Skip to Section Menu | Content | Volume Menu

The Twentieth Century, Modernisms and Modernity


Society and Culture

  • The twentieth century introduces a cultural period in which individuals not only reject the past but also question the very basis of knowledge and consider the possibility that knowledge and concepts once thought to be fixed and objective are instead constantly shifting and subjective.
  • Philosophers and thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzche, Henri Bergson, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud challenged nineteenth-century science and the positivist confidence in its ability to explain both the physical and social worlds in completely rational terms.
  • World War I had a powerful impact in its aftermath, causing Europeans to reconsider their very belief systems and leading to widespread dissatisfaction with the authorities who, many believed, were motivated by greed, class exploitation, and hunger for power.
  • A growing interest in psychology influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud contributed to a new emphasis on the internal reality of individuals, the importance of the self, and the alienation of the self in modern society.
  • New studies in the relationship between reality and appearance led to the philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism as represented in the philosophical writings of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.
  • After the Second World War, the rise of Communism, the gradual disintegration of colonialism, and the exponential development of technology, existentialism flourished in the 1940s and 1950s as individuals struggled to find meaning in an increasingly fragmented and confusing world.
  • A growing awareness of a variety of other cultures that have differing worldviews than traditional European or American ones undercut the assumptions of “cultural parochialism” and led to pluralistic and postcolonial perspectives.


  • Adapting the theories of linguists and philosophers such as Ferdinand Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein, twentieth-century writers began to treat language as a “game,” creating fragmented word combinations, ambiguous meanings, and experimental forms.
  • Dadaism and Surrealism were among the most influential early-twentieth-century literary movements. The goal of the Dadaists was to abolish the restraints of authority by breaking the conventions of literature and art; the goal of the Surrealists was to express the unconscious mind through dream writing, automatic writing, and fantasy.
  • Although the term “modernism” generally refers to the collective literary trend in the early twentieth century, it more precisely applies to a group of British and American writers—such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot—who crafted carefully worded images in colloquial language.
  • In the broader sense of “modernism,” early-twentieth-century writers broke up the traditional plot structure of narratives, experimented with language, fragmented ideas, played with shifting perspectives, and drew self-conscious attention to the very nature of language itself.
  • Despite the experiments with style and content, early modernists continued to hope that through art they could rediscover the meaning and unity lost in modern society. By mid-century, a growing number of writers, often referred to as postmodernists, abandoned that hope and began instead to create literature that celebrates rather than laments the inability of language and literature to bring conclusion and meaning to the modern experience.
  • Postmodern writers playfully create allusions, contradictions, meta-narratives, and linguistic games in order to disrupt reader expectations of fixed, objective references.
  • At the end of the twentieth century, as geopolitical boundaries blurred and shifted, an increased recognition of the diversity of cultural identities in ethnic, gender, and sexual issues led to a correspondent pluralism in writing that depicts the full range of human diversity. Included in these new perspectives is attention to the efforts of postcolonial cultures to develop a consciousness apart from that of their colonizers.