Comparison of Modernism and Postmodernism in Literary Criticism

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Comparison of Modernism and Postmodernism in Literary Criticism essay
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This paper investigates the definition and the major principles of two successive literary movements namely modernism and postmodernism and the differences between them. Which Together, they were two important moments in critical thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Though the concept of modernism and postmodernism occur in various forms of human thought including philosophy, literature, architecture, the arts and several other disciplines and human activities, concentration in this report will be laid on the representation of these moments in modern and contemporary literary theory and critics.


'A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.'

Lyotard believed that knowledge is a form of productive discourse and the modern and postmodern eras of knowledge are both going with each other in the same steps; that each is a part of the other and therefore, postmodernism is not a result of modernism, but rather a formative part of that era itself at its inception. Postmodernism is its first syllable, 'post' in this context does not mean simply 'after' in time, as period prefixes often do. The 'post' in this term, says Lyotard, one of the leading definers of the movement, intends the Greek preposition ana, which as a prefix can mean 'back again'. We can say that postmodernism is a return to modernism but in a different perspective and philosophy. (Brann, 1992) In this paper, I wish to argue that there are some common features that both modernism and postmodernism are shared with each other and the main differences between them. The definitions and the major figures in both of them from the man of pen and man of ideas and finally I will provide an analytical text to both of perspectives.


Definition and Historical Background

It is hard to understand modernism because every definition leads you to search for these questions: what exactly is modernism? Is that something new? Or as a movement why it is always linked to the chaotic way of living? And what is the reason behind the appearance of this movement? Cuddon in 'A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory' defines modernism as ' A comprehensive but vague term for a movement (or tendency) which began to get underway in the closing years of the 19th century and which had a wide influence internationally during much of the 20th century. The term pertains to all the creative arts, especially poetry, fiction, drama, painting, music, and architecture '(Cuddon, 2003, p.441).

Modernism has a great importance in the understanding of twentieth-century culture and literature which as a movement changed much of the structure of pre-twentieth century practice in music, painting, literature, and architecture. As the great modernist writer, Virginia Woolf argued in her essay 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown' in 1924: ' On or about December 1910 human nature changed, all human relations shifted and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature'. (Galens, 2002, p. 175)

Barry (2009) writes that Modernism has appeared in Vienna during 1890-1910. Because during this period, Vienna was the biggest city in Europe and its population was sixty million with different nations. But the effects were felt in France, Germany, Italy, and eventually even in Britain, an art movement like Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism. The dates of the Modernist movement are sometimes difficult to determine. The first decades of the 20th century are an extremely convenient starting point. (Yeganeh, 2006) It saw the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, marking a symbolic break from the preceding century. The turn of the century also roughly coincided with the publication of several groundbreaking theories, such as Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Einstein’s theory of special relativity. And The World War II is generally considered to mark an end of the movement's height. (Galens, 2002) Modernists felt that the traditional art, literature, and social values were now outdated, old-fashioned for the new reality emerging, this industrialized world we are part of and it rejects both the 'reflective' emphasis of realism and naturalism of Victorian age that only shows the surface reality of the era on one hand, and the natural-mystical, 'Utopian' emphasis of Romanticism on the other. (O'Brien, 1989)

Modernism was a reaction to the traditional realistic depiction of reality. For example, Charles Dickens showed the reality of Victorian age as it but he criticized by George Orwell that addressed him as a passive writer because he only shows you the problems without having any solution. Dickens does not write about the proletariat. Orwell wrote in his critical essay about Charles Dickens that he is not a revolutionary writer, he claims that society's problems are principally due to lack of morals, but he does not suggest an alternative system for the problems and he does not even suggest doing something with the established system. (Orwell, 1940) Modernism also rejects the Victorian aesthetic of perspective morality (famously argued by Henry James in 'The Art of Fiction') and, using new techniques drawn from psychology under the impact of Freud and other psychologists of the age, experimented with point of view, time, space, and the stream of consciousness writing. (Guerin et al., 2011)

In general, the term modernism encompasses the activities and output of those who felt the 'traditional' forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social, and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world. Also deals with the deeper reality of human beings in industrialized world and shows Man as a victim under the hands of totalitarian system of the world.

Major Figures in Modernism

In the first fifteen years of the 20th century a series of writers, thinkers, and artists began to write their theories, writings and ideas as an earthquake changed the entire previous works, they used current techniques under the impact both the material and the psychological destroyers of two world wars and made the break with traditional means of organizing literature, painting, and music.

