Best Modernist Novels

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Looking for a great modernist novel to read? There is definitely no shortage of great books in the genre.

Modernism was a literary movement that began in the late 19th century and ended around the mid-20th century.

The movement was heavily influenced by the events of the time, particularly industrialization and World War I, and was an experimental style of writing with non-linear narratives and inner monologues that emphasized the thoughts and emotions of the characters rather than the plot of the story.

Thematically, modernism often reflected the feelings of disillusionment, despair and uncertainty that people faced during the time period.

Although the following list isn’t a complete list of modernist novels, it is a small sampling of what are considered to be some of the best modernist novels:

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1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Published in 1899 as a three-part series in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Heart of Darkness is a novella about European colonialism in Africa.

The plot is about a ferry boat captain in Africa, Charlie Marlow, whose job is to transport ivory downriver in the Congo.

Marlow is given command of an expedition to find an ivory procurement agent named Kurtz who has reportedly fallen ill, which has jeopardized the company’s business venture in the Congo.

When Marlow finds Kurtz he discovers that he has gone mad and has taken command of a tribe of natives whom he now orders to conduct raids on the surrounding regions.

The book is considered a work of early modernism. It is notable for predicting the style, experimentation and themes of modernism that would later emerge in the postwar era, such as its negative depiction and rejection of Victorian society and its criticism of British imperialism and the impact it has on humanity.

The story received little attention when it was originally published and didn’t really become popular until the 1940s and 1950s when critics and academics began to focus more heavily on psychological themes in literature.

In the 1970s, critics began to take aim at the novel for its dehumanizing depictions of African people and for its poor representations of women.

Although considered a modern masterpiece, the book is also considered a controversial yet significant work in English literature.

In 1979, the book was adapted for a psychological war drama titled Apocalypse Now starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen which further renewed public interest in the book.

In 2014, the book was ranked number 32 on the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list and was described as “a haunting, hypnotic masterpiece by a great writer who towers over the literature of the 20th century.”

2. The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

Published in 1922, The Waste Land is a long poem that is considered to be one of the most famous works of literary modernism and is about the disillusionment and disgust of the period after World War I.

The poem combines the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King and portrays a modern world that has become a barren wasteland where people live disconnected from one another and are driven solely by empty desires and lusts.

The poem is divided into five sections: “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess” “The Fire Sermon” “Death By Water” and “What The Thunder Said.”

The Wasteland is considered a modernist classic due to its sense of disillusionment, desolation and uncertainty and it is a great example of experimentation in poetic technique that was often used in modernist poetry.

On the 100th anniversary of the poem’s publication, the Washington Post stated that the poem still resonates today and the Guardian also declared that the themes of poem are just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago:

“The Waste Land still speaks to us, though in a different register to that conjured up by Eliot; its contemporary meaning needs unpacking as carefully as the allusions in the poem.”

3. Ulysses by James Joyce

Published in 1922, Ulysses is a novel about a single day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, his friends Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus and his wife Molly.

The novel takes place on June 16, 1904, which is now celebrated across the world as Bloomsday, and it chronicles the experiences of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus while they go about their day in Dublin.

The novel is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, the characters are modern counterparts of the Odyssey’s characters and the events of the novel parallel the major events in Odyssey’s journey home after the Trojan War.

The book is notable for using the stream of consciousness technique to focus on the characters inner most thoughts as they go about their day and for its experimental techniques with narrative devices and in the rendering of time.

Although the book is now considered one of the most important works of modernist literature, it was very controversial when it was first published, due to its frank sexual content, and it even had trouble getting published.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf refused to publish it with their small press, Hogarth Press, out of fear of being sued for indecency and Joyce had to find a publisher outside of England, the Shakespeare and Company in Paris, in order to publish it.

Even before it was officially published in book form, Ulysses was declared obscene by a U.S. Court while it was being published serially in the American literary magazine The Little Review between 1918 and 1920.

Random House later had the case brought to trial in 1930 during which it was cleared of the charge and the publishing house was finally allowed to publish it in the United States.

4. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Published in 1927, To The Lighthouse is a novel about an English family and their summer vacations to Scotland over the course of many years.

The plot follows the family over the years as they return to their vacation house in Scotland. During their many trips they experience major changes in their lives due to death, grief, the outbreak of World War I and the passage of time and they attempt to recapture meaning in their lives throughout it all.

The themes of this complex novel are about time, perception, gender roles, loss and death.

The novel is considered a modernist classic due its experimental style. It has little dialogue and almost no direct action, using instead a literary technique known as stream of consciousness which focuses on the characters inner most thoughts to tell the story.

The book is considered to be Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece and is not only a landmark in modernist writing but also one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the book at number 15 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and in 2005 the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.

5. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms is a love story about an American ambulance driver in the Italian campaign during World War I and a beautiful English nurse he falls in love with.

The plot follows their love affair and the various difficulties they encounter as a result of the war. The two major themes of the novel are war and love.

The novel is considered a classic in modernist literature due to its depiction of the existential disillusionment of the “Lost Generation,” the generation of young people in their early adulthood during World War I, and the disorder and chaos of life in Europe during World War I.

The novel was well received when it was first published in book form in 1929. It became Hemingway’s first best seller and sold 100,000 copies in the first year.

The New York Times described the book as “beautiful and moving” and the Times Literary Supplement of London called it “a novel of great power.”

6. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Published in 1930, As I Lay Dying is a Southern Gothic novel about a dying woman and her desire to be buried with her family in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi.

The plot is about the woman’s five children and husband embarking on a pilgrimage to Mississippi to bury her and it chronicles the numerous difficulties they encounter along the way. The themes of the novel are about grief, loss and family love.

The novel is considered a modernist classic due to its themes of isolation, alienation, death and hardship and its use of the stream of consciousness technique.

The novel is also considered to be one of Faulkner’s greatest works and is considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century.

In 2013, Publisher’s Weekly ranked the book at number 6 on its list of the 10 best modernist books and in 2014, the Guardian ranked it at number 55 on its list of the 100 best novels.

7. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Published in 1936, Nightwood is a novel about the lives and loves of five eccentric people.

The plot primarily follows a transvestite gynecologist called Matthew O’Connor, and Nora Flood, who is in love with the androgynous woman Robin Vote. The themes of the novel are about passion, grief of exile and loneliness.

Nightwood is considered to be one of the early prominent novels to portray explicit homosexuality between women and one of the first to have a transgender character.

The book, which was edited by poet T.S. Eliot, is also considered to be Barnes’ masterpiece and it is one of the most well-known gay novels of the first half of the 20th century in the English language.

Fellow author William S. Burroughs called the book “one of the great books of the twentieth century”, writer Dylan Thomas described it as “one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman” and T.S. Eliot once wrote that Nightwood is “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry” can appreciate it.

In 1999, the Publishing Triangle ranked it at number 12 on its list of the top 100 gay and lesbian novels.

In 2018, the Guardian described the book’s modernist style as “fascinating” and “exhilarating”:

“We asked for modernism – and boy, did we get it. Barnes throws out the rules of structure, form and even sentence construction – and that’s part of the fascination. Just as her outcast characters are trying to shrug off the shackles of early 20th-century society, so Barnes breaks the rules of prose. Sometimes it’s exhilarating.”

8. 1984 by George Orwell

Published in 1949, 1984 is a modern political satire and dystopian science fiction novel.

The plot is about an imagined future in the year 1984 when the world is in the midst of a perpetual war and Great Britain has become the province of a totalitarian superstate led by a dictatorial leader known as Big Brother.

Although the narrative and writing style are very conventional and not considered modern, the novel is still considered a modernist classic because of its exploration of modernist themes like loneliness, alienation, exclusion and the effects of totalitarianism.

The novel was critically acclaimed when it was published. V. S. Pritchett, reviewed the novel for the New Statesman and stated:

“I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down.”

The book was also praised by Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster and Sir Harold Nicolson (British politician and husband of writer Vita Sackville-West.)

Time Magazine has since included it on its list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 and the Modern Library included it on its list of the 100 best novels.

In November of 2019, the BBC included the book on its list of the 100 most influential novels.

An article in the July 2019 issue of the Atlantic Monthly declared that “no novel of the past century has had more influence than George Orwell’s 1984.”

9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Published in 1952, Invisible Man is about a young black man struggling to succeed in a racially divided society.

The plot follows the young man from his youth in a black community in the South to his move to New York City where he becomes a spokesman for the Harlem branch of the “brotherhood.”

The story chronicles the events in his life leading to his discovery that society overlooks him because of his race, which makes him feel “invisible” and leads him to question his identity and worth.

The themes of the books are about the social issues faced by African Americans in the early twentieth century, the relationship between black identity and Marxism as well as issues of personal identity and individuality.

The novel is considered a modernist classic due to its experimental style, its use of the stream of consciousness technique, its non-linear narrative and its focus on the psychological impact of racism on its protagonist.

The book was well received when it was published and remained on the best seller list for 16 weeks.

Critic Orville Prescott of the New York Times reviewed the book when it was first published and called it, “the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read” and critic Harold Bloom wrote in the Paris Review that the book, along with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, were “the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all.”

In 1953, the book won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction, making Ellison the first African-American to win the award.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the book number 19 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Time Magazine included the book on its list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.

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