Renoir Young Girl Reading


Queen Victoria died in 1901, and as the new century wore on, it became apparent that the reign not only of Victoria, but of Victorianism, was over. It was giving way to a new disillusionment and a new way of perceiving the world which became known as "Modernism."

Various writers disagree about the origins, the dates, and even the artists of the Modernist period; they also disagree on how to define it. Some date it as beginning as early as 1865; others as late as 1914. Most of the disagreements arise from questions of how to define Modernism, since it covers such a broad range of literary, musical, philosophical, scientific, and artistic movements. And its roots can be traced back as far as the 1600s. But almost critics agree that Modernism came into full flower during the first thirty years of the century, especially in England.

The optimism and certainty of the Victorian era was, by the beginning of the 20th century, giving way to disillusionment and despair. The most obvious symptoms of this occurred in religion: there was no longer a single, unifying religious doctrine which was accepted by all in the culture. Many had begun to question even the existence of God. Darwin's Origin of the Species is most commonly blamed for this by those who lament the passing of organized religion's influence, but Darwin was not alone responsible for the pace of scientific achievement and development, and its effect on the culture's belief system. Freud published his Interpretation of Dreams in 1901; Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905; by now, scientific development had explained many "miraculous" events and was pushing people to question the basis of their faith. It was demanding that they see the human mind and heart, not as divinely inspired, but as products of their biological and social environment.

Thus, God died.

Well, I don't mean that literally, of course. But logically, the death of a complacent acceptance of any "right" system of religious belief was a natural result. If people are products of their environment and conditioning, they will create a God who meets the needs of that environment and conditioning. Therefore, there is no way to tell which perception of God is the "right" one and which religion is "correct"; in fact, since the need for belief is a psychological one, God may have been an invention in the first place.

By the beginning of the 20th century, these ideas were no longer new, and the old Victorian self-righteousness had given way to doubt and uncertainty. If there was no God to greet you at the Pearly Gates to confirm that you were right all along, then how could you know what was Right? what was Truth? what was Good and Bad?

The answer was that you couldn't know. If there was no God, Truth became subjective: one person's Truth (unless it could be empirically disproven) was just as correct as another's. One person's customs, habits, and values were no longer more "right" than another's. On a practical level, this called into question the validity of all social, political, economic, and ethical forms. They were no longer sacred; they were just arbitrary conventions, and it was allowable to alter or overthrow them.

On a deeper level, though, this idea of a Godless universe created both despair and freedom--despair because, if there is no God, then there is no inherent meaning to life. There is no purpose to one's life, and there is no reward or punishment at the end of it. There is no afterlife. There is just now. This can make the trials and sufferings of everyday life seem pointless, and the thought of one's isolation in the universe unbearable. The freedom that derives from this "pointlessness" is cold comfort: if there is no meaning to life, and no punishment or reward at the end, then anything is permissible and possible--and meaningless.

The devastation and brutality of World War I only heightened these feelings. People who had believed their governments' propaganda that they were fighting "the war to end all wars" came to see that their leaders were cynically pursuing profit at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives. The imagery of soldiers waist-deep in mud and lice in the trenches, choking to death on their own blood after poison gas attacks, dying by the hundreds of thousands on the Somme, made it easy for many to accept the death of God. What else could explain such suffering?

The Moderns, then, reject the traditions (literary, religious, and social) of the Victorians, and elect to create new forms and methods. They reject the idea that they are creating a new "tradition," since that word implies permanence, and the only thing permanent about life in the 20th century is constant change. Thus, D. H. Lawrence portrays relationships between men and women, not in their social context, but in their sexual and unconscious motivations. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf use stream of consciousness to reveal the internal and subjective nature of contemporary lives. W. B. Yeats and, especially, T. S. Eliot directly address the issues of isolation and fragmentation they perceive to be the governing characteristics of life in the 20th century.

The most important literary work of the early 20th century was T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. In it, Eliot presents the images and techniques which came to dominate the Modernist style and which influenced nearly every important writer of the century. The author gives the reader a series of fragmented but interrelated images, and leaves it up to the reader to make the connections between them and determine their significance. We hear snatches of conversation, but the people speaking--even when they are in the same place, never seem to hear or respond to each other. The imagery evokes deserts and wastelands, especially in the cities. London is presented as a region of Hell. Numerous allusions to mythic and literary traditions evoke emotional and intellectual associations which the reader must decipher; those allusions also draw a contrast between the spiritually rich past and the emotionally and spiritually arid present--although Eliot questions even the richness and depth of the past, implying that we all live by illusion, and that maybe the only difference between the past and the present was its ability to cherish its illusions.

Following is a list of a few of the more important Modernist works, along with their dates of publication:

Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness

Conrad began writing Heart of Darkness in January 1899. It was based on his own experiences on a trip to the Congo. It must have been stewing in him for quite a while, because the entire novel, including revisions, poured out of him in just two months.

Conrad felt, as he says, in the Preface to his novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus, that a novel should be faithful both to art and to experience: " itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential--their one illuminating and convincing quality--the very truth of their existence." The vivid details Conrad uses make it easy for the reader to visualize the scenes he creates; they also, oddly, give the scenes a nightmarish quality. Think, for example, of his descriptions of the pointless explosions and grove of dying men at the Company station.

Conrad felt that Heart of Darkness was too symbolic. Most critics disagree with him, arguing that the depth and complexity of the symbolism is what makes the novel so rich.

Various themes are apparent in the novel:

Frederick Karl also argues that, in Marlowe and Kurtz, Conrad is symbolically exploring the spiritual journey the artist faces, and the dangers of that journey: the stagnation and waiting; the desire to explore and to see, even if seeing corrupts the soul; the journey to the heart of darkness to discover the deepest truths about the good and bad in human nature.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. "The Originality of Conrad", Marvin Mudrick, in Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Marvin Mudrick
2. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, Frederick R. Karl
3. "The 'Unspeakable Rites' in Heart of Darkness," Stephen A. Reid, in Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Marvin Mudrick
4. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Modern British Literature, eds. Frank Kermode and John Hollander