author wanted to tell. Characters spoke through a stream of consciousness, and readers could identify with the jumbles of thought that are part of the human experience.

Many modern authors wrote their novels in the first person, allowing the character to speak directly to the reader. This allowed the reader to understand that the protagonist’s perception of other characters was subjective and forced readers to consider whether the protagonist was being fair in their judgment of others in the story.

Voice in Modern Literature

Modern literature is emotional and raw and exposes difficult truths about characters and humanity. Experimentation is a common theme of modern literature. Sometimes, authors experimented with non-linear literary timelines, telling readers one part of the story before jumping back to explain something else that happened in the past. Individualism was also a key part of the modern literature movement. While stories were told in a way that could be used to impact society, novels were typically focused on individual character and their inner journey.

Literary devices commonly used by modern authors include imagery and symbolism. Modernist authors worked on painting a clear picture for readers, helping them understand their character’s world. Symbolism allowed authors to explore profound truths about their characters and humanity while still allowing readers to draw their conclusions.

Modernist Poetry

While novels and novellas are most commonly discussed in the modernist movement, poets also changed their style in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Past poetry tended to be written in a specific rhyme scheme or style. Modernist poets got rid of the rules regarding the number of syllables and rhymes at the end of each line. Instead, free verse was king, and poets expressed themselves however they saw fit. Many modernist poets sparked debates about what poetry is–without rhyme and metered verses, modernist poets got rid of the rules that previously surrounded poetry. 

What About Postmodernism?

Following the modern period, postmodernist authors skewed even further away from the style of the classic and Victorian periods. The period used concepts like metafiction and play to explore the idea that maybe–maybe–there’s no one way to explain the human experience. Postmodernist authors didn’t delve into a deep analysis of human nature. Instead, they told their subjective truths in a way that they knew might alienate some members of their audience. Postmodernist authors were not afraid to be controversial and often found that their work polarized readers while sparking essential conversations about right, wrong, and gray areas. 

Examples of Popular Modern Literature

Here, we’ll look at some of the most famous examples of modern literature.

1. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

How cold and slimy the water had been! A fellow had once seen a big rat jump into the scum. Mother was sitting at the fire with Dante waiting for Brigid to bring in the tea. She had her feet on the fender and her jewelly slippers were so hot and they had such a lovely warm smell!

Joyce expertly uses imagery to paint a picture for readers throughout the entirety of his novel. The story is that of the Irish author’s own life (with fictional details added). Literary critics have long heralded the book for its detailed, vivid descriptions that make the reader feel like they’re growing up with the protagonist. The book goes through many of the hardships Joyce faced growing up, including understanding political problems, pondering his thoughts on religion, and deciding to leave his homeland.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Dover Thrift Editions: Classic Novels)
  • Unmarked paperback copy.
  • James Joyce (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 192 Pages - 05/20/1994 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications (Publisher)

2. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

He was married five years, had three children, lost most of the fifty thousand dollars his father left him, the balance of the estate having gone to his mother, hardened into a rather unattractive mould under domestic unhappiness with a rich wife; and just when he had made up his mind to leave his wife she left him and went off with a miniature-painter. As he had been thinking for months about leaving his wife and had not done it because it would be too cruel to deprive her of himself, her departure was a very healthful shock.

In this novel about a group of ex-pats living in Paris, Hemingway perfectly portrays the stream of consciousness associated with modernism. His meandering passages take the reader through the thoughts of his characters, making readers feel like they’re walking down post-World War I European streets, wandering through the Parisian nightlife and the excitement of Spanish bullfights. While the journey the characters take throughout the book is riveting, many Hemingway fans are even more appreciative of the time the author took to allow readers to get to know the innermost thoughts of each character.

The Sun Also Rises: The Authorized Edition
  • Hemingway, Ernest (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 251 Pages - 10/17/2006 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)

Heralded by many as the great American novel, The Great Gatsby paints a clear picture of luxury, love, and loss. Told from the first-person point of view, Fitzgerald provides the reader with Nick Carraway’s perspective, taking readers through his endless quest to win Daisy’s heart. The way that Fitzgerald described Gatsby’s opulent parties still has readers talking about the book nearly a century after its release.

The Great Gatsby: The Only Authorized Edition
  • Great product!
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 180 Pages - 09/30/2004 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

To learn more, check out our round-up of the 15-must read classic literature books.

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