The influential figure in modernism was the theory of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in his book Interpretation of Dreams; he divided mind into conscious, unconscious and subconscious. The conscious, argued by Freud, is recording external reality and but we have hidden desire, fears, passions in our unconscious mind and it’s the large part of our actions but we hidden our desires because of the society's will. According to Freud's ideas, the outside world has the major role in creating or destroying human's life especially affects the inner life of Man. (Bressler, 2011)

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas influenced literature, visual art, religion, and politics. Nietzsche’s philosophy remains problematic issue largely because of his intentionally anti-systematic method of his famous statement that ‘God is dead,’ reflected the understanding that, in secularized modernity, religion hasn't important for ethical, social and aesthetic values. This is leading to the sense of alienation. (Tew and Murray, 2009) Nietzsche, however, was not an entirely pessimistic or nihilistic thinker because he also employed to combat nihilism by his theorization of the Ubërmensch, or ‘overman,’ a new type of being who would be able to surmount the challenges of modern life, and the ‘will to power,’ a vitalist force that could overcome relativism. (Tew and Murray, 2009)

Charles Darwin an English naturalist whose part of his theory is about the way nature “intends” human society to function. He wrote Origin of Species in which he indirectly challenges theological visions of the universe, demonstrating it is governed more by chance than divine plan. He asserts that nature is neither static nor permanent, but is contingent and full of elements constantly in contention. Also, he adapted the notion of the struggle between human beings and nature on one hand, and human beings between themselves on the other hand but finally it will be 'survival of the fittest'. (Hovanec, 2013)

In political science, Karl Marx argued there were fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system of the modern life. He was a revolutionary thinker of the modern age, he with Engels wrote Communist Manifesto (1848) in which 'they identified class struggle as driving force behind history and anticipated that it would lead to a revolution in which workers would overturn capitalists and take control of economic production'. (Dobie, 2015, p.87)

He was the voice of everyday life as Henry Lefebvre famously observes that Marxism is 'a critical knowledge of everyday life'. (Bartolovich and Lazarus, 2002). He talked about the alienation of modern life in a different way by saying that the real alienation is that when a worker works hard to produce something but he isn't the right to use it because of capitalistic system of the world so he is alienated from his own labor and production. (Mandel and Novack, 2015)

Among the modernist writers, T. S. Eliot considered the father of modernism. In his poem The Waste Land, he describes the post-war London as an 'Unreal City' 'the anonymity of the city, its darkness, its mechanization, its power'. (Galens, 2002) All these things affected Eliot to show London as unreal city as if in modernism everything seems to be unreal even the reality is turning into meaningless. And in his poem, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock shows that even modern man is an unreal man cannot decide what to do.

Virginia Woolf is another voice of modernism, her novels mostly reveal the social problems and inner lives of characters and she criticizes the social system of the day. Her most famous novel, To the Lighthouse (1927) talks about 'the life of upper; middle-class British family, and shows the fragility of human relationships and collapse the social values'. (Yeganeh, 2006)

The Irish writer James Joyce, who's strongly, featured the Ireland in his works. As we know that the colonization was a prominent figure in modern age, at that time Ireland was colonized by Britain and Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) shows that 'the Irish are oppressed not just by the British or by the Catholic church but also by themselves' so there is a fragmentation between people who have the same problems and nationality. (Day, 2010) Modernism extended to the writers in the United States. For example, William Faulkner regarded as the greatest American novelists his works mostly deal with slavery and racism as the great sin committed by the South because in the1900s we have conflicts between black and white people in America especially in South; he believed the South fought heroically in the Civil War but for an evil cause. So Faulkner was against this we see this from his work As I Lay Dying he chose the imaginary Mississippi country of Yoknapatawpha for the setting. (Yegahneh, 2006)

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What is Postmodernism? Historical Background:

Postmodernism is the period that comes after modernism, but in this period the society is more fragmented, decentralized, and impermanent than modernism. It is also more difficult to define; we can say that it has not a particular style or a movement. So does postmodernism continuation of modernism or a reaction against modernism?

Abrams in 'A Glossary of Literary terms' defines postmodernism as 'a term that often applied to the literature and art after World War II (1939-45), when the effects on Western moral of the first war were greatly exacerbated by the experience of Nazi totalitarianism and mass extermination, the threat of total destruction by the atomic bomb, the progressive devastation of the natural environment, and the ominous fact of overpopulation.' (Abrams, 1999, p. 168)

Terry Eagleton defines postmodernism as 'style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanations. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, undergrounded, diverse, unstable, and indeterminate.' (Guerin et al, 2005)

Postmodernism has appeared firstly in the field of painting, architecture and civil engineering, before moving to philosophy, literature, art, technology, and the rest of the humanities and knowledge. (Elaati, 2016) The exact date of postmodernism is under questions and not clears but it has been said that it had begun in the post- World War II era, about 1950. It took full flight in 1960 in the social and political unrest in the world and in 1968 reached its peak (Galens, 2002) The outcomes of two world wars were affected to appear postmodernism. The post-World War I rise of mass society, in which the working class suppressed by the capitalist class. It then most prominently appeared in literary criticism as a reaction against aesthetic modernism.

