I keep saying that Katherine Mansfield is a standout example of a Modernist short story writer, but what does ‘modernist’ really mean?
“Make it new!”EZRA POUND, 1934
The Modernist Timeline
Where does the word come from? The word modernism first appeared in 1737, and kept shifting in meaning to mean new stuff. For ages it meant “a sense of forward-looking contemporaneity” (Christopher Wilk 2006)
The trouble with declaring something ‘modern’ is that it can never be modern for long.
We’ve now settled on the meaning of Modernism. It now refers to specific types of art which appeared at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th.
Although Modernism is no longer ‘modern’, the movement distinguished itself by going out of its way to be different from what came before. Modernists went out of their way to be modern. So the name still fits.
There is no collective agreement about when Modernism began as a movement. But hindsight gives us a ballpark date range. Let’s say Modernism happened between the late 19th century until the beginning of the second World War. (Okay, let’s say a nice tidy 1940.)
Novels like Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) are tentpole examples of Modernist novels. These stories emphasise fictitiousness. These artists believed that any attempt at representing ‘reality’ could only go so far. There is no such thing as reality. There are only selective perspectives of reality. Katherine Mansfield was a groundbreaker in Modernist short stories. Mansfield was publishing throughout the 1910s, into the 1920s. (She died of tuberculosis in 1923.)
Many cultural forces led to the art movement of Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th century:
- Mass production
Then World War 1 happened, with its catastrophic violence. This had an impact on art movements, too.
THE INFLUENCE OF SCIENCE
Einstein worked in a completely different field, but Einstein’s theories had a big effect on art, as well as in science. Writers were thinking a lot about time around the publication of the Theory of Relativity. It was mind-blowing for everyone who knew about it. Time doesn’t fly like an arrow! Who knew? Modernists treat time like it’s circular.
Modernist artists, along with their audiences, felt like they were living in a world that was changing very quickly. When people feel things are moving too fast to keep up, we tend to lose confidence in instutitions and social conventions which gather us together in an ordered way. We also tend to feel like puppets — that things are happening behind the scenes and we have no control. War doesn’t help.
THE INFLUENCE OF VITALISM
Vitalism is the belief that “living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things” (William Bechtel, Robert C Williamson, 1998).
Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Before, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change.
A vitalist worldview for artists meant they viewed character as both indivuated and also as a part of a complex whole. This relationship is dynamic, in motion and constantly transforming.
Which art movements CAME right before Modernism?
Well, there were a few going on all at once, all related to each other:
Realism: Late-19th-century movement based on a simplification of style and image and an interest in poverty and everyday concerns.
Naturalism: Late 19th century. Promotes the idea that heredity and environment control people.
Verismo: An Italian derivative of Naturalism and Realism. Verismo literature uses detailed character development based on psychology, “The science of the human heart” (Giovanni Verga).
Socialist Realism: A Soviet Union subset of Realist art which focuses on communist values and realist depiction.
Magical Realism: Magical elements appear in otherwise realistic circumstances. Most often associated with the Latin American literary boom of the 20th century. Some argue that magical realism should only apply to works which come from Latin America, with everything else called ‘fabulism’.
So basically, Realism and Naturalism precede Modernism. These forms of art both come from a firm belief in a commonly experienced, objectively existing world of history. Deliberately distancing themselves from Realism, Modernists got rid of the idea that there is any sort of veridical ‘reality’ within the world of a story.
Realist writers had clearly been trying to ‘out-real’ each other, in a competition to see who could write the most realistic stories. They were going for verisimilitude, and hoped readers could feel like they were ‘really there’, in the world of the story. Modernist artists disputed the very notion of ‘real’, so ‘verisimilitude’ can’t be a thing, either.
OTHER ART MOVEMENTS WITHIN MODERNISM
Within Modernism we find a bunch of other -isms. Overall, Modernist movements are about getting to some deeper truth, to a ‘realness’ beyond the movements within Realism:
- Surrealism: Despite how this word is used in colloquial modern English, surrealism is about the ‘super real’. (It means super real in French.)
- Imagism: a movement in early-20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language.
- Expressionism: arose as a reaction against materialism, complacent bourgeois prosperity, rapid mechanization and urbanization, and the domination of the family within pre-World War I European society. It was the dominant literary movement in Germany during and immediately after World War I
- Vorticism: flourished in England in 1912–15. Founded by Wyndham Lewis, it attempted to relate art to industrialization. It opposed 19th-century sentimentality and extolled the energy of the machine and machine-made products, and it promoted something of a cult of sheer violence.
