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Essay/Term paper: Definition of modernism in fiction

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Composition

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Definition of Modernism in Fiction

Modernism, in literature, can be seen as a shift in focus to the unassociated introspective reflection of characters in such texts as Go Tell It On The Mountain, by James Baldwin, Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West and The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. This is a revision from the previous focal point of exterior events and places in correlation with the character"s reflections. Emphasis is placed on review upon feelings and thoughts, and even conversations with oneself, as opposed to the more directly event-driven reflections in texts of the pre-modernist era.

This is not to say that texts of the modernist era have no events, or that their characters sit at home all day long thinking. Many activities take place in these texts, but the characters tend to spend time reflecting upon basically uncorrelated ideas, and to ponder what they mean for him. For example, in Go Tell it On the Mountain, when his aunt, Florence, comes to church for the first time, John knows, "it was the hand of the Lord that had led her to this place, and his heart grew cold. The Lord was riding on the wind tonight. What might that wind have spoken before the morning came?"(61). John's pondering of the Lord "riding on the wind" seems somewhat unrelated to his aunt coming to church. His premonition that something would happen tonight has nothing to do with the current events.

It can be seen, in the broader definition of modernism provided, that modernism is a response to modernity, keeping "alive an awareness of conflict, upheaval, and destruction". It some modernist texts, including Catcher In The Rye, one can see many internal conflicts and much upheaval, without any certain outside events. For example, when Holden takes his sister, Phoebe, to the park, he watches her on the carousel, and the thoughts he ponders don"t appear to have any real connection with what is going on externally. Instead, the audience sees a part of what could be described as Holden"s emotional breakdown, "The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off…"(211). Although this is brought on by his watching Phoebe, his sudden realization seems to have little correlation. By the end of the book, one can tell that the person most likely to "fall off" is Holden.

This is not to imply that all modernist texts have characters who go off the deep end, though in a way, Miss Lonelyhearts does as well. Miss Lonelyhearts seems to go off on tangents that are somewhat unbelievable and often violent and horrid. For example, when he and his friends are in the bar, speaking to the old man, Miss Lonelyhearts suddenly feels, "as he had felt years before, when he accidentally stepped on a small frog. Its spilled guts had filled him with pity, but when it"s suffering had become read to his senses, the pity turned to rage…"(17). This recollection of times parts is very characteristic of modernists texts. The time continuum in a character"s life is very real and apparent. But the events that lead to a reflection don"t always have any sort of noticeable correlation, except for the character himself. This makes the text all the more real, as people often think this way in real life as well.

All three of these texts are modernist because they have characters who are introspective, without being introspective because of the events around them. Instead, it seems to come from some point inside, possibly containing the conflict that is involved with modernization in literature.


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