Literary Theory is the study of literature. Literary theorists group works of literature into categories and assigns a label to each category. This label does not describe the plot (e.g. drama or sci-fi). Rather, it describes the style in which it is written (e.g. pastoral or realist). Literary theorists can thus describe and compare novels in a principled manner. For example, they decide which labels to assign to which novels and to what extent the label is befitting of that novel. This is not just a naming exercise: identifying the appropriate label is the first step towards understanding an author’s value system and how that is conveyed by a particular text. We can then discuss what that text means and what we may learn from it.
In literary theory, there is an important distinction between modernism and postmodernism. We consider a text to be modern if it fulfils the criteria of the modernist movement in literature; we consider a text to be postmodern if it fulfils the criteria of the postmodern movement. I structure this brief article as follows. In section 1 I discuss the features of a typical modern novel. In section 2 I discuss the features of a typical postmodern novel. And in section 3 I discuss the distinction between modernism and postmodernism in more detail.
1. The modern novel
Literary theory borrowed the term modernism from architecture. First, it described functional living quarters that were put up hastily in the wake of World War II. Architecture is modern if it rejects the intricacies of previous styles (e.g. baroque or gothic) in favour of practicality. The term modernism is also used in musicology. Music is modern if it rejects the tenets of previous styles (e.g. classical or romantic). Notice that the fields of architecture and musicology use the term modernism for different purposes. In architecture, it refers to a rejection of ostentatious design. In musicology, however, it refers to a rejection of all previous styles, ostentatious or not (classical music was simple and to some extent formulaic).
Modern literature has one general aim and one specific aim. Its general aim is to reject the tenets of the so-called Victorian Novel. Authors such as Austen and Brontë wrote novels that took place over a lengthy period of time and followed the exploits of a number of characters. The novels focussed on a single protagonist but they had a 3rd-person, omniscient narrator. A narrator is omniscient if he or she knows things that the main character and the reader do not. Moreover, Victorian novels were conservative in style, in the sense that the narrative proceeded chronologically and at a fixed rate. Modern literature rejects the above conventions in favour of a more progressive approach to style, plot and narrative form.
The specific aim of modern literature is to place emphasis upon the individual as an agent of change. This is in contrast to the Victorian novel, which used character types for the purposes of social and political commentary. Authors such as Brontë and Dickens told moral tales that raised public awareness of a number of social issues (e.g. the treatment of women and the effects of poverty on the lower-classes). Modern writers were still concerned with social commentary, but they appeared to focus more on individual and psychological issues. The modernist movement in literature took place at around the same time as advances in science (in particular, Einstein’s work on relativity) as well as the psychoanalytic movement. Both of these intellectual events placed the emphasis on individual perception.
2. The postmodern novel
We probably associate the term postmodernism more with architecture and art than we do with literature. Architecture is postmodern if it rejects the tenets of modern architecture (i.e. functionalism and practicality). Art is postmodern if it rejects the tenets of any previous and well-established art form. By extension, it is tempting to assume that postmodern literature is simply a rejection of modern literature. But this is not a satisfying definition for two reasons. First, postmodern literature is a response to previous literary styles, rather than a rejection of them. Second, it is difficult to define postmodernism in terms of modernism when the origins of the modernist movement are unclear.
Recall that modernist literature placed an emphasis on the individual as an agent of change and on individual perception. It was a rejection of the formulaic composition of Victorian novels and was thus progressive in style and narrative form. To some extent, the postmodern tradition is a footnote to the modern tradition. Both postmodern and modern novels tend to be progressive and experimental and so it is often difficult to tell them apart.
There are, however, certain elements of the modern novel that are missing from the postmodern novel. It is common for a postmodern novel to exist in a sort of bubble. This means there is no sense of geographical location (i.e. where the plot takes place) or of the time (i.e. when the plot takes place and for how long). Moreover, the postmodern novel is progressive in terms of subject matter and not style or narrative form. Modern novels (e.g. The Great Gatsby) were still written to reflect the conservative attitudes and values of the time. Postmodern novels are not restrained in this way and no subject (not even incest; cf. The Cement Garden) is considered taboo.
The difference between modernism and postmodernism has to do with attitude rather than any one literary device. Modern novels were considered to be progressive and experimental for their time, just as postmodern novels are today. Both forms are rejections of previous styles. The modernist tradition is a clear rejection of the Victorian novel, with its strict requirements for style and narrative form. The postmodern tradition is to some extent a rejection of the same thing, although postmodern novels tend to be more stripped down. We can tell apart a modern text from a postmodern one by its attitude towards history and human progress.
Note that this difference is abstract and academic. To the general reader of fiction, there is no clear distinction between a modern novel and a postmodern one. Attitudes change; taboos are lifted and authors are always looking for new approaches. To a literary theorist, however, the modern-postmodern distinction reflects a fundamental shift in our attitude towards human progress.
Consider the recent history of our species, from the most recent ice age to the present day. It is possible to view this history as a single story: it is a metanarrative that tells us a single story of gradual but constant human progress. Take each major event in sequence: the development of agriculture; the rise of democracy; the growth of the British Empire; the Industrial Revolution, and so on. A modernist critic thinks that major events like these are partly connected: i.e. that each event is partly a consequence of one that came before.
Many critics believe that this metanarrative ground to a halt at some point in our very recent history, possibly at the advent of the (second) Industrial Revolution. This major event triggered a chain-reaction that has resulted in (among other things) the bloated financial sector as well as stark contrasts between rich and poor. These critics believe that society is no longer changing for the better and this is essentially the postmodern stance. Postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarratives. In this context, we take incredulity to mean a refusal to accept; we take metanarrative to refer to the single story that we use to capture all of our history. Put that together, and the postmodern becomes a refusal to accept that our post-industrial society represents the steady march of progress.
There is a pattern here. Modern art pioneered new approaches; postmodern art parodies them. Modern architecture fulfilled a clear need; postmodern architecture pushes the boundaries of taste. And modern literature replaced old literary forms with new ones; postmodern literature replaced these new forms with no form at all. All of this makes sense if we consider that our Brave New World is good news for the modernist but bad news for a postmodernist. A modernist novel is instilled with a sense of tradition and social relevance because modernist critics believe that society is progressing as surely as time elapses. A postmodern novel is self-serving because postmodern critics believe that the metanarrative of history has stopped.
Literary theory is the study of literature. It appeals to the socio-historical context in which a novel was written, as well as to the notions of style and narrative form. Literary theory makes a distinction between modernism and postmodernism. This distinction is useful for the purposes of description and literary analysis, but in fact there is no clear division, only a continuum. Both modern and postmodern novels are rejections of former literary styles. There are no strict requirements for the style or narrative form of these novels, but we can nevertheless identify certain tendencies. Modern novels place emphasis on the individual as an agent of change. Postmodern novels have plots that unfold with no explicit reference to time, place or tradition.