WELL-KNOWN MODERNIST WRITERS
Notice how many of those Modernist authors also wrote for children, of with a childlike view of the world, possibly because this viewpoint allowed them to experience the world of adults in a deliberately defamiliarising way:
- Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) who became more modernist as she matured and was a leader in the tradition.
- D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930 who just so happened to be a friend of Katherine Mansfield
- Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) another of Mansfield’s closest friends and one of only two people who neither ‘loved’ nor ‘despised’ Mansfield, but who instead saw her complicated humanity. (The other was D.H. Lawrence.) Virginia Woolf founded The Bloomsbury Group in 1912 with her husband Leonard in Gordon Square. This group of artist friends flourished through the first two decades of the 20th century.
- William Faulkner (1897-1962)
- Henry James (1843–1916) who wrote a famous story from the viewpoint of a young girl, depite being well-known for not thinking much of children.
- James Joyce (1882–1941) who wrote Ulysses, and also A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with emphasis on ‘a portrait’ (meaning there are others, this is just one possible take on the guy). Finnegans Wake is also well-known, mostly for being a super difficult read.
- T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) who wrote OldPossum’s Book of Practical Cats
- E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) who wrote His Whist and Other Poems and who was clearly inspired by a childlike perspective.
- Lewis Carroll (1832–1898) considered by some, e.g. Juliet Dusinberre, the forebearer of literary Modernism.
- Langston Hughes (1901-1967) who wrote for adults and children e.g. Popo and Fifina (1932)
- Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961)
- Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) who wrote The World Is Round.
- Henry Roth (1906–1995) who wrote Call It Sleep.
- Mina Loy (1882–1966) who wrote Anglo Mongrels and the Rose.
FEATURES OF A MODERNIST STORY
Modernism is based on a utopian vision of human life and society and a belief in progress, or moving forward.
- language with multiple meanings
- experimentation with form
- the rejection of realism
- nonlinear narratives (Chronological linearity? Ugh!)
- ironic juxtapositions
- deliberate obscurity of meaning
- preoccupation with the destablising forces of science and technology
- interior monologue
- stream of consciousness
- multiple points of view
- a self-conscious concern with the nature of writing
- concerns with the problematic relationship between language and meaning
Before modernism came along, realist writers made use of narrators to add off-stage asides to the audience. Modernist writers got rid of this commentary, letting readers interpret for themselves.
Because the reader is expected to do more work, the narrator is more of an observer in the story, acting like a camera more than like an explainer.
Narration tends to be third person with a focalising character. Sometimes this focalising character shifts, sometimes all over the place. Multiple focalisation allows the reader into the heads of multiple characters which is better when your politics are against coming down in judgement. The problem with close focalisation of a single character is, readers are like ducklings and tend to side with that character.
THE IDEA OF FRAMES
Patricia Waugh says in Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984) that Modernism and Post-Modernism begin with the view that both the historical world and works of art are organized and perceived through what she calls ‘frames’.
She argues that “Everything is framed, whether in life or in novels.” (So let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we can divide works of art into ‘framed’ and ‘unframed’.)
Ortega y Gasset, writing on Modernism, made the observation that “not many people are capable of adjusting their perceptive apparatus to the pane and the transparency that is the work of art. Instead they look right through it and revel in the human reality with which the work deals”.
You may be familiar with the idea of ‘frames’ when talking about contemporary metafiction. You may also be familiar with diegetic levels, in which narratologists talk about ‘level zero’ (designating ‘zero’ as ‘the main’ story), with hypodiegetic layers below and metadiegetic layers above. This is another way of thinking about how stories are framed.
Metafiction asks the audience to consider, “What is the ‘frame’ that separates reality from ‘fiction’? Is it more than the front and back covers of a book, the rising and lowering of a curtain, the title and ‘The End’?” (Patricia Waugh).
The notion of frames and diegetic levels jibe with the Modernist worldview: That everything is seen through some sort of frame; there is no such thing as veridical reality.
Some have called the writing style of Mansfield, Lawrence and Woolf ‘narrated monologue‘. The reflecting mind is presented in the third person and in the preterite (a grammatical tense or verb form serving to denote events that took place or were completed in the past).
