Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 7, 2009

Modernism (Hooray for Wikipedia)

patrick whiteI am reading Voss by Patrick White at the moment, and having just made an effort to learn more about Modernism in art for my reading of Margaret Olley, Far From a Still Life by Meg Stewart, I had blundered onto Wikipedia’s most useful page about Modernism in literature.  While there is a warning that the page needs attention from an expert in the subject (which must be a bit demoralising for the contributor), I found its list of characteristics very helpful in terms of understanding why White received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Although the Press Release, and the Presentation Speech do not specifically refer to Modernism, citing his award “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”, the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) recognises White as an exponent of High Modernism.

Like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner, Patrick White is a practitioner of High Modernism, a style and an approach almost no one attempts today. This is fashion, and fashions pass. Henry James was considered unreadable in the 1930s; today he is as widely read and admired as any serious writer in the language. And White’s particular form of Modernism was always problematic. [1]

Problematic, eh?  A particular form of Modernism?  It was time for me to find out what the characteristics of Modernism were, and Wikipedia’s list is guiding my reading from now onwards…

Formal/Stylistic characteristics

  • Free indirect speech
  • Stream of consciousness
  • Juxtaposition of characters
  • Wide use of classical allusions
  • Figure of speech
  • Intertextuality [shaping a text by using another text: borrowing, transformation, allusions, referencing]
  • Personification
  • Hyperbole
  • Parataxis [short, simple sentences, often juxtaposed without any obvious connection so that readers must discern the implied connections for themselves. e.g. Children are little animals that begin to think by thinking of themselves. A spaniel is more satisfactory. Voss, Vintage Classics, p221]
  • Comparison
  • Quotation
  • Pun
  • Satire
  • Irony
  • Antiphrasis [an ironic figure of speech: words used to mean the opposite of their usual sense e.g. the pieces of paper fluttered around him and settled on the grass, like a mob of cockatoos.  Voss, Vintage Classics, p220]
  • Unconventional use of metaphor
  • Symbolic representation
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Discontinuous narrative
  • Metanarrative [a story about a story]
  • Multiple narrative points of view

Thematic characteristics

  • Breakdown of social norms
  • Realistic embodiment of social meanings
  • Separation of meanings and senses from the context
  • Despairing individual behaviors in the face of an unmanageable future
  • Sense of spiritual loneliness
  • Sense of alienation
  • Sense of frustration
  • Sense of disillusionment
  • Rejection of the history
  • Rejection of the outdated social system
  • Objection of the traditional thoughts and the traditional moralities
  • Objection of the religious thoughts
  • Substitution of a mythical past
  • Two World Wars’Effects on Humanity [2]



Useful also, is Ian Graye’s review at GoodReads of a book called Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 edited by Malcolm Bradbury et al.

See also my post PostModernism for the Uninitiated.


  1. How are you finding Voss so far? Have you read White before?

    I read it a few years ago, and found it hard going. I then had to read it again for uni this year, got about a hundred pages in, then gave up. Which is weird, ’cause the first hundred pages are pretty good – it’s where White does his whole social critique thing, and it’s great.


  2. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and quite enjoying it so far. There are some parts where I shake my head ruefully because I can’t quite work out what’s going on, but I just press on and eventually it seems to fit into place.
    Reading about an expedition like this as if we were there, is a real jolt compared to the dry recounts I read in my history books as a student.


  3. I think many of the books I’ve reviewed are classed as modernist, but I’ve not read Patrick White.

    Does Thomas Mann qualify? I’m sure The Magic Mountain is a modernist classic., and perhaps Dr Faustus.


  4. Hi Tom
    I don’t know – I’ve never read Thomas Mann. I’ve looked both of these up in 1001 Books You Must Read and they don’t use the label ‘modernism’ but by the sound of the description, perhaps they are?
    This is why I like the Wikipedia list: like all lists it probably has flaws, but at least it provides a scaffold for a non-academic reader like me to use to analyse a text.


  5. I love Patrick White but not read this one. Must have a rummage around and see if I can find a copy.


  6. Is Patrick White read much in the UK, Kim?


  7. Impossible question to answer really. I do make a habit of checking whether any of his stuff is in stock when I visit book shops — he usually is, so on that basis someone must be buying the stuff in order for them to have it on their shelves.


  8. Glad Wiki was of help! I must admit though that the article looks pretty messy. That said, over 50 edits have occurred since that tag was put on.

    We managed to get Voss scheduled for my f2f group – but I think we will be doing it as our summer read (next Xmas). I really can’t wait to read it again. From memory though it is one of those books I think where you sometimes have to go with the flow and let it “osmose” in rather than worrying too much about understanding everything as you read!


    • Well, I finished it this morning, and I’m going to rate it 10 (one of the best books I’ve ever read). I think it’s a good choice for a summer read, because (reading it as an amateur, with no support from kindly school teachers or university tutors) I think it’s important to read it as much without interruption as possible. Yes, ‘go with the flow and let it osmose’ but as I did this, I found myself needing to go backwards and forward to different parts of the book, re-reading bits of it and making notes as I went. This is not the way I usually read a book, and it doesn’t really work as a bedside book. (Thank goodness for the QB Long Weekend!) Lisa


  9. […] plot details and a bit about character, but have obviously missed much of the symbolism and other characteristics of modernism.   I think I need to read it […]


  10. Having just read 120 pages of ‘The Golden Bowl’, I well understand why ‘Henry James was considered unreadable in the 1930s’. Literally nothing happens, all conversations are abstruse, and sentences are convoluted. Voss was much easier!

    Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ (1997) seems high modernist to me, and is enjoyable towards the end.


    • I read The God of Small Things way back in 2002, well before I knew anything much about modernism, but liked it a lot. Looking back at the comments I made in my reading journal, I can see now that some of these modernist elements – the poetic prose and the playful language – are there to explore. I haven’t read The Golden Bowl and don’t even have it on my TBR – what an omission! Lisa


  11. Incidentally, Lisa, I reckon the ending of ‘The God of Small Things’ is every bit as difficult as Voss to understand.


  12. Oops, I *do* have The Golden Bowl! We watched Athens, the Truth about Democracy on ABCTV tonight and that sent me looking for my copy of the new Landmark Herodotus – and there right next it on my Classics shelf, (where I should have looked) was the Golden Bowl. So now all I need to do is find the time to read it….


  13. […] of things to look out for as there is on the modernism in literature page (from which I scrounged my list).  There is an incomprehensible explanation of the differences here so the hapless explorer must […]


  14. […] ideas or styles.  But Late Nights on Air doesn’t seem to be doing that.  I checked out the characteristics of Modernism in case Hay was cunningly doing something with that but no, none that I could pick up on, though of […]


  15. […] not an easy book to read.  There are characteristics of modernism everywhere: unconventional metaphors, e.g. ‘restlessness spreading like […]


  16. […] messiness of society. Modernism, though, is a forgiving church as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) shows in her post on the […]


  17. […] See also my post Modernism, Hooray for Wikipedia. […]


  18. […] to Kesey’s blunt, direct narrative style, The Cupboard Under the Stairs has elements of modernism.  As you can see from the quotations below, Turner used short, simple sentences, often juxtaposed […]


  19. […] she achieved this with a distinctive modernist style.  The extensive use of complex metaphor can be taxing sometimes, but is offset by her wit; […]


  20. […] adult son Roderick, is an example that shows Bowen’s style.  She was an exponent of literary modernism so each part of the passage makes the reader work hard, but the reward is her brilliant insight […]


  21. […] is a really interesting little book: I thought I knew a bit about modernism but I realise now that I had not understood its intellectual underpinnings.  I have confined […]


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