8 Literary Movements

Literary Movements

As mentioned in the previous module, attention to the context . in which a work of literature was created and distributed is a critical layer to include in one’s analysis. Beyond specific historical or cultural events relevant to a given literary work, appreciating the rise and fall of the prominence of particular literary movements can inform the interpretations of what we read. There are four major literary movements applicable to the study of modern short fiction: Romanticism Realism Naturalism , and Modernism .

Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century characterized by a heightened interest in nature and an emphasis on individual expression of emotion and imagination. Romanticism flourished from the early to the mid-nineteenth century, partly as a reaction to the rationalism and empiricism of the previous age (the Enlightenment). In fiction, Romanticism is often expressed through an emphasis on the individual (a main character) and the expression of his or her emotional experience, such as by having the plot coincide with the character’s emotional conflicts. In opposition to the logic of the previous age, Romantic fiction sometimes even returns to Gothic elements, which often includes stories about the supernatural of the uncanny. (An example of this literary movement in this module is Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström.”)

Realism was an artistic and intellectual movement of the late nineteenth century that stressed the faithful representation of reality or verisimilitude . Realism was a reaction to what were viewed as the exaggerations or flights of fancy of Romanticism. Realists sought to develop an artistic style that valued the faithful portrayal of everyday experience, what Henry James described as “the drama of a broken tea cup.” The development of realism coincided with the rise of social reform movements and many realistic writers and artists chose to focus on social issues, such as poverty and the plight of the working class, in cities as well as in the country. The height of realist writing in American literature is considered to have occurred from the time of the U.S. Civil War (c. 1865) to the turn of the century (c. 1900). Realism as a literary movement swept across the country. This wave also fostered an interest in Regionalism , the realistic portrayal of specific areas and locales almost as a fictional form of travel literature. It should be noted that literary realism was equally popular in Europe, such as in the work of Charles Dickens or George Eliot in England, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert in France, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy in Russia.

Overlapping with the development of Realism was the literary movement known as Naturalism (approximately 1880–1930). Naturalist literature sought to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to the characters and subjects represented in novels and short fiction. In this way, Naturalism is influenced more by philosophical ideals than literary techniques including, though not exclusively, existentialism and social determinism. Characters in naturalistic stories frequently confront social conditions or personal conflicts which cannot be reconciled through the exercise of free will alone; these characters may fall upon tragic circumstance due to their social class, the harsh realities of nature or the inner strife of conflicting emotions, morals, and passions. Naturalist authors borrowed some of the stylistic innovations of Realism, yet often felt Realist works did not portray everyday experience in its full grit and trauma, remaining more to middle class tastes. In order to convey what they felt to be the harshness of life circumstances across the spectrum of human experience, some Naturalist writers combined elements of Realism (a focus on the everyday) with elements of Romanticism (a focus on emotion and symbolism) in order to portray what they understood to be the futility of human striving in an indifferent universe.

Modernism became the predominant literary and artistic movement of the 20 th century. Modernism is a broad term referring to the social thought, cultural expressions, and artistic techniques that broke with past traditions following the political upheavals across Europe in the mid–1800s (including the French Revolution) through the horrors of the first World War, as well as the scientific and technological developments flowing from the Industrial Revolution. Yet, ‘modernism’ also is a term that is specifically used in relation to a precise style of fiction that attempted to chronicle the personal alienation, cultural disruption, and even loneliness of living in a century of rapid and often traumatic change. Some modernist literature (Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner) relied on a style of writing known asstream-of-consciousness , where the narrative followed the organic (and sometimes chaotic) pathways of one or more characters’ thoughts. Other modernist authors, such as Hemingway, sought to pare down the comparatively flowery language of previous literary movements and present the complexity of modern life through crisp, sharp detail. Many modernist writers sought to create work that represented not simply a moment or a region (as in Realistic fiction) but a larger, universal truth that transcended personal experience. (Examples of this literary movement in this module include William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law.”)

The Modernist movement (which many believe is still active) is followed by postmodern innovations in fiction; post-modernist literature extends the disillusionment and disruption that characterized modernism by further fragmenting language and literary structures, even by creating “hybrid” forms so that it becomes less clear what is a poem and what is a story, for example. Some postmodernist literature exaggerates the irony at the height of Modernism to the point of becoming parody, obscuring what is comic and what is tragic about the subjects being represented. This course does not include an example of a postmodern short story (largely due to the difficulty in securing copyright of recent works) but students should be aware that a sizable body of literature exists that would no longer be best classified as “Modernist.” The work of the American author Kurt Vonnegut, particularly his novel Slaughterhouse Five , is a prime example of postmodern fiction. (1)


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