What is Modern Literature?

Stockholm Public Library
Stockholm Public Library / Photo by Paul Povoroznuk @ Unplash

Continuing the introduction series, today I’ll bring some suggestions so you can understand the literature in modernist times. Ready?

As we saw previously, one thing that is super important to keep in mind when we are talking about modernism: the break from the past. This is an idea to take with you when experiencing any modern artwork, be it visual art, architecture, dance, music and today’s subject, literature.

Think about it as authors breaking free from classic, rigid academic rules and practices, which were THE (only acceptable) way to make art, to explore into making it different. Testing form, structure, techniques, language and ideas. 

Some of the books written at the period are still today considered hard to read and that’s partly because the authors were experimenting and exploring form. 

Let’s have a look at a few writers and their books:

James Joyce – Ulysses

James Joyce, Paris / © Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation

“Ulysses” was first published as a book in 1922 in Paris and it’s one of the most important books in modernist literature. It follows one day (16th of June,1904) in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Ireland. 

Joyce tells stories of everyday life of ordinary characters and plays with structure, prose, humour and the use of stream of consciousness

As an experimental work, it’s still a challenging reading yet today there are many “guides” that can help you throughout your journey with “Ulysses”. 😉

This TED video can be quite helpful in giving you more context and confidence for the reading! 


Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway book covers @ Penguin

Virginia wrote “Mrs Dalloway” in quite a similar manner as Joyce’s Ulysses using the stream of consciousness, flashbacks, and multiple interwoven stories to bring us to a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway while she’s preparing for a party later in the evening. 

The book was published in 1925 in London, England and it’s a great example of the modernist style. According to the Britannica Encyclopedia:

“Her style was a reaction to the narrative style of much popular Victorian literature, which was linear and deterministic. Woolf, like many other Modernist authors writing in the aftermath of World War I, felt that such a style did not truly depict life as the disjointed mess that it was. She drew from both Joyce’s and Marcel Proust’s understanding of time and psychology to develop round, dynamic characters that convincingly express the reality of their existence on the page.”

“Mrs Dalloway” deals with subjects like mental illness, the scars of World War I, life in an increasingly modern city, loneliness and love.

Virginia Woolf is a great inspiration and has influenced many authors and artists. More on her life and work to come on the blog in the future! 🙂


Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis illustration @ Danilo Fanes / Kafka @wikimedia commons

The Czech author Franz Kafka wrote “The Metamorphosis” (German – Die Verwandlung) in 1912 and it was published in 1915 in Leipzig, Germany.

The book tells the story of the salesman Gregor Sams, that one morning, finds himself transformed into a disgusting vermin (or insect-like, there are some debates in the translation from German to English). Kafka then brings us the anxiety, shame, guilt and alienation that Gregor suffers in this surreal and absurd situation. 

These were recurrent themes in Kafka’s works and one of the many interpretations his work has received is that his writing reflected the turbulent relationship with his abusive father. Some defend the increasing bureaucracy and oppression of modernity as main subjects throughout his work.

“The Metamorphosis” has influenced a vast number of authors and works of art along the years and there is even a term to describe situations like the one found in the book and his work at large: Kafkaesque

Although he never found literary success in life, he is considered one of the greatest authors of the 20th century and a key figure in modernist literature.

Have you read any of these books? What do you think about them?

Let me know! 🙂

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