In English this means the simple past tense (verb-ed). (In English the simple past does not not always express the perfective — over and done with — aspect.)
Germans have a word for this style of narration: erlebte Rede. It refers to a rendering of a character’s thoughts in their own idiom while maintaining the third-person form of narration. Narrated monologue is different from interior monologue because it maintains ‘the person and tense of authorial narration’.
What replaced attempts of verisimilitude? What do we call it, if the artist is not even going for ‘real’?
Some have called its replacement ‘phenomenological aesthetics’, which draws a distinction between ‘real objects’ and ‘aesthetic objects’. The reader experiences a real object aesthetically. The reader reconstructs. In short, the reader does part of the work of constructing a story.
Modernist writers send the readers off in search of meaning. This offers readers more chance of coming to grips with their own ideas. Modernists are not didactic. They want readers to think, but they don’t want to tell them the content of what to think.
A MODERNIST TREATMENT OF TIME
The plot of a typical Modernist story has been described by Frank Kermode as tick-tock-tick. Kermode’s most influential book is The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theories of Fiction.
Kermode argued that fiction gives shape to time by translating the relentless tick-tick-tick of bare chronicity into the tick-tock of a meaningful plot. By listening for the next tick as a tock, as the end of something that preceded it rather than the next in a meaningless and interminable succession, we invest time with shape and significance. And if tock is a tiny apocalypse, the end of a millennium ought to be a very big one.Malcolm Bull, The Guardian
Kermode makes a distinction between the ‘reality’ of chronos (tick-tick) and the ‘time-redeeming’ kairos (tick-tock).
Since Einstein was making people scratch their heads about the meaning of time, this was reflected in art.
Realist writers, who tended to tell a story ‘from start to finish’ (though plotting rarely maps completely onto chronological order of a story).
In contrast with Realist writers, a significant feature of Modernist literature is the reinterpretation of and experimentation with time. Was this entirely down to Einstein et al? No, it was Impressionism (late 19th century) plus Dadaism and Surrealism and other avant-garde movements of the first half of the 20th century that triggered this shift away from the concept of linear time in art.
Modernists jump around a timeline when constructing a plot. In this respect, Modernist work feels more like the narrative of folklore, where the absolute chronological order is rare.
Once storytellers dispense with absolute chronological order, possibilities open up and writers become more likely to play with:
- motifs and symbolic codes
- antithetic pairings and other contrasts
These aspects of story don’t hew to chronological time. In order to understand the symbolism of a story, the audience has to consider all of it at once. Ditto for motifs. Tropes are inherently intertextual because they are like jigsaw pieces used time and time again across storytelling, across generations.
Examples of symbolic archetypes: snakes, roses, pre-lapsarian arcadia.
Modernists use character tropes to dehistoricise the individual. According to an historicist worldview, identity is stable and a result of continuity, social and cultural phenomena are determined by history. The son is who he is because of his father and so on. Modernists didn’t think like this. They broke ties between generations.
Tropes are the opposite of individuation. For example, in Sons and Lovers D.H. Lawrence makes use of the character tropes of religious woman, passionate sensualist and authoratitive mother to make us think about the various ways of being a woman. But underneath the ‘masks’, these characters are thought to be made up of the same basic element. In fact, the allotropic states don’t need to be embodied by the one person.
In Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Peter Walsh and Clarissa Walsh are allotropic states of the same basic element. They spend the entire time arguing, but this is because they are essentially the same… deep down. In Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party“, we might say Laura and Laurie are allotropic states of the same person. Mansfield makes this obvious even to the more casual reader: She’s given brother and sister very similar names. We can see this in children’s literature. It’s often said that the animal characters in the Winnie the Pooh stories are allotropic states of the same child.
By making use of these tropes they seek the fundamental facts of human existence and explore themes from birth to the grave (growing up, the experience of falling in love, the struggles between parents and children, between siblings).
BERGSON’S Durée AND ELAN VITAL
Duree: “subjective time”, inner experience, subjective and intuitively grasped. It is the real time we experience in our own conscious life.
In 1889, Henri Bergson wrote a doctoral dissertation called Time and Free Will, about freedom of the mind and duration. (It was translated into English in 1910). Bergson’s ideas started a lot of talk among philosophers and influenced Modernist literature.
- Bergson said there are two different ways of knowing a thing.
- Time, when considered in a rational, linear manner, is often mistaken for space. (Bergson’s entire deal is trying to get us not to always conflate time with space.)