In philosophy, it came in the 1980s to refer primarily to French poststructuralist philosophy like Ronald Barthes and Jacques Derrida and secondarily to a general reaction against modern rationalism, utopianism, and what came to be called 'foundationalism.' (Cahoone, 2000) In the post-World War II societies were radically changing their earlier industrial character. We have developed in urban population, so the problems of urbanization appeared people live in a hurly-burly life. There are also developments in advanced media societies that deform reality and capitalist economies.

The prominent figures in postmodernism era:

The French philosopher and critic Jean Baudrillard has a great role in showing postmodernism's reality. His theories of the 'loss of the real' and the emergence of the culture of 'hyperreality' shows in his book, 'Simulacra and Simulation' (1981) that he analysis American reality television from 1971. (Lane, 2006) He claims that postmodern societies live in a state of hyperreality that images (fiction) appear more real to us than the 'real' reality. (Šnircová, 2005)

Another French figure Jean-Francois Lyotard who simply answers the question of what is postmodernism in his essay 'The Postmodern Condition' by 'incredulity towards metanarratives' which means that 'Grand narratives' of Christianity, Marxism, and the Enlightenment attempt to provide a framework for everything. By contrast in postmodernism, we have a little narrative that unstable, fragmented, dispersed and not a world-view at all. Little narratives present the local explanation of individual events but do not explain everything. (Bennett and Royle, 2009)

The important postmodernism philosopher, Algerian-French, Jacques Derrida who first outlined the basic ideas that became known as deconstruction which explained in his masterwork, ' Of Grammatology', published in English in 1967. The central proposition in 'Of Grammatology' is that any text no matter what kind can be read in a way different from what it seems to be saying. (Galens, 2002)

Michel Foucault is one of the pioneers of postmodernism, he is interested in the concept of discourse and power and strength. Foucault believed that modern civilization through institutions such as hospitals, prisons, education, and knowledge controls all human subjects. In his famous book 'The History and sexuality ' argues that 'power must be understood as a multiplicity of force relations.' He insists that power 'is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere'. So by power one can control all individual subjects. (Habib, 2011)

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was German-American writer. He defines the twentieth-century world as tragically absurd, a world which actually encourages its scientists to find better and faster methods of destroying it. In his famous novel 'Slaughterhouse-five' (1969), he examines postmodern technological society and dramatizes the continuous warfare in the world today and man's greatest inhumanity to man. He claims that there is absolutely no justification for the mass slaughter of human beings. (Strawn, 1979)

The French writer, educator, linguist, psychoanalyst, and literary theorist, Julia Kristeva who bases her works on two main principles the first one is semiotic, which expresses objective meaning. The other is symbolic, the rhythmic and illogical aspects of meaning these shows in her book 'Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art'. (Galens, 2002)

Modernism and Postmodernism

The difference between modernism and postmodernism: (Ihab Hassan in 'POSTtmodernISM: the practical, shows these differences between modernism and postmodernism) (Cahoone, 2000)

  1. Fragmentation: Both modernism and postmodernism refer to twentieth-century fragmentation but in very different moods. Modernism shows fragmentation in a tone of lament, pessimism, and despair, while in postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. In another word, modernism laments fragmentation while postmodernism celebrates it. (Barry, 2009)
  2. Urbanism: modern cities are the unreal city, for example, Joyce's Dublin, Eliot's London, and Proust's Paris are described as dirty and industrialized cities. Whereas in postmodernism shows the city as Global Village especially in Science Fictions. There is also the green revolution they want to keep the environment green. In postmodern cities, we have prison riots and urban crime.
  3. Technologism: In modernism, for example, Futurism celebrates machines and technology while Dadaism against them. Because machine creates alienation of the human will. But in postmodernism, there is a mass development in media and there is a boundless dispersal by media but they do not depict reality as it is. As Baudrillard claims that their showing reality is unreal.
  4. Dehumanization: According to Frederic Jameson, modernism and postmodernism have a similar view towards dehumanization; both of them agree with the dehumanized quality of life in capitalistic society. But Modernists believe in a binary opposition between “order” and “disorder” and then create a grand-narrative to protect the “order”; they also believe the knowledge produced by science is always the truth. However, postmodernism acknowledges disorder and allow it coexist with the order, that's why they criticize grand narratives and believe in mini-narrative. (Ke, 2010)
  5. Primitivism: Modern civilizations are an ironic civilization. Writers such as Malcolm Lowery use symbolic myth in his novel under the volcano and joined with modern life. While postmodernism leaves primitivism toward existentialism many writers ask the purpose behind the existence of man.
  6. Experimentalism: In modernism writers tried to express their feelings by using a new form of language which grammatically incorrect to show the chaotic order in modern life, for example, Gertrude Stein in Three Lives uses an experimental style of language. In postmodernism, experimentalism means meaningless of life this shows in absurdist writers such as Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, whether Godot will come or not? it was a meaningless waiting.

