Joyce and Modernism: Why is it Important?


The text outlawed in the United States when first released in full.

Before I dive into Joyce’s modernist writing style, I must start with definitions. (All definitions used while focused on writing only)

  1. Modern – characteristic of present and recent time; contemporary; not antiquated or obsolete.
  2. Modernist – (in literature, structuralist) a deliberate philosophical and practical estrangement or divergence from the past in the arts and literature occurring especially in the course of the 20th century and taking form in any of various innovative movements and styles.
  3. Postmodernist – (in literature, poststructuralist) any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism, especially a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity.

*All terms taken from

So, quick overview of definitions: a modern writer simply means that the writer has a story or idea that progresses through the modern vernacular. Of the time and place where he currently exists. Just because it’s 2016 (or whatever year you’re currently reading: 3033) doesn’t mean someone who wrote about 1905 wasn’t modern. Because it was when he wrote it. Modern writers include Nicolas Sparks’s The Notebook, John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer, and most of those writing today.

A modernist writes in a particular style that reflects a separation from the standard narration style. As far as I understand, any separation would do: Most writers move in a chronological style of writing, with an adherence to the narration (first person, third person limited, etc). They follow established rules to portray a particular idea. This is a great way to write, because the reader does not have to do extra work while reading to get the idea. The idea is often clear and concise, or the story is straightforward and flows easily.

A modernist writer plays with the text in ways that deviates from standard narration. The story might jump around from time period to time period, or from narration style to style. At times, even in the same paragraph. This increases the work a reader must do to collect the idea, but at the same time it also allows the writer to incorporate multiple ideas over the fabric of the story. Modernist books include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (although he is as much a modernist as he is a postmodernist), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Postmodernism, which started in the 1970’s, plays off a rejection of truth and the skepticism of progress. These writers often break from common modernist ideals by discussing topics that are either counter-culture or ultimately self-feeding in nature: like a cog in a great machine, unable to break free from the grind of movement. Perhaps the ultimate postmodernist was H.P. Lovecraft, although I’d have to do a LOT of work to back up that claim. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and Ellis’s American Psycho are included in this subgenre of literature.

Now. On to Joyce’s modernism. What’s the point of all these seemingly nonsensical, or unimportant movements in art and literature? Because, according to Joyce and his contemporaries (during a very turbulent time in the world’s history: The Great Depression and WWI), there was a need to bring classical literature and ideas back into the mainstream. Homer’s Odysseus was not dead. His contextual existence still meant something, and Joyce wanted to mimic the idea to a new standard.

Lots of big words, I know. A long time ago, there were several ideas running around about progress. It began a long time ago, and it began with Homer (or didn’t; there’s no real verification his works aren’t just a long series of songs eventually written down). His works, the Iliad and the Odyssey were epic tales using mythology to bring the idea of the gods to the people. It created context separate from tales of metamorphosis. It pulled the message of the gods down to a form of literature where people could relate.

All sorts of religion grew, and the process was repeated: The Talmud brought context to God, then the New Testament did it once again, and in other areas the Quran grew out of similar context. And between those, Virgil’s Aeneid bloomed.

Dante Alighieri (and countless others) then took the two seemingly paradoxical ideas of (Greek and Christian) mythology and modernized it (for his time) by connecting Dante to Virgil, the master being outdone by the student, highlighting a separation. “This is what changed. Here is where you are mostly right, yet entirely wrong.”

Then, as history shows, countless other writers picked the idea up and modernized the mythology to other time periods, including Milton, who took Dante’s idea of Hell and Heaven and added more humanity to it, vitalizing the idea with Paradise Lost. Epic story after Epic story after Epic story, each one growing off the previous. Each one growing in scope. Milton even wrote that Paradise Lost was written before humanity. Before Adam and Eve. In a very trippy, fourth-dimensional way.

And Joyce, well, he seems (only read seven chapters!) to have brought in the developing idea of psychology to the mix while somehow adhering to the mythic method of teaching context. He gives homage to all the previous masters (as is the process), inciting the “muses” of Dante, Milton, Yeats, Homer, and others to qualitatively encompass the whole of previous history in a single novel, and then succinctly steps past them in his discussion of modern life. Here is where modernism outdoes the previous writers’ style.

Joyce carries Homer’s intent, Dante’s intent, Milton’s intent, Virgil’s intent, Yeats’s intent, and juggles them all by wrapping the story in multiple meanings. To structure, he loosely follows Homer. To Dante, he bows to the notion of son and father/student and teacher, Christianity and the severing of the old to the new. To Milton, he leaves the nest of the subconscious, of darkness tangible, and to all, their styles of writing, their ideas, their intents, even their words.

And Joyce makes them all his own. Through the lens of modernism. Critics say his work is where, finally, the gods are severed from literature, where mythology is alive and well, yet contemporized to modern thinking. Joyce kills the gods of Homer, of the Bible, of Milton and instead worships new gods in ways that embrace the “modern” times. Joyce says, “History isn’t dead. History is just as important now as it has ever been.”

He also wrote about pooping, and damaged relationships, and sex in a way that hasn’t been done before. But that’s a discussion for a later time.

If my understanding is in any way off from my reading of the source materials, please let me know. While I studied these topics (sans Yeats) in the past, my connections could be weak or nonexistent to the larger world.


One thought on “Joyce and Modernism: Why is it Important?

  1. Pingback: Tradition and the Individual Talent | Modern Fantastic

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