Modernist Transformations of Realist Conventions

In order to fully understand and appreciate the depth and impact of the changes in literature that Modernism brings in the early twentieth century, let us consider the Victorian age and its Realism first, very briefly, as any literary trend is born from and reacts against its predecessor.

Other than being an age of paradoxes and contradictory states and ideas and the peak of the British Empire, the Victorian period also represents a period of transition towards much more advanced science and technology. Naturally, tradition and religion begin to crumble, the reign of the factual dawns, and the perfect social-ideological context for the emergence of Realism, and the destruction of Romanticism for that matter, is created. As the number of readers increased, writing gained a very important economic purpose and, subsequently, the public’s taste and demands grew equally in importance. The middle-class wanted to read literature which dealt with the contemporary world and with the everyday life it could identify itself with; or, more bluntly, it wanted to read novels that dealt with real things presented in a realistic fashion (as opposed to the idealism which characterizes Romantic literature). Among the most important characteristics of Realism in literature, one ought to mention that the text is very well structured with no confusion in style whatsoever, that it has fixed time lines, and it mostly deals with the everyday lives of middle-class people.

However, society and the world of letters has never been so prone to change as in the early twentieth century. Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the psychoanalytical studies of Sigmund Freud, the political theories of Karl Marx and others will pave the way to an entire new era, where nothing is being taken for granted (including religion, tradition, past ideas and social and ethical values etc.). Thus, it is no wonder that artists have struggled to adapt their work to the complex life and ideology of the modern man. Out of the attempts of making literature (fiction in particular) relevant for this new age, Modernism is born. Modernists believed that everything should be questioned and everything is suitable as subject matter for literature, strongly reacting against Realism. Writers like Woolf, Conrad and Joyce believed the inside of a character (their thoughts and feelings) to be just as important as their outside world and applied psychoanalytical theory to their work, creating the landmark technique of Modernist literature, the stream of consciousness. Chronology, plot and narrative are deconstructed and questioned, making room to flashes of thought and impressions, significantly increasing the complexity of literary works, thus making them very difficult to understand for the reader, who must piece together disjointed, subjective instances of interpreting the world. Other aspects of literary Modernism which must be taken into consideration include the fact that the language is also difficult to understand and impure (for the Modernists have lost their faith in the ability of the linguistic sign to accurately render the surrounding reality), and that we are dealing with multiple points of view coming from characters of multiple experiences and backgrounds (many times without even a central heroic figure).

One of the early writers to experiment with the new trends in literary techniques, especially with chronology and shifts in time, was Joseph Conrad. He quickly gained the reputation as one of the leading writers of his day, despite the fact that English was not his first language and his idiosyncratic style was disliked by some critics. His highly appreciated short story “Heart of Darkness” (1902) questions the ideology and validity of European colonization in Africa.

Regarding “Heart of Darkness” from the point of view of the differences between Modernism and Realism, a careful analysis will reveal even from the very beginning that the short story represents a bridge between Victorianism and Modern ideals. It takes place in a changing world and it talks about confusion and profound doubt. The reader already sees they are dealing with the Modernist inclination of questioning and doubting everything, rather than indulging in the fact and the security of the author-given truth, as it was the case with Realism. Even more, the main problem the work deals with is the difficulty of understanding the world beyond the self along with the inability of one man to judge another. How may one make assumptions about another, if one does not fully comprehend what and who exactly one is? Marlow is torn between the Company’s views on the one side, Kurtz’s ideology on the other, and also what he himself sees is happening in Africa. The careful reader may never say one party or the other is perfectly right without being biased. Conrad shatters the Realist certainty. Everything in the book is surrounded by darkness and the fog is present symbolically to indicate that nothing is accurate. To reinforce this theme, Conrad presents us with a Marlow that is confused about many elements surrounding him (the best example to illustrate this is the figure of Mr. Kurtz) and is forced to interpret the surrounding world. What’s more, he makes mistakes in doing this (in Part 2, for example, he assumes that the cries from the river do not mean an attack). If further confirmation of the confusion and ambiguity of the work is needed, one must only take a look towards the end of the short story where Kurtz’s memories are also questioned. The entire novella is representative of the Modernist philosophy attacking the idea of a fixed, objective outside reality. What reality is to the modernists is a disjointed collection of subjective impressions upon what lies outside the individual. This is the reason why, instead of the Sun and bright daylight which characterized the Enlightenment, we are now thrown into a world of darkness and fog. The exploration of madness and mental disintegration also causes confusion and ambiguity.

Regarding the narrative, and narration related problems, it is entirely mutated from the Realist conventions even from the simple fact that we are presented with a first person narration. What is more, although Realists used the frame as well, it must be considered that the frame here puts a distance between Marlow and Conrad (instead of reinforcing a point, as was the case in Realism) and neither of the their attitudes towards imperialism are ever entirely clear. This may also be interpreted as a Modernist aspect characterizing the short story, as Realists made a very strong point of using their plot to indicate what their opinions were (as they rewarded characters who behaved in the way they considered appropriate and condemned the others). Foregoing future Modernist works, there are sections in which little actually happens, but, in cases like this, the reader is offered a glimpse into how complicated and skeptical Marlow actually is. The narrative, much like the fictional world, lacks coherence and it is intertwined with strange description (such as the journey upriver).

