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Modernism Vs. Realism

A Comparison of Modernism Vs. Realism Based on Various Parameters

Both modernism and realism are theories and ideas that were deeply reflected in the literature during the phase these philosophies were at their peak. In this article, we will know about these two different forms of practices in the world, with special emphasis of their impact in literature.
Kundan Pandey
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
The essential difference between modernism vs realism, the two forms of thinking patterns or philosophies is that it was the conflict between the old traditional values, beliefs and the new rational, logical views. Modernism, in strictest sense was a refusal to accept the conservative views, ideologies and theories of realism. Modernism was revolutionary in the sense that it challenged the issues that blocked the human progress. It focused deeply on human efforts, its self-consciousness to examine all aspects of human life and correct the things that were wrong. Right from commerce and trade to philosophy, modernism questioned everything and encouraged individuals to find answers to problems by deep thinking, self experiments and knowledge.
In realism, that preceded modernism, the main thought was that the reality in the everyday life is the ultimate truth. It is not dependent on the power of observers and so, it must be depicted as it is, in arts and literature. Modernism challenged realism, as it focused on inner self-consciousness and the power of scientific experimentation to challenge and consequently change reality.
Modernism Vs. Realism in Literature
Literary Time Period
It is said that Modernism flourished between 1900 - 1930. However, literary scholars agree on the fact that the modernism as a form of literary style has penetrated deeply in the 20th century and existed even after half of the 20th century. It is also believed that the era after Vietnam war, roughly close to 1990s, kick started the post-modernism era.
Realism preceded modernism in literature and the period between 1860 - 1900 was regarded as the realism period in literature.
Chief Characteristics
  • It has a pessimistic tone regarding various issues dealt in the writing.
  • It portrays reality of life, without any romanticism or much optimism as in the Victorian or Romantic literature.
  • Variety and complexity in novels made modernistic writing difficult to comprehend.
  • Numerous themes of modern literature included the search within self, the inner dilemma human beings face, questions regarding existence of God in the modern world, overwhelming technological changes and the struggle of man to fit in urban life.
  • Many characters and multiple experiences of people in the story.
  • It uses tools like "stream of consciousness", self experience for representing inner mind, thoughts and views about life.
  • No central heroic figure in the story.
  • Not sequential and connected events unlike realism literature, with fixed time lines.
  • Questions deeply about isolation of an individual in a society fragmented by growth and development. Characters in modern literature were usually from middle class families.
  • It generally dealt with everyday lives of the middle class people.
  • The works in realism literature focused on the quality of individual's life, his daily tasks and that is why, in realism, character is always more important than the plot.
  • No poetic, romantic language is used in realism. The voice of speech represents average man and so it is simple but the tone may be comic or satiric.
  • Events and plot in realism will be reasonable and valid, and truthful. It doesn't discuss anything that is sentimental or over dramatic
  • The most unique feature of realism is that everything, right from characters, plot and language is free of ornamentation. It is explained as it is, without any decorative language.
Renowned Writers
Modernist Writers
Some of most prominent poets of the modernism era were T. S. Eliot, John Mansfield, W.B. Yeats, Rupert Brook, Robert Bridges, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spencer and Dylan Thomas. American novelists like Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison incorporated modernist writing styles in their novels. Authors from different countries who made modernistic writing very popular were James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Ezra Pound.
Realist Writers
Realism was a very difficult phase in the American history where America was on the verge of a serious overhaul in different spheres of life. Be it political, social, economical or individual liberty, realism period witnessed rise of writers who presented the American people as they were. Some of the popular literary figures who used realism as a literary tool included Henry Adams, Horatio Alger, Frank Baum, Edward Bellamy, Kate Chopin, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Joseph Kirkland, Ambrose Bierce, Hamlin Garland, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant, Sherwood Anderson, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Thornton Wilder and Mark Twain.
Both realism and modernism had significant effects on contemporary arts, culture, music and literature. For scholars and art lovers, debate between realism vs modernism has always existed. Some say, realism is no more than a dead weight now, while various others believe that modernism has been long ago taken over by post-modernist trends. Reading popular novels and books related to modernism (like Ulysses by James Joyce) and realism (like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain) will help you understand the intricacies of these eras and the writing styles, in a more profound way.