Post-Modernism in Literature

The 20th-century literature in its stylistic and ideological variety is non-comparable to the literature of the 19th century, where it was possible to allocate only three or four leading movements. At the same time, modern literature has not given more great talents, than the literature of the 19th century.

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The previous century appeared as the richest in the variety of literary movements, including directions such as the literature of the absurd, Angry Young Men, Harlem Renaissance, Magic realism, Modernism and etc. One direction that should be specifically outlined is post-modernism. In this research post-modernism as a literary movement will be presented as an analysis of the historical background, writing style, and remarkable authors.

European and American post-modernism have developed in the late sixties and the beginning of the seventies. Unlike classical modernism with its cult of aesthetic novelty and the high aesthetic form, and also gravitation to a system in outlook, postmodernism was based on the cultivation of the art citation, the unoriginal plot, and the simplified language was oriented on simpler taste. The movement has occurred, having in its basis the philosophy of the end of human history, the philosophy of the natural person who is giving in to the dictatorship of psycho-physiological requirements.

The problems of postmodernism’s occurrence, functioning along with their theoretical judgment became the object of consideration of scientists since the sixties of the 20th century. Postmodernism can be considered, as a peculiar level of knowledge in the most developed societies. As it is known, this level of knowledge shows the cultural totality, which can be conditionally called tradition. Postmodernism, as defined by Jean-François Lyotard, represents the position of culture after the transformations which influenced the rules of scientific, artistic, and literary games, since the end of the 19th century. (Lyotard).

It was the end of the 19th century when society experienced a peculiar crisis connected with the formation of utopian ideals of modernism which should have become “a new, unprecedented era”. (Berman 3) Modernism as an aesthetic phenomenon became a tradition antonym. Modernist literature could be characterized by its depth, but postmodern writers aimed at depicting the truth of real-life without trying to make it better or to hide what could arouse resentment in readers.

However, modernism could not achieve its primary goals in the literature: the validation of science and scientific knowledge through the story and the creation of an original set of morality, capable to create as much accepted consensus variant as possible between the author and the reader. Therefore it was obvious, that society and literature were at a new step in the development of thinking and perception, where postmodernism has become such a step.

Postmodernism in the literature started to take a shape in the sixties and the seventies of the 20th century and, as well as modernism, promised salvation. This salvation and social release were imposed on the public in a rather aggressive way. The announcement of the death of the author, the novel, the story, and true art became the main installations of postmodernism. As stated by Federman, one of the theorists of a postmodernism and the author of six novels in such style, “Post-modern fiction experimented with death, or rather with its own death ” (Federman).

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Literary postmodernism can be called quotation literature. Playing with citations can be considered as a form of inter-textuality. According to Barthes, it “cannot be reduced to a problem of sources and influences; it is a general field of anonymous formulas whose origin is seldom identifiable, of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks.” (Love) In other words, it only seems to the author that he creates, in reality, the culture creates the works using the author as a tool.

In the postmodernism theory, similar literature began to be characterized by the term “the death of the author”, identified by Barthes. (Barthes) It means, that each reader can tower to the author’s level, receive the legitimate right to recklessly finish the work, and attribute to the text any meanings, including the ones initially not assumed by the author. Despite such criticism, the postmodernism literature introduced several notable authors that can be representative of such movements.

One of such authors as Jorge Luis Borges. Jorge Luis Borges – born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 24, 1899, is an Argentinean prose writer, poet and a publicist. Borges is known for the laconic prosaic imaginations which are often masking reasoning on serious scientific problems or taking the form of adventure or detective stories. The effect of the authenticity of fictional events is reached in Borges’s works by introducing a narration of episodes of Argentina’s history and names of contemporary writers, and the facts of own biography. (Ruch) This helps to convince the readers that the events depicted in the work are real, not invented because it is named for the unhidden truth that some readers valued post-modern literature.

When considering Borges as another post-modern writer, it should be mentioned that he, in fact, did not refer to the post-modern era. It is just that some of his works possessed the features characteristic of postmodernism. In regards to the death of the author, in Borges’s works, it is rightfully to talk not about the disappearance of the author as is, but about the change of the quality of the author’s consciousness. The author’s truth is dissolved in the multilevel dialogue of the points of view. As a result, the occurring model of the world looks paradoxical even against modernist paradoxes.

A characteristic example is Borges’ poetry, where Borges’ world consists more likely of texts than from objects and events. In that sense, his story “The Library of Babel” represents not as much dreadful phantasmagoria, as a sufficiently exact model of this world, which is “made of infinite spiraling shelves and staircases endlessly reflected in numbered mirrors.” (Bertens, Bertens and Natoli 3) The word “Babylon” in the name of the story did not mean the ancient city, but apparently, for the author, it was a generality synonym, as well as in “The Lottery in Babylon”, where all population of the fictional city was involved in the lottery. The story was written in Borges’ usual fictional essay form, therefore, practically there was no narration, describing a special, created by the author’s imagination, library-universe.

Another notable author is Thomas Pynchon. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. is an American writer, one of the founders of the school of black comedy, and a leading representative of the postmodernist literature of the second half of the 20th century. He is the winner of the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel of the year in 1963, and the winner of the National Book Award in 1974. (Daw)Born in 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, Pynchon has “most exhaustively covered the hyperreal terrain mapped by postmodern prophet Jean Baudrillard.” (Bertens, Bertens and Natoli 265).