Another issue of importance in “Heart of Darkness” regarding its Modernist innovations, somewhat derived from that of ambiguity, is the existence of multiple, distinct perspectives coming from the characters, especially regarding Mr. Kurtz. Marlow realizes that Kurtz was all sort of things to all sort of people (especially someone who has changed their lives). The presence of these multiple perspectives will keep the reader wondering about Kurtz’s (for example) true nature, rather than leaving them with a Realist certainty.

The surreal and the absurd create a general atmosphere of contradiction and this is felt even at linguistic level: it may be said that there exist instances where words have dubious value or the language is plainly contradictory (“tears slowly”). There is no doubt that this represents the artistic embodiment of the suspicion with which Modernists viewed the linguistic sign. Reality is merely our subjective interpretation of it so the word may no longer have the power to conceptualize elements of the surrounding world.

Virginia Woolf takes everything at least a step further. Perhaps the only one about whom we may say is a better representative for the Modernist Movement is James Joyce. Woolf, however, was very interested in the happenings of the mind and soul of her characters and is best known for her extensive and to great effect use of interior monologue. Present day critics describe her as :”an innovative force in the twentieth-century fiction, […] one of the leaders of the literary movement known as ‘modernism’.” Her most successful novel from a commercial point of view, “Orlando” was published in 1928 and spans around 400 years of a protagonist who changes gender from a man to a woman halfway through the work.

Even from the simplest synopsis of the novel, we see that it breaks through the most true of Realist conventions by presenting something which has absolutely no possibility of being real: over 300 years of history in which the protagonist only ages 36 years and transforms from a man to a woman. The chronology’s main trait is not that it is disorganized, as it is normally expected from Modernism, but that it is impossible, unrealistic.

When considering the Modernist aspects of “Orlando”, as opposed to Realism, four major points must be analysed. Firstly, a significant deal of the narrative is concerned with Orlando’s thoughts and his/hers internal activity. As mentioned before, with Virginia Woolf and the Modernists, a great importance is placed upon what is undergoing in the character’s mind and (sub)consciousness. The novel is entirely narrated in the third person, not the first, but what one should consider a transformation over Realism here is not the technique in itself, but rather the preoccupation for Orlando’s thought process: the fact that plot should be diminished for it to make room to the just as important aspect of internal activity.

A second main Modernist aspect is the shattering of the self (most probably a legacy of Freudian theories). Orlando realizes that she does not have a ‘self’, but is rather composed of a multitude of selves and expressions. The attack on the concept of a fixed, single self is one of the major characteristics of the Modernist Movement. Thus, bringing it into literature, the Modernists distance themselves even further from Realism.

Another idea worth mentioning, that writers of the nineteenth century would never have considered so seriously, is that imagination and fact intertwine. Woolf explores this throughout the novel and expresses it in the following metaphor: “rainbow and granite […] stuffed […] into a case”. She uses this metaphor to suggest that historical fact and imagination cannot be divided, which ultimately leads to the Modernist idea that (historical) fact is subjective and everything is relative. Not unlike “Heart of Darkness” where everything is shrouded by doubt and thus, relative.

The fourth major aspect that this paper will consider about “Orlando” is related to the narrator and the narrative. The latter is not entirely consistent in chronological order. This would have never been the case with the Realist writers since, in their case, preference is given to coherence, solid structure and chronological consistency. Although we are dealing with a third person narration, the narrator is a ‘vocal presence’, who breaks the flow of the story to give her view and remarks, making her a subjective narrator. A narrator pertaining to Realism would have related everything in such a fashion as to make the reader believe they are an objective narrator and would have never made comments on any aspect of the story or characters.

The early twentieth century saw a shattering of Western Europe both in the social and the cultural plan. Literature, like every other form of art, had to adapt to this immense wave of change, in spite of those who were still rooted in the Victorian tradition. It is not clear exactly when Realism was abandoned in the favour of the corpus of beliefs and techniques that constitute Modernism, but it is certain that the latter shaped literature to a direction the former could never have dreamt of. In the hopes it could give an insight into this, “Heart of Darkness” was chosen for analysis due to its atmosphere of doubt and confusion, to the interpretative challenges it proposes, to its contradictory language and absurd atmosphere, to its multiplicity of perspectives and peculiar narrative. Likewise, “Orlando” was also included in part for its Modernist narrator and narrative. Furthermore, Woolf’s novel is very suitable for illustrating transformations from the Realist conventions in the form of ideas like the existence of multiple selves and the coexistence of fact and imagination. In a higher perspective, there is not much distance from these changes of the Realist paradigm to “Finnegans Wake”.

Further Reading

Denis Delaney, Ciaran Ward, Carla Rho Fiorina. “Fields of Vision Volume 2”. Pearson Education Limited. First published 2003.

G C Thornley, Gwyneth Roberts. “An Outline of English Literature”. Pearson Education Limited. First published 1968.

Pat Rogers. “The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature”. Oxford University Press. First published 1987.


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