- When we look at an analogue watch, we see the second hand moving (through space). He uses the watch as an example of how our concept of time is intimately connected to space.
- Time requires a ‘before’ and ‘after’. But what if there is no memory or consciousness? In that case, there can be no succession, and therefore no time. Without memory or consciousness, there are only single moments.
- When we think of ‘consciousness’, we tend to think of it as a series of discrete moments. But it would be more accurate to describe consciousness as a succession of moments that ‘interpenetrate each other and form an indivisible whole’. (Beasley, 2007)
- The only real time for Bergson is time which invokes a sense of timelessness.
- Human minds don’t work like a clock. We live in a kind of eternal present. Bergson calls this ‘simultaneity‘. (Again, the intersection of time and space.)
- Time may seem to function as past, present and future, but that’s not how it works at all. Time functions as one simultaneous concept, since the past affects the present and the present works with the future in mind. Past, present and future interact with and shape each other. At any given time we are experiencing the present moment, memories of the past and expectations of the future. There is no isolated linear progression. All three (past, present, future) together make up the temporal state of being.
- Duree is made up of ‘moments inside one another’ (mise en abyme style). Time is indivisible.
- When past, present and future merge, we experience a moment of transcendence, an epiphany.
- Elan vital: vital force. In Modernist work, the repressed and subjective nature of the individual is retrieved from the ‘vital forces’ of dreams, fantasies, madness and similar.
Shortly before John Berger died—a mere two days into the beginning of 2017—he had been working on a small book about time. … What Time Is It? examines the different ways we may think about what is on a chronometer: personal time, clock time, the way time bends and stretches and loop-de-loops for each of us in a unique way as we walk through the world, and how we are always walking in the shadow of our own death, whether or not we know it. Time in one place for one person is not necessarily the same as time for another, even if both may be measured by the same clock—and, of course, as Einstein famously observed, time is relative: clocks tick slightly differently, depending on how fast they are moving in space.For John Berger, the Time We Feel Most Deeply Can’t Be Kept on a Clock, LitHub
EPIPHANIES IN MODERNIST WORK
You may have noticed when reading Katherine Mansfield short stories that the epiphany is a standout point.
Since short stories are all about epiphanies, the Bergsonian way of thinking about time seems perfectly suited to the short story, and especially to Modernist short stories.
Characters move through the world wrong about something (or many things), seeing the world through a frame, failing to bring everything together. But! Near the end of the story they experience time ‘as it really is’ (according to Bergson) and for just a moment, the character experiences reality. These aren’t necessarily epiphanies per se, but more like moments of heightened awareness.
In a Mansfield short story, as often as not, the character goes right back to existing as they did before.
HOW DID MODERNIST WRITERS DESCRIBE DUREE?
Virginia Woolf described these epiphanies as ‘moments of being’, which is easier to remember than the concept of duree, but which makes more sense when understood alongside the concept of duree. (It was James Joyce who called them ‘epiphanies’ hence the oft-heard phrase ‘Joycean epiphanies’.) D.H. Lawrence used a different word again: ‘living moments’.
In these Modernest works, the epiphanies (or whatever you want to call them) generally come with some authorial commentary which tells us about the characters’ subjective perceptions.
T.S. Eliot (philosopher and poet) is considered another tentpole Modernist writer (though other movements have equal claim) and was influenced by the thought of Henri Bergson. In line with Bergson’s ideas about time, Eliot believed the past exists only in one’s current sense of it. The same is true of the future. Therefore all things, whether tangible, imagined, remembered, or anticipated, are one.
Eliot put it like this:
The past lived over is not memory and the past remembered is never lived.T.S. Eliot, Knowledge and Experience
What we remember is never the same thing as the thing that was actually experienced by our subjective past-self. We interpret past experience with a consciousness that surrounds us in a collective mode in the present.
Note: This view of the past belongs not the subjective self but of the collective consciousness.
time is not a sequence of one thing following another within some actual common ground. There is not a world that contains time; there is a flow of time, which produces worlds or durations. Time is a virtual whole of divergent durations. The everyday illusion is that life flows from one moment to the next and that we exist in some general line of time” (Colebrook 42).
time is a living and still moving eternity. It is an organic phenomenon and everything repeated in time is repeated in a new sense. Past contains the seeds of the present which, in turn, contain the seeds of the future. In Time and Free Will, Bergson uses the analogy of a “musical phrase which is constantly altered in its totality by the addition of some new note” (106) since “each new development alters the nature, the appearance and, as it were, the rhythm of the whole”
he perceives as the sickness of all revolutionary movements which tend to break connection with the past to form a radically altered sensibility in the present.