Modernism's technocratic dehumanization in Brave New World

The central theme in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is dehumanization of society in the age of science and technology. The advancement of science creates an ironic utopia for people. Science controls everybody and takes their identities, in a world that lacks paternal love, humanity, art, and creativity. If you do not control technology, it will soon control you. In Brave New World human controlled by technology from childhood to death even before their birth that makes them lose their moral, identity and rights sometimes lose their humanity. Just like capitalism, misusing technology turns humanity to the beast. In this new world, there is no place for God, family relationships, books, roses, and art.

Man have homeless because home is full of troubles, so there is no place for a human to take a rest in technocratic society. Home described by Mustapha Mond as a prison: 'Home, home- a few small rooms, stifling over-inhabited by a man, by a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, no space; an understerilized prison; darkness, disease, and smells' (Brave New World, p. 40) (Sharif, 2008) So in this novel, we have a Man enslaved by technology, but the problem is that they are unaware of their enslavement even they believe that technology serves them and creates a utopia for them.

Postmodernism's dehumanization in Slaughterhouse-five

Kurt Vonnegut was himself participated in World War II and he was a prisoner of war, which means he was seeing all brutalities and cruelties toward humans during the war especially in prison of war camps. So he wishes to write a novel about the firebombing of Dresden which he experienced it while he was at the slaughterhouse as a prisoner. He wanted to describe the horrors of war generally and of Dresden’s bombings in specific. Billy Pilgrim, the main character, Vonnegut's persona believed that war is a symbol of human stupidity because it makes human to treat as an animal in which they carry their victories over their victims and even glorify their success. ' there were hundreds of corpse mines [burned-out bomb shelters] operating by and by. They didn't smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquified, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas. So it goes' (Strawn, 1972).

War always means a loss of unity in society and a loss of faith in the people also changes human identity. In this novel people avoided from being characters because most of them in it is sick and in a bad condition, for example, Edgar Derby, a soldier in prison of war's camp who executed only for stealing a teapot from the rubble of Dresden. There is no single truth in this novel about dehumanization but there are multiplicities of truths.


Modernism and postmodernism have been considered as two broad strokes that affect twentieth century's writings especially literature. They are two large periods that create a great literary power, innovation, and exploration. Also, they appeared as a reaction to the political, scientific, and religious turmoil in the society but with dealing with problems in a different way.

Postmodernism totally rejects the tenets of modernism, such as belief in the supremacy of reason, the notion of truth, and the idea that it is possible through the application of reason and truth to create a better society. That is why they reject metanarrative of modernism and believe in the notion of mini-narratives.

In short, from showing the differences between modernism and postmodernism, I come to conclude that both of them are referred to two different theories, ages, movements, and worldviews. Each one has its particular styles and uses it in the context of literature, arts, philosophy and social sciences, basically from two opposite perspectives.

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This essay provides a comprehensive exploration of modernism and postmodernism in literature, offering a detailed analysis of their definitions, historical backgrounds, key figures, and distinguishing characteristics. The writer effectively delves into the complexities of these movements and their impact on literary theory. The inclusion of quotes from various scholars and thinkers adds depth to the discussion. The essay is well-structured, progressing logically from the abstract to the conclusion, and showcases the author's deep understanding of the subject matter. The engagement with primary sources, such as literary works, enhances the essay's credibility. Furthermore, the incorporation of examples from literary texts helps illustrate the concepts discussed. Overall, the essay demonstrates a high level of research, critical thinking, and analytical skill.
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What can be improved
Clarity in language: While the essay demonstrates a strong command of the subject matter, there are instances where the language could be made more concise and straightforward, avoiding unnecessary complexities that might hinder readability. Transition sentences: The essay could benefit from the inclusion of more explicit transition sentences between sections and paragraphs. This would help guide the reader through the various topics being discussed and enhance the overall coherence of the essay. Citation consistency: The essay employs a variety of citation styles, which could be streamlined for consistency. Proper citation formatting helps maintain the essay's professionalism and credibility. Engagement with opposing viewpoints: While the essay adeptly presents the attributes of both modernism and postmodernism, a stronger engagement with potential criticisms or counterarguments would enrich the analysis and showcase a balanced perspective. Editing for grammar and style: A final review for grammatical errors and refinement of sentence structures would elevate the essay's overall polish.
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