Literature of the early 20th century was characterized by the shift from Realism to Modernism. A number of factors shaped people’s perception of the changing world marked by the development of industrial societies and rapid urbanization. Furthermore, people were affected by the horrors of the Civil War and World War I. The changes in minds altered the literary world and caused a transition to Modernism with its distinct characteristics.
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Naturalism, an offshoot of Realism, showed society struggling for survival and believed in people’s moral responsibility instead of relying on supernatural forces or authority. At the same time, Modernism reflected a rebellion against tradition and was associated with rejecting ethical and normative principles. The components of the shift from Naturalism to Modernism in literature are the rejection of traditional ideas, the collapse of the norms of the past Victorian world, and the conflicts over systems of oppression.
Definition of Movements
Naturalism refers to a literary movement that started in 1865 and continued until 1900 and can be described as extreme Realism and a philosophy based on scientific observation and accurate representation of reality. Naturalism views environment, social conditions, and heredity as the primary factors influencing human character and behaviors. Social determinism and existentialism had a significant influence on this genre, rejecting the idea of free will and highlighting the role of external circumstances. Objectivism is another distinctive characteristic of Naturalism in the literature that turns the author into an unbiased observer.
Thus, such scientific principles as detachment and objectivity are applied to study the characters and themes depicted in literary works. Works by Crane, Norris, Gilman, Hemingway, London, and other representatives of Naturalism are marked by pessimism and determinism.
Modernism is a literary movement and a new form of expression that originated in the early 1900s and continued to prevail until approximately the 1940s. It is primarily characterized by a shift away from Realism and rebellion against tradition deemed sacred by the Western world. Modernist ideas emerged in the context of the changing society, cultures, and industries. Relocations from rural areas into urban centers, along with the technological development and increased role of machines in people’s life, shaped the characters of literary works. They became nihilistic and alienated in the new, altered world that often traumatized individuals.
Modernism rejected the established order and the standards of the past generations, undermining the moral codes of society and all existing systems of beliefs. This genre is marked by experimentation and the idea that knowledge and truth are not absolute. Such an approach was applied to reflect on the changing society, challenge the systems of oppression, and re-evaluate the reality. The works by Eliot, Faulkner, Moore, Hughes, Stevens and other prominent modernists are characterized by a strong break with tradition.
Significance for Literature
Naturalism was significant to literature with its principles of objectivity and detachment that allowed for creating a new form of writing portraying reality as it is. In contrast to Romanticism, literary Realism depicted complex and relatable characters without romanticizing or dramatizing them and making them appear natural. Existentialism played an important role in Naturalism; for instance, Crane’s The Open Boat depicts an individual as insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and the phrase “the whole affair is absurd” supports the existential view on humanity (25). The social context, particularly the Civil War, defined the purpose of Naturalism as an accurate representation of what occurred during this time.
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Modernism became an influential literary movement that aimed to upend the established order and determinist ideas typical for Naturalism. Such themes as individualism, consciousness, and alienation became critical for the literature of this period as a reaction to World War I, industrialization, and urbanization. For instance, Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock presents a reflection of a man living in a world that appears post-apocalyptic and broken (3). The institutions and precepts that people used to rely on collapsed, resulting in a denial of tradition and discriminatory norms and structures. Racial, gender, religious, and class inequalities came to the forefront of the literary works highlighting the need for change. Such implications became critical for the further development of literature and society as a whole.
Components of the Shift from Naturalism to Modernism
Values and Characteristics of Naturalism
As mentioned above, Naturalism is primarily characterized by scientific observation, objectivism, social determinism, existentialism, accurate description, and the defining role of environment, social conditions, and heredity for human character. Naturalism highlights that various processes about human beings are shaped by numerous influences of biological, social, or genetic nature or external factors. However, literature of this genre values the perspective that is not based on the existence of ultimate powers and purposes, such as God or higher power. Instead, the presence of the supernatural is denied, and human needs and desires are what defines the values.
Crane’s The Open Boat is an example of a naturalistic view of humans with a focus on the impact of the surroundings for its characters (3). This dramatic story portrays four men who confronted the harsh fate and the indifference of nature to their difficult situation. God’s mercy appears as an illusion as the men struggle to survive on their small boat on the ocean (Crane 253). The characters are left to the external forces, which is a distinctive aspect of Naturalistic literature.
Determinism and pessimism are other critical aspects associated with the Naturalistic genre. Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper depicts a woman struggling with a mental illness and the constraints of her marriage that aggravate her health (2). Her husband dismisses her nervous condition and feelings, which accurately illustrates the state of affairs and society’s treatment of women as dependent on their spouses at the time. In this way, Gilman’s short story complies with the naturalist ideas of non-idealized depictions and the survival of the fittest. Naturalism represented the truth as it was, exposing society’s problems and exploring the reasons behind people’s behaviors.
Values and Characteristics of Modernism
Modernism as a literary movement reflected on the changes occurring in society and aimed to disrupt the norms established by the Victorian world. One of the elements of the transition from Naturalism to Modernism is the rejection of the traditional ideas of Realism. In other words, nihilism and the denial of conventional morality characterize this movement. Furthermore, alienation is another reoccurring theme in the literary works of this period.
For instance, Cather’s The Sculptor’s Funeral touches upon the subject of communication difficulties. The sculptor never felt like he belonged to the culture of his hometown, and the townspeople used to disapprove of his passion for art. However, he was moral and upright in contrast to most successful people around him (Cather 5). Thus, the short story highlights the hypocrisy of society judging the artist for his compliance with ethical principles instead of chasing wealth. The idea of integrating into a strange and often hostile environment and culture is another element of Modernism found in Cather’s work.
Modernist literature developed as a response to the changing society and explored the effects of the new world on people, thus re-evaluating reality. Individualism, consciousness, and self-identity comprise the values presented by the movement that replaced Realism. For instance, Eliot’s poetry had a significant impact on Modernism. His poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is characterized by objectivism and social anxiety as it depicts a man full of doubt and hesitation when communicating with others (Eliot 3). He struggles with self-identity and questions whether his existence has meaning or disturbs the universe.
The Change in Values
Based on the discussion of the primary characteristics and central themes of Naturalism and Modernism, one can say that the values changed dramatically. A shift happened due to the socio-economic factors such as the Civil War, World War I, industrialization, and urbanization, as well as people’s reaction to the altering reality that they lived in. The change in values can be observed in the works of prominent naturalists and modernists who reflected the ideas prevailing in society.
To summarize, both Naturalism and modernist movements contributed to the development of literature and humanity as a whole. The transition between these modes of literature was caused by the changes in reality, which found a reflection in the literary world. The primary elements contributing to the shift between Naturalism and Modernism are the altering views on traditions and norms, the collapse of the established standards and institutes, and conflicts over systems of oppression. Modernism was a progressive period despite its pessimism, and the tradition of Realism became a lost concept in the changing world.
Cather, Willa. The Sculptor’s Funeral. SS McClure, 1905.
Crane, Stephen. The Open Boat: And Other Tales of Adventure. Doubleday & McClure Company, 1898.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing, 2021.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. The New England Magazine, 1892. Gothic Digital Series @ UFSC. Web.