Modern Literature


Table Summary

Ages of Modern Literature
ca. 1800-present
ca. 1750-1900
ca. 1850-present
Primary Writers of the Modern Period
German French Russian English
Britain United States
poetry Goethe Hugo Pushkin Wordsworth Whitman
novel Tolstoy Dickens Twain
drama Romanticism Goethe, Hugo
modernism Ibsen

General Features

From the dawn of civilization up to the modern period (ca. 1800-present), poetry and verse drama (as opposed to prose drama) were generally favoured as the most profound means of telling a story. Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, drama has been composed chiefly in prose, and the novel has reigned as the primary literary form.

This article focuses on creative literature (as opposed to scholarly literature). Key developments in modern scholarly thought are covered elsewhere (see History of Western Philosophy, History of Science).

Main Article


ca. 1850-present

The term "modern", in the context of history and art history, has three common meanings. In discussion of history, it usually means either the period ca. 1500-present (when history is divided into ancient, medieval, and modern) or the period ca. 1800-present (when the divisions are ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern). In discussion of art history, it usually means the period during which "modern art" has been produced: ca. 1850-present.

Modern art (aka "modernist art") simply denotes new, non-traditional art. Modern artists, who deliberately sought to break with traditional styles, innovated a wide range of new aesthetics. Modern literature can be broadly divided into two approaches, realism and radicalism, both of which can be traced back to ca. 1850.

Modern Literature
branch primary authors
realism prose Flaubert, Tolstoy
drama Ibsen
prose Proust, Kafka, Joyce
poetry Baudelaire, Rilke, Eliot

Realist literature features realistic characters, settings, and plot, which are described in a straightforward, detailed manner (just as a work of visual art, in order to be realistic, must be straightforward and detailed). Events are not idealized, fantastic, or excessively improbable; life and society are simply presented as they are, positive and negative qualities alike. The founding of realist literature is generally credited to French author Gustave Flaubert, whose masterpiece Madame Bovary recounts the anguished boredom of a rural doctor's wife.

Note that the term "realist author" is typically reserved for writers devoted to strict realism, such as Flaubert (the foremost realist author in French) and Tolstoy (the foremost in Russian). The literary category of "realism", however, is often stretched to include less severely realistic authors who nonetheless incorporated much realism into their works. This relaxed definition would include such authors as Dickens, Twain, and Hugo.

Realist drama was pioneered by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, founder and greatest figure of modernist drama. Indeed, Scandinavia was one of the two leading regions of modern drama, giving rise to both Ibsen (Norway's foremost author) and August Strindberg (Sweden's foremost author). The other leading region was Russia, whose most revered dramatist is Anton Chekhov. In his later works, Ibsen (as well as Strindberg) shifted toward radicalism, making him simultaneously the foremost pioneer of radical drama.

The primary modernist playwrights in English are George Bernard Shaw (UK) and Eugene O'Neill (US).

Radical literature features a wide range of untraditional techniques, often inspired by movements in visual art. Impressionist writing, for instance, communicates with fleeting suggestion rather than clear, direct narrative, while symbolist literature focuses heavily on symbolic images. Surrealist literature appeals to the subconscious with fantastic, dreamlike qualities, while expressionist writing brazenly ignores external appearances, instead directly exposing inner, psychological realities.

Regardless of which "-ist" labels might apply to a particular work, however, all radical literature is united by the rejection of traditional restrictions (to varying degrees). Rules of spelling and grammar might be ignored, or conventional linear narrative subverted. In poetry, restrictions of metre and rhyme are often loosened, and even removed altogether (resulting in free verse). In drama, conventions are routinely shattered with regard to acting itself and theatre's auxiliary elements (e.g. staging, lighting, costumes).

One especially popular innovation of radical literature is stream of consciousness, which attempts to set down the constant flow of thought experienced by the mind. This technique is most famously employed in the novel Ulysses, masterpiece of Irish author James Joyce, often considered the greatest of all radical prose writers. The foremost radical prose author in French is Marcel Proust; in German, Franz Kafka.

In the field of radical poetry, the most renowned author in French is Charles Baudelaire; in German, Rainer Rilke; in English, Thomas Stearns Eliot.

