By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A literary movement’, the Irish novelist George Moore once observed, ‘consists of five or six people who live in the same town and hate each other cordially.’ Few literary movements better exemplify Moore’s point than modernism. Modernism was a hugely significant movement in art, literature, architecture, and music in the early twentieth century.
In this post, we’ve attempted to condense English-language modernist literature into eight key works of poetry and prose. We reckon a reader looking to take a crash-course in modernist writing could do worse than seek out these finest, defining works of literature.
1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
First published in three instalments in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, and then in book form in 1902, Heart of Darkness thus straddles the Victorian and ‘modern’ eras: it first appeared when Victoria was still on the throne, but by the time the book version was published, Britain had a new monarch and was firmly in a new century.
This novella examines the evils of Belgian imperialism in Africa, but also interrogates the very nature of storytelling itself – and all that comes with it, whether truth, trust, the reliability of language to convey one’s experiences, and a whole host of other quasi-metaphysical issues.
The book also inspired the 1979 film Apocalypse Now about a modern ‘imperialistic’ mission, namely the American presence in Vietnam. Mr Kurtz became Colonel Kurtz.
Recommended edition: Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Editions)
2. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
This 1922 long poem features (as it must) in our pick of Eliot’s best poems, and it’s one of the landmark works of modernist literature – perhaps the most important poem in all of modernism.
In the poem, T. S. Eliot draws on personal experience (his first marriage, his knowledge of London, his convalescence following some sort of nervous breakdown) but transmutes it into something universal and, in his word, ‘impersonal’ – a poem that spoke for an entire generation.
A medley of Arthurian legend, Greek myth, quotations from Shakespeare, jazz rhythms, and Wagner – among much else besides – the poem as we have it was beaten into shape by Ezra Pound, to whom Eliot dedicated the final poem.
We offer a detailed summary and analysis of the poem here.
Recommended edition: The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions)
3. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Tickets, Please’.
Written during WWI and focusing on the men and women who work on the trams in Nottingham, ‘Tickets, Please’ examines the shifting gender roles in the early twentieth century and the latent desires and impulses which Freudian psychoanalysis had lain bare.
If you need another reason to read this short story, the principal male character is named John Thomas, after a slang term for ‘penis’. Typical Lawrence.
You can read our analysis of the story here.
Recommended edition: Selected Stories (Penguin Classics)
4. Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’.
Like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound was born in the United States but moved to Europe – and London – as a young man. His two most famous works are among the longest and shortest in canonical ‘English’ literature: The Cantos runs to nearly a thousand pages, while ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1913) is just two lines in length (you can read it online here; we offer an in-depth commentary on Pound’s poem here).
It’s one of the defining poems of the imagist movement in modern poetry, which would pave the way for later, more ambitious works such as Eliot’s The Waste Land (as well as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock‘, which, although not imagist, reflects some of the central principles of imagism).
5. Henry James, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’.
This story has variously been described as a satire on literary criticism and simply ‘a joke’. It is narrated by a rather odd and self-absorbed critic for a fictional newspaper; this narrator is told by a leading novelist, Hugh Vereker, that he – Vereker – has concealed a ‘secret’ within all of his fiction.
Every one of his novels contains this secret which, like a thread in a Turkish carpet, has been so carefully woven into the fabric of the novel that only the most careful reader will find it.
The story that ensues is part mystery, part detective story, part exposé of the worst aspects of the literary world. We have offered an analysis of it here.
Recommended edition: Selected Tales (Penguin Classics)
6. James Joyce, Ulysses.
Published in the annus mirabilis of modernism, 1922, Ulysses is Joyce’s masterpiece. It’s also one of the best modernist novels ever written. The novel is a retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, about Greek hero Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan Wars (a journey which took him ten years, but which Joyce condenses to a single day in Dublin, 16 June 1904).
Joyce had been interested in the figure of Odysseus (or Ulysses, as the Romans called him) since his schooldays, and organised Ulysses around eighteen episodes, each of which is devised to echo one of the episodes from Homer’s epic. Joyce’s attention to detail was impressive.
Recommended edition: By James Joyce Ulysses (Oxford World’s Classics)
7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway.
Like Joyce’s Ulysses, this novel is set over the course of one day, in June 1923. And, like Joyce’s work, it’s one of the finest modernist novels in the English language.
Originally titled ‘The Hours’, Mrs Dalloway is perhaps Woolf’s best-known work. Indeed, the structure of Woolf’s novel was inspired by her reading of Joyce’s Ulysses. Woolf liked the idea of writing a novel set over the course of just one day.
But Woolf had her reservations about Joyce’s obsession with what she saw as the more squalid side of life – sex and bodily functions – and went as far as to describe Ulysses as ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. Her approach to the ‘one-day novel’, then, would be different.
The character of Mrs Dalloway didn’t make her debut in Mrs Dalloway (1925). She’d first appeared in print a decade before, in Woolf’s first ever published novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. (This was a very conventional novel in comparison with Woolf’s later novels such as Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves.)
Recommended edition: Mrs Dalloway n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
8. Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Garden Party’.
Katherine Mansfield was the one writer Virginia Woolf was jealous of, according to Woolf herself. Mansfield never wrote a full-length novel, but wrote a number of classic modernist short stories.
This story, from 1920, is probably her most famous: it focuses on a young woman, Laura Sheridan, whose family is holding a garden party at their home in New Zealand. Shortly before the guests arrive, tragedy strikes: one of their neighbours from the poor part of the village dies in an accident.
The story is told in a spare, simple style, but with moments of trademark modernist features: in particular, stream of consciousness and the idea of the ‘epiphany’ or moment of consciousness.
Recommended edition: Selected Stories n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
If you enjoyed this pick of the best works of modernist literature, you might also enjoy our short modernist poems everyone should read.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.