Modernism is the style/era of writing which focuses on the idea of transcending societal beliefs and the general ideas portrayed in literature, especially during the Romantic Period. The crux of this is a focus on individualism and isolation from society, the idea of transcending societal roles for different genders, races and classes, and the demonization of society as a whole. Examples of this demonization are easily visible in The Stranger, through Meursault’s death sentence, The Metamorphosis, through Gregor’s family’s reaction to his death, Dubliners, through society’s misconceptions of various things, from people’s intentions to their reactions to events.
In The Stranger, the reader is not expected to have sympathy for Meursault when the court takes action against him for commmitting murder. However, the reader does come to sympathize with Meursault when he is sentenced to death because his intentions and ideas are explained to the reader very clearly throughout the book. However, It is these very intentions which cause the court to rule the way they do. The jury hears of his indifference at his mother’s funeral and his lack of grief in the days immediately following this, and is immediately horrified by these differences, believing in a need for them to be eliminated. Thus, though Meursault’s beliefs may also seem strange to the reader, the reader will generally believe that the verdict placed on his head by the jury was one that he did not deserve. Therefore, the idea that Camus effecitvely portrays is the society is biased and intolerant to differences, and thus must be reformed to be more accepting and open-minded towards new ideas. Once again, this is a very modernist idea because it is a criticism of society. It demonizes the intrinsic ideas held by the majority of the book’s readers, blaming society for being that which it speaks negatively of in the context of other societies.
The idea which Kafka portrays in The Metamorphosis is effectively the same thing. He takes a character with differences from society (physical this time) and plays out a story in which he is rejected by a society that is happy when he is dead. Once again, this shows a society which is intolerant towards differences, and thus which must be reformed. However, the role that is demonized here is also one that is much more complex than the corresponding one in The Stranger. As mentioned in my piece above about the General Conflict in The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s family wants to identify with him and treat him as a family member, but is unable to. However, the difference here is that certain actions that they take, such as their choice to isolate Gregor from other people, are very selfish and focused on their own reputation. This isn’t necessarily apparent in The Stranger, but is another idea that Kafka criticizes in society and promotes through the selfless actions of Gregor in providing for his family before his transformation.
Finally, there is Dubliners, in which society’s rejection of differences isn’t as apparent as their simple misunderstanding of situations. A primary example of this is in the very first story, The Sisters. Rosicrucian, the main character, is very sad after his mentor and friend, Father Flynn, dies. However, other characters in his life are very critical about both this and the relationship he had with Father Flynn. Old Cotter states that he believes that Father Flynn was a bad influence on children’s minds, and that Rosicrucian shouldn’t have spent time with him. Similarly, Father Flynn’s sisters declare that he was insane, and that, because of that, it was best that he died. This all seems like a misinterpretation from Roscrucian’s viewpoint because he learned a lot from Father Flynn and identified with him on a great level. Society’s simple incapability to accept this idea is mentally criticized by Rosicrucian and expected to be criticized by the reader, but remains something that would generally be thought by society of an insane person. Thus, Joyce, just like Camus and Kafka, criticizes an idea that is intrinsic to the readers of his book and society in which it was published, a core modernist trend.
Overall, the distinguishing idea of modernism was that which made it a widely criticized genre: it’s criticism of society and its ideas. No one likes to be told they’re wrong, so when they are, they don’t take it lightly. However, it is important to acknowledge the such literature is vital to the evolution of society. There is no way for a group to advance without looking at its failings and attempting to fix them. Many of the problems referenced here have not been eliminated in modern society (otherwise I wouldn’t necessarily realize them), but others, such gender and racial roles have significantly. While men and women may not be completely equal in today’s society, women certainly aren’t generally expected to submit to men in all situations, as Nora often is to Helmer. Furthermore, ideas such as the requirement for Mr. Doran to marry Polly after he has sex with her aren’t necessarily completely accepted in modern society (at least here in the US), but definitely aren’t enforced to the degree that they are in The Boarding House. Modernist literature primarily began to be produced near the end of the Industrial Revolution, a time when the world had just begun a rapid evolution towards the advanced state which it occupies today, just after following a century of great change as well. It was a time when the most rapid change in human ideas and technology was beginning to occur, and thus, by some, the greatest reflection on the past and future of the human species. This criticism was necessary for the effective evolution of society, and was an efficient way of doing so. The question now is whether this will continue or if we have reached a point in our society where this is impossible.