Introduction to Modernism

Introduction to Modernism

“The Scream,” Edvard Munsch



One of the thorny issues of discussing modernism is the word itself.  What is “modern”?  When does the “modern” age begin?  What characteristics set off a work of literature, art, or drama as being “modern”?  These are some of the issues with which we will begin our study of modern literature, questioning what “modern” literature, art, and drama means and examining the historical and political context in which these new approaches emerged.                 

Opening Questions                    

 These are questions to address as we open our studies of modern literature.  They are open to interpretation and admit of a plurality of answers, but ideally, the answers must be supported with reasons and examples.  What we’ll do with these questions is simple: You’ll think about these questions in advance and use them as the basis for our discussion in class.  Since class discussion is worth an important part of your grade, preparation for discussion is pretty important.  I may have you write down formal answers to these questions for a writing grade, but I will announce this in class if so.               

  1. What is “modern”?  When we define anything — a piece of technology, a work of art, a new idea — as “modern,” what do we mean?
  2. What are some characteristics of “modern literature” versus — well,  earlier literature?  If I gave you a text, how would you know if it was written in the modern era or not?
  3. Different eras “break” with the eras that came before them usually because of some important event or series of events.  What event(s) essentially set off or gave birth to the modern era?   
  4.  What effect did these events have on our thinking?______________________________________________________________________________________________        


  Icebreaker Text”           

 To essentially act as an “”icebreaker,” we’re going to examine two texts, both about the legendary Helen of Troy, stolen from her Greek husband Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris.  This event caused the ten-year Trojan War, a war that cost many lives and ultimately ended in the burning and destruction of the city of Troy itself.                 

 Questions we’ll ask about these poems:             

  1. Which poem is modern?
  2. How do you know?
  3. What is there about poem A’s style that leads you to believe it is/is not modern?  What is there about poem B’s style that leads you to believe it is/is not modern?
  4. What about these poems’ ideologies — the ideas or attitudes each one expresses?  What are those ideas, for one, and for two, what about them suggests a modern manner of thinking?


 Poem A: “To Helen”             

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
to his own native shore.
     On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have broght me home
To glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
    Lo! in yon brilliant window niche
How statuelike I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy Land!

Poem B:  “Helen”                


All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.
 All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.   

 Greece sees unmoved,
God’s daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.


  Background Reading               

  Note: Please be aware that these are Internet links and content may change.  If the links are no longer valid, please contact me to let me know as soon as possible.  As of this writing, all links are classroom-appropriate; however, if you find content on the sites has changed, please again inform me immediately.  Thanks!!                 

 Note #2: Unless I’ve specifically said “This resource is optional” or “This reading is optional,” please assume that you are responsible for doing it, reading it, seeing it, or experiencing its wonderfulness for yourself.                  


 Basic Textual Questions               

These are basic questions to ask about these texts, but obviously others will occur during the course of discussion.  However, please be aware that, as with the questions above, you’re expected to think about them ahead of time and come into class prepared to discuss or address these issues, K?             

  1.  What about this text “feels modern” to you?  Just as we did with “Helen” and “To Helen” above, ask yourself questions about the work’s style: Is its language modern?  Its syntax?  Its structure?
  2. What about the work’s ideology — that is, its attitudes, ideas, values, concepts in general, or its  notionsabout gender, society, class,  or any other “big picture” topic?  Are any of those particularly “modern”?  Why?


Questions for “Owl Creek Bridge”       

  1. In what way does the story challenge a reader’s conventional notions of the following:
    • Straightforward, linear plot
    • The nature of time and the way time flows
    • The nature of perception
    • The nature of reality
  2.  How does this story answer the question, “Is reality subjective?  Is reality truly a matter of perception?” 
  3. Why does Bierce divide the story into three separate sections?  What is the pattern or direction — the “game plan” — governing the arrangement of the sections in this story?  Does each section move us further in a particular direction?
  4. In what way does Bierce handle our perception of time?  In what ways does time shift, slow down, speed up, or otherwise distort throughout the story
  5.  OPTIONAL: Please also examine some of the excellent questions about “Owl Creek Bridge” from this teacher’s site. 


Questions for “Rocking-Horse Winner”     

  1. What prominent motifs do you notice in the story in addition to ones related to coldness, hardness, etc.?
  2. Why does Paul take it upon himself to solve the family’s financial problems?  What about his cahracter motivates this action?
  3. The story opens with a sentence that sounds almost as if we are about to read a fairy tale.  Why does Lawrence choose to begin it in this way?
  4.  OPTIONAL: Please also examine some of the excellent questions about “Rocking-Horse Winner” from this site.    

Writing Assignments 

NOTE: These are some writing assignments that may be given in class.  Please do NOT assume that you should do them unless you’re specifically asked by me in class to do so.  They’re put here for your convenience and reference. 

  1. Mod Lit Quote Analysis – This exercise, intended to take place before a literary analysis essay, is designed to allow students to practice including context before a quotation and analysis afterwards.  Quotations are taken from “Rocking-Horse Winner” and “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

Resources for the Media-Minded                  

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