Monday, 7 May 2012



In terms of the novel's development, World War I (1914-18) marks a fundamental break between the old world and the new. Fiction before this period generally followed the styles, forms and themes of the Victorian period, although writers such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad had already begun to develop techniques that would later be more fully exploited by the modern novel.For many people the experience of the war, in which hundreds of thousands had been killed, shattered their faith in society and its institutions. Mechanised industry had prospered on the backs of underpaid labourers. Now those same workers were being sent to their deaths in the trenches in a similarly mechanical manner. With the 1914-18 war, the dehumanising effects of industrial society reached their peak.
The Modernists, horrified by the effect of war and mechanised society in general, were interested in recovering the unique experience of the indiviaduals by exploring and recreating their inner world.
The Modernist novel was to shatter most conventions which had typified Victorian fiction. The co-ordinates of the Victorian moral universe collapsed and was replaced by a climate of moral ambiguity or even by a sense of emptiness which signalled and absence of values. All this was reflected in the themes of most modernist novels.
From a stylistic point of view, modernist novels broke new ground in two particular aspects. First of all, the omniscient narrator as moral and spiritual guide disappeared and was replaced by the direct or indirect presentation of characters, feelings,thoughts and memories. Secondly , many modernist novels no longer followed a linear plot or a chronological sequence of events. The idea of progress which lay behind the novel's linear plot structure gave way to the idea of duration, of freezing and examining what Virginia Woolf called "moments of being". A novel can be set in one day, while the analysis of a single moment can tell us more about a character than a traditional narrative life-story. Modernists were turning away from the idea of the novel as a mirror of society, whether real or ideal, and from the sense of social responsibility felt by the Victorian novelists.

Freud's theory of the unconscious

The development of Modernist novel was deeply influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) propsoed a theory of human consciousness as multi-layered, involving different levels of experience and memory. Of these levels the most radically significant was the unconscious.
For more information about Sigmund Freud, his works and theories


The Influence of Henry Bergson

Another thinker who influenced the techniques of Modernists was Henry Bergson (1859- 1941). His major works include Time and Freewill and Matter and Memory. In these studies Bergson elaborated a philosophical position in contrast to the scientific materialism and positivism which dominated the Victorian period. Bergson argued that time could not be measured according to units .

William James and the idea of consciousness

In some ways linked to Bergson's notion of time and equally important to the development of the Modernist novel is the psychologist William James (1842-1910) , brother of the novelist Henry James's notion of "stream of consciousness", discussed in The Principles of Psychology (1890), deeply influenced the narrative method of Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. "Consciousness", James said,"does not appear to itself chopped up in bits" but is something that flows. By consciousness , James does not merely intend conscious awareness but the entire range of an individual's mental activity including pre-speech levels of consciousness and awareness.

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