Right from the first acquaintance with Pynchon’s creativity, it shows the number of obstacles that should be overcome to come nearer to understand them. Reading Pynchon, readers incessantly get into traps and are compelled to observe how soon the built logic designs collapse in their eyes. The created system of references, allusions, and mutual reflections, the informational capacity of which is as the capacity of a powerful computer, has made Pynchon a favorite object of academic researches. In “Vineland” for example “Pynchon pays considerable attention to master narratives. He points out the foolishness of such belief systems by undermining the reasoning behind them; he accomplishes this through Sister Rochelle’s anecdotes, Zoyd’s wedding memories, and his own invention of the Thanatos.” (Sullivan).

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Last but not least, one of the most famous representatives of literary postmodernism, along with Thomas Pincher, is John Barth. John Barth was born in 1930 in Maryland. After leaving school he studied in one of the most prestigious the Juilliard School of Music, after which he went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where the future writer majored in Journalism. After finishing University, John Bart was engaged in teaching activities. His first novels, “The Floating Opera” and “The End of the Road “, were published in 1957 and in 1958. The popularity of Barth was brought by the book “The Sot-Weed Factor” after the publishing of which is 1960, the public opinion included the author in the list of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. In 1965 after “Giles Goat-Boy, or, The Revised New Syllabus” had been published, John Barth was considered as one of the top American writers. For the following book, the trilogy “Chimera” (1972), the writer has been awarded the prestigious National Book Award. His subsequent books “Letters”, “The Tidewater Tales “, and the collection “The Friday Book” were considered as classics of postmodern literature. (Mahoney).

As an example of his postmodern books, “Letters” is a bright example of such works. The novel consists of letters that are issued according to strict English rules of etiquette. Each letter has not only a reference, an address, and a date, but also instructions concerning what aspect the message is bearing. Through the characters’ letters, Barth recreates his thoughts, aspirations, and experiences concerning the literature. Therefore epistles differ in a fanciful and mysterious psychological analysis by the means of which, the processes of formation of thoughts, feelings, and author’s intentions are reproduced. (Bertens, Bertens and Natoli 35-38) Embodying his own postmodernist feeling, Barth creates a book about the present’s new and historical reality of the US. Reflecting by the means of images from the “LETTERS”, Barth as a critic acts in the novel as a philosopher and as an art theorist, analyzing literary tendencies which were appearing and disappearing during American history.

Discussing the works of writers who were created in the period of postmodernism, it can be stated that all of them strongly influenced the movement. They affected the essence of literature, its primary goals, and some components which used to characterize the preceding literary tendencies. Firstly, postmodern writers changed the subject depicted in their works. Whereas modern literature was aimed at seeking meaning in the chaotic world, postmodernists only imitated this seeking. The works created in this period of time are the parody of questing the meaning with the writers’ denying its possibility in a playful and sometimes humorous way.

What’s more, postmodern writers changed the way of narration in their works. Little narration started to be used in postmodern literature and the writers were apt to generalize the ideas they expressed in their works avoiding stating their personal opinion which, perhaps, can be regarded as unwillingness to bear responsibility for possibly distorted facts.

Finally, the writers of postmodern literature changed character development and the themes of their works. Subjectivism was typical for postmodern character development; the writers stopped evaluating the characters and information objectively and their works turned into irrational, discontinuous, and shallow. They started paying more attention to the depiction of emotions and immortal issues of friendship, love, and death.

In a conclusion, it can be seen that despite the criticism of the postmodernism movement as a whole, its most bright representatives put a distinct mark in the history of literature. Although in later periods postmodernism decreased in its influence on literary works, the long term made it possible to evaluate postmodernism as a phenomenon of culture and a specific direction in philosophy and literary criticism. Postmodernism absolutely consciously revised the entire literary heritage. Today it becomes an existing cultural context – a huge cultural unwritten encyclopedia, where all texts relate to each other as parts of inter-text. Our culture consists of a cultural context. The literature is a part of that cultural context in which we live. We can use these products and they are a part of that reality which we create for ourselves.

Thus, it is possible to draw a conclusion that postmodernism as the philosophical and literary system actively functioning at present, continues to remain in the center of attention of domestic and foreign authors and critics, causing brisk discussions and receiving mixed opinions.


Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. 1977. 2009. Web.

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Berman, Art. Preface to Modernism. University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Bertens, Johannes Willem, Hans Bertens, and Joseph P. Natoli. Postmodernism: The Key Figures. Blackwell Publishing, 2002. Web.

Daw, Larry. “A Man Born through a Sea-Change from out of an Oyster”. 2000. The Modern World. 2009. Web.

Federman, Raymond. “Before Postmodernism and after (Part One & Two)”. Re-Vista. 2009. Web.

Love, Tim. “Allusion”. 1996. University of Cambridge. 2009. Web.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Conditiona Report on Knowledge – the First Five Chapters”. 1979. 2009. Web.

Mahoney, Blair. “Lost in the Barthhouse”. 2000. The Modern World. 2009. Web.

Ruch, Allen B. “Biography Libraries and Garden Labyrinths: A Dream of Childhood”. 2004. The Modern World 2009. Web.

Sullivan, Bruce A. “Totalizing Postmodernism: Master-Narratives in Pynchon’s Vineland”. 2006. The Modern World. 2009. Web.

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