II. Historical Developments Affecting Literature
The 18th century was the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, because it was characterized by an emphasis on rational thought. At the time, people believed that they could discover all the truths about the world and human existence through scientific observation and the process of reasoning. Because of their faith in reason, people possessed a great deal of optimism about the present and future. They also generally possessed
These attitudes and beliefs are reflected in the literary style of the period, as well, through the use of elegant and ornate language. Much of the literature of the period (as with other arts) came to be called neo-classical, because of the deliberate attempt to recreate the values, forms, and styles of the ancient classical world. Order was to be imposed on chaos (cf. English gardens as opposed to French). This was also a great age for the translation of classical literature.
Following the turn of the 19th century, an artistic movement which began in Europe and then swept through America grew out of a reaction against the dominant attitudes and approaches of the 18th century. Unlike the eighteenth-century writers, who emphasized reason, logic, and scientific observation, Romanticism stressed the examination of inner feelings and emotions, and the use of the imagination. The Romantic Movement was also characterized by
Often they sought inspiration and understanding through the observation and contemplation of nature. Their idea of a garden was the opposite of their predecessors: their gardens were wild, as though untended. Possessing a deep awareness of the past, the Romantics turned to legends and folklore as sources of inspiration, which also reflected their interest in and concern for common people. This concern was also reflected in their frequent use of the language of common people.
Towards the end of the 19thcentury writers turned away from Romanticism and strove to portray life as it was actually lived. The major movements of the period were Realism, Naturalism, and Regionalism. Realism attempted to present 'a slice of life,' whereas Naturalism went one step further, showing life as the inexorable working out of natural forces beyond our power to control. Regionalism, in contrast, was in some ways a blending of Realism and Romanticism. It emphasized locale, or place, and the elements that create local colour—customs, dress, speech, and other local differences. [During this period writers also began experimenting with point of view.]
Realism, then, was a literary movement that sought to portray ordinary life as real people live it, and attempted to show characters and events in an objective, almost factual way. Realistic writers saw themselves as being in revolt against Romanticism—and thus were controversial figures. For some time before the movement became more international, there had been Realistic writers in France, most notably Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert.
In America, the movement was fed by the experiences of civil war, the frontier, and the developments of life in the cities. Science played a part as well. The objectivity of science struck many writers as a worthy goal for literature. Just as important was a feeling that, perhaps, Romanticism was wearing thin.
As part of its reaction against Romanticism, the Realist writers sought to depict real life as faithfully and accurately as possible, unlike the Romantics, who often portrayed improbable situations and events. Generally, the Realists attempted to present their 'slice of life' by delving deeply into a small portion of the world. They focused on the lives of ordinary people, often writing about lower, working class and middle-class characters. In depicting the lives of people faced with poverty and other hardships, the Realists confronted many of the harsh realities of society, often presenting pessimistic visions of the world dramatically different from the optimistic visions that dominated Romantic literature.
Some of the writers of the period went one step beyond Realism. Influenced by the French novelist Zola, a literary movement known as Naturalism developed. According to Zola, a writer must examine people and society objectively and, like a scientist, draw conclusions from what is observed. In line with this belief, Naturalistic writers viewed reality as the inescapable working out of natural forces. One's destiny, they said, is decided by heredity and environment, physical drives, and economic circumstances. Because they believe that people have no control over events, Naturalistic writers tended to be pessimistic.
As an outgrowth of Realism, Naturalism attempted to depict life truthfully and accurately. Yet while the Realists searched for the truths of existence by delving beneath the surface of everyday life, the Naturalists already possessed a well-defined view of the universe that they imposed on their works. Believing that a person's fate is determined by heredity and environment, Naturalist writers frequently depicted characters whose lives were shaped—as often manipulated—by forces of nature or society beyond their understanding and control.
The third significant literary movement to develop during the latter part of the 19thcentury was Regionalism, or the 'local colour movement.' Through the use of regional dialects and vivid descriptions of the landscape, the Regionalists sought to capture the essence of life in different locations of their nations. The habits, speech, appearance, customs, and beliefs of people from one geographical region often differ from those of people in another. Regional literature captures the essence of life in a particular area, the 'local colour' of a region, by accurately depicting the distinctive qualities of its people, and including vivid, realistic descriptions of the physical appearance of the environment.
Following World War I there was a growing sense of uncertainty, disjointedness, and disillusionment among certain members of society. Many people came to distrust the ideas and values of the past and sought to find new ideas that seemed more applicable to 20th century life. Similarly, writers began turning away from the style, form, and content of 19th century literature and began experimenting with new themes and techniques. A new literary movement, known as Modernism, was born.
The Modernists attempted to capture the essence of modern life in both the form and content of their work. The uncertainty, bewilderment, and apparent meaninglessness of modern life were common themes. Furthermore, these themes were generally implied rather than directly stated, to reflect this sense of uncertainty, and to enable readers to draw their own conclusions. For similar reasons fiction writers began abandoning traditional plot structures, omitting devices that in the past had clarified the work for the reader. Instead, stories and novels were structured to reflect fragmentation and the uncertainty of human experience. A typical modern story or novel seems to begin arbitrarily and to end without a resolution, leaving the reader with possibilities, not solutions.
The devastation of WWI brought about an end to the sense of optimism that had characterized the years immediately preceding it — the jazz age. No longer trusting the ideas and values of the world out of which the war had developed, people sought to find new ideas that were more applicable to 20th century life. The Modernists experimented with a wide variety of new approaches and techniques, producing a remarkably diverse body of literature. Yet, the Modernists shared a common purpose: they sought to capture the essence of modern life in the form and content of their work. To reflect the fragmentation of the modern world, the Modernists constructed their works out of fragments, omitting the expositions, transitions, resolutions, and explanations used in traditional literature.