To form a healthy consciousness in the present, and to ameliorate the present conditions of life we should not break our relation with the past, nor should we deny or ignore the past. On the contrary, we should have a strong sense of tradition to outrun the past.
Contrast with: scientific/clock/intellectual/mathematical/rational/linear time, composed of separable bits. Time is spatialised into distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’. Time ticks away.
For modernist authors, the concept of duree is crucial to their understanding of the self. Authors use these concepts of time/experience/ultimate truths to communicate deep emotions and psychological needs. We go through life with the shadows of our entire pasts trailing behind us. We don’t think about this normally. But every now and then our memory rises up to impact the present and we attain some kind of insight into our present situation.
Short stories often recount an experience in the present which is defined by a character’s entire past/memory. At the end of the story, all of this comes together and the character achieves insight also known as an epiphany.
What does a Bergsonian concept of time mean on the page? The following are Modernist techniques which emulate Bergson’s duree concept of time:
- (narrated) monologue
- stream of consciousness
- fragmented consciousnesses and disintegrated persona — The self is considered ‘fragmented’ (there’s no one true self). This split is down to psychoanalyst ideas about a split between subconscious drives and conscious realisation. There’s no one, single ego. The self is fluid, and is always in a state of unfolding. A good word to use is ‘allotropic’ (D.H. Lawrence’s word), normally used in chemistry to describe something which can exist in two or more different forms. (Fragmentation of self is often conveyed on the page via fragmentation of syntax.)
- tunneling — Virginia Woolf’s word for how she burrowed into her characters’ backstories in order to show who they are in the present. Virginia Woolf defined her narrative method in her Diary: “my tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it.”
- interest in inner realities
- alienated figures
- defamiliarisation — deliberately making the familiar look unfamiliar to encourage an audience to see their world through fresh eyes
- allusive language (suggesting something rather than being explicit)
- use of free verse (poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular rhythm)
- irresolution — open endings, aperture endings
- features of the setting function as correlatives for inner states and feelings of the characters who inhabit the space
- Modernists think of the inner world as like a labyrinth (or a tunnel, if they’re Virginia Woolf). Whether we’re talking about tunnels or labyrinths, we’re talking about getting to the heart of something with some effort, in a meandering way.
Modernist writers like to describe setting. They’re painting for us in words. Most modernist writers are excellent stylists. They know how to write a pretty sentence.
Gloomy atmospheres are common. This is probably not surprising. The idea that there is no such thing as ‘the real truth’ does tend to cast a gloomy cast on things.
MODERNISM AND CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
When critics write about Modernism, they don’t tend to talk about children’s literature very much, but the creators children’s stories were subject to the exact same cultural forces. What can be said of Modernist art in general also applies to children’s literature.
Extra features of Modernist children’s stories:
- Rejection of didacticism
- Children are provided with rich fantasy worlds, whose issues manifest in the real world as well.
- Stories don’t shy away from uncertainties and ambiguities of the real world, with the belief that children can cope with more difficult subject matter.
Modernism and children go very well together. Dream logic, fantasy, playfulness and imagination are all associated with children as well as with Modernism, allowing various (non real) takes on the world.
As John Berger noted, children’s sense of time is also different from time as experienced by adults:
For Berger, a core difference between children and adults is how they experience time. “If we knew how long a night or a day was to a child,” he continued, “we might understand a great deal more about childhood.” For children, he argued, time tends to move more slowly than for adults, partly because adults tend to be much more aware of the “absurdity” of events that may befall them; this sense of “helplessness” and “anguish” in the face of such painful absurdity causes adults to experience time in a unique way.For John Berger, the Time We Feel Most Deeply Can’t Be Kept on a Clock
This, too, makes the child point of view well-suited to Modernist takes on the world.
But in the world of academia, children’s literature has been given a hard time.
Them: “That children’s story is too simplistic for us to consider it an example of Modernism.”
Also them: “That story is too complex and is therefore not really for children.”
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 32, Number 4, Winter 2007, Special Issue: Children’s Literature and Modernism.
Header painting: 1918 We Are Making a New World, Paul Nash, UK