The Modernists also frequently expressed their views about modern life in the themes of their works, often focusing on such themes as the uncertainty, bewilderment, and apparent meaninglessness of modern life. In poetry, they abandoned traditional forms in favour of free verse.
In fact, it was poetry which ushered in the Modernist movement. This movement, Imagism, which lasted from 1909 to 1917, attracted followers in both the United States and England. The Imagists rebelled against the sentimentality of 19th century poetry. They demanded instead hard, clear expression, concrete images, and the language of everyday speech. Their models came from Greek and Roman classics, Chinese and Japanese poetry, and the free verse of the French poets of their own day. The Imagists concentrated on the direct presentation of images or word pictures.
An Imagist poem expressed the essence of an object, person, or incident, without explanations or generalizations. Through the spare, clean presentation of an image, the Imagists hoped to evoke an emotional response—they hoped to freeze a single moment in time and to capture the emotions of that moment. Avoiding traditional poetic patterns, they also attempted to create new, musical rhythms in their poetry. Because they generally focus on a single image, Imagist poems tend to be short. In their length and focus, many Imagist poems reflect the influence of the Japanese verse forms haiku and tanka.
Similar to Imagism, Symbolism was a literary movement that originated in France in the last half of the 19th century. Because people perceive the physical world in different ways, the Symbolist poets believed that the ideas and emotions that people experience are personal and difficult to communicate. As a result, these poets avoided directly stating their own ideas and emotions in their poetry. Instead, they tried to convey meaning through clusters of symbols: people, places, objects, or actions that have meanings in themselves, at the same time representing something larger than themselves. Because of this reliance on symbols, Symbolist poems can often be interpreted in a number of different ways.
During the years between the two world wars, writers explored new territories. Influenced by developments in modern psychology, as well as the theories of time advanced by the philosopher Henri Bergson, writers began using the stream-of-consciousness technique, attempting to re-create the natural flow of a character's thoughts. This technique was named by the American psychologist William James, who wrote: "Consciousness . . . does not appear to itself chopped up in bits . . . . A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life."
People's thoughts do not usually flow in a neat, organized manner. Instead, they usually proceed in an unorganised flow of insights, memories, flashbacks, and reflections. When a writer uses the stream-of-consciousness technique, he attempts to capture the way the mind works by showing the random movement and natural flow of a character's thoughts. In using this technique, the writer eliminates the transitions used in ordinary prose, instead connecting thoughts through the reader's natural associations.
The stream-of-consciousness technique was devised by the Modernists as part of their effort to capture the essence of the fragmented modern world. They generally believed that there is no external order governing human existence and that, as a result, life is often splintered and disjointed. Their use of the stream-of-consciousness technique reflected this opinion and expressed their belief in the need for people to turn their thoughts inward.
Because they believed that modern life lacked certainty, the Modernists generally suggested rather than asserted meaning in their works. The theme of a typical Modernist work is implied, not stated, forcing readers to draw their own conclusions. Often the Modernists used symbols and allusions to suggest such themes as, for example, that in the Modern Age people are often presented with false hopes and promises.
In experimenting with a number of literary techniques, including shifting points of view and stream-of-consciousness, writers generally abandoned the use of omniscient narrators in favour of first-person and third-person limited narrators. They also generally used a limited point of view in their works because they believed that reality is shaped by people's perceptions. This practice also reflected the modernist belief that 'reality' and 'truth' cannot be viewed objectively, because no two people perceive the world in exactly the same way. Writers also frequently attempted to convey a sense of uncertainty by using a narrator who lacks an understanding or awareness of the nature of human existence.
The turbulence of recent times has not fostered a literary revolution of the kind that occurred in the 1920s, yet it has contributed to the development of a wide variety of literary movements that are often collectively referred to as Postmodernism. Many writers have been content to build on the experiments of the modernists, developing their fragmentary approach, omitting expositions, resolutions, and transitions, and composing stories in the form of broken or distorted sequences of scenes, rather than in the form of a continuous narrative. Others have sought to create works that stand apart from the past.
Some writers have explored new literary forms and techniques, composing works from dialogue alone, creating works that blend fiction and non-fiction or fantasy and realism, and/or experimenting with the physical appearance of their work. Other writers have focused on capturing the essence of contemporary life in the context of their works, often expressing themes concerning the complex, impersonal, and commercial nature of today's world.
During the 1960s a number of writers began searching for new ways to express their individual voices, and broke all traditional formats, radically departing from traditional fictional forms and techniques. Other writers, while basically adhering to conventional structures, began exploring new and unconventional subjects in their works. A number of writers turned their focus inward, writing stories about the process of writing and the forms and techniques of the story itself. Some experimental writers turned to parodying ancient literary works, while others explored the use of historical figures as characters in their works. A few have included themselves as characters in their own works.
Philip Roth, for example, includes himself (the writer, but named Zuckerman) as well as another character named Philip Roth who is not the writer, but whose life is complicated by the confusion. As another kind of example, Donald Barthelme’s short story "Sentence" is one extremely long sentence about the peculiarities of sentences.
Believing that reality is to some extent shaped by our imaginations, some writers have turned away from writing realistic fiction and begun writing fantasy or "magical realism" — fiction that blends realism and fantasy. Finally, a number of Postmodernist writers have confronted the problems they perceive in contemporary society through the use of satire and black humour.
The current period is one of transition. Some critics believe that we are still in the Postmodern period, others believe that we have moved beyond that into something as yet unnamed. It will be for later generations of critics to label this period, according to the dominant characteristic they feel it represents.