Throughout the modern age, all artistic barriers (regarding both form and content) were torn down, ultimately unleashing total aesthetic freedom. Consequently, the art world gradually ceased to feature overarching aesthetic movements. Today, authors write whatever they please, in whatever style they please, drawing upon any influences they please (from antiquity to the twenty-first century); "art history" has thus, in a sense, come to an end.


ca. 1750-1900

As described above, the age of modern literature spans ca. 1850-present. Modernism overlaps with Romanticism, which flourished ca. 1750-1900.

Romanticism denotes unrestrained expression of emotion (see Western Aesthetics). Romantic literature features a number of typical Romantic themes, including the natural world, simple/pastoral life, social struggle, exotic lands and cultures, magical/supernatural elements, and historical nostalgia. A range of familiar modern genres initially flourished during the Romantic age, including adventure (from Edmond Dantès to Long John Silver), fantasy (from Peter Pan to Dracula), and science fiction (from Captain Nemo to Frankenstein).

Another major Romantic genre is the fairytale, which may be defined as "a brief story with magical elements". While fairytales have flourished (in both oral and written form) in all periods, they experienced a surge of attention from Romantic authors. The stories composed by these authors (either by drawing on traditional material or inventing new stories in the traditional spirit) have become the most widely familiar body of European fairytales.

As noted above, some Romantic collections of fairytales were freshly invented, while others were new settings of traditional stories. In the latter case, the most popular sources were French (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast) and German (e.g. Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin). The most influential authors of traditional fairytales are the German Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), while the foremost author of newly-invented fairytales is Hans Christian Andersen (e.g. The Emperor's New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling), Denmark's greatest writer.


Romantic drama thrived chiefly in France and Germany, led by Hugo and Goethe respectively.4 (Sometimes the supreme position in German drama is accorded instead to Friedrich Schiller, the most renowned figure in German literature after Goethe.) The satirical tragedy Ruy Blas (in which a commoner rises to the rank of prime minister) is often considered Hugo's greatest play, while Goethe's foremost drama is Faust.

Modernist drama, on the other hand, flourished primarily in Scandinavia and Russia. The founder and leader of modern drama is Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, whose most renowned plays include A Doll's House, Ghosts, and The Master Builder. (Widespread consensus has not emerged on a single "greatest" Ibsen play.)

Poetry and Prose

The five leading nations of modern literature (ca. 1800-present) have been France, Germany, Russia, England, and the United States. (With the decline of overarching aesthetic trends, however, the presence of such "literary leaders" has dwindled since the late twentieth century.) The figures who hold the title of "greatest novelist" and/or "greatest poet" for each nation are nearly all widely agreed-upon; most lived in the nineteenth century.

Primary Poets and Novelists of the Modern Period
German French Russian English
Britain United States
poetry Goethe Hugo Pushkin Wordsworth Whitman
novel Tolstoy Dickens Twain

The principal founder of the Romantic movement (which originated in late eighteenth-century German literature) was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, generally considered the greatest poet, novelist, and dramatist in the German language. Goethe's masterpiece is Faust, an adaptation of the traditional legend of a world-weary scholar who trades his soul to the devil for knowledge and power. Faust is simultaneously considered a drama and an epic poem, as it straddles the two forms. (As an epic poem, Faust is the only serious modern rival to Milton's Paradise Lost.)5

In France, Romantic literature was led by Victor Hugo, often considered the supreme French poet and novelist, as well as the greatest French Romantic dramatist. His poetic masterpiece is the epic La Légende des siècles, which traces the history of humanity from the Garden of Eden onward. His two most renowned novels are The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables.

Romanticism in Russia was led by Alexander Pushkin, widely esteemed the greatest Russian poet. Pushkin's masterpiece is Eugene Onegin, an epic poem (often described as a "novel in verse") that recounts the tragic life of a directionless nobleman. The foremost work of Leo Tolstoy, Russia's leading novelist, is War and Peace, which chronicles the Napoleonic invasion from the perspective of several Russian families.

Charles Dickens is often singled out as England's greatest novelist. His foremost novels include A Tale of Two Cities (by some estimates the best-selling novel of all time), Great Expectations, and David Copperfield. Dickens also penned A Christmas Carol, the world's most famous novella (a prose story of intermediate length, between a short story and a novel).

The title of "greatest English poet" in the modern period is contended by several Romantic poets, of which William Wordsworth may be foremost. Some have argued that Wordsworth is the greatest lyric poet in English, and occupies the third rank of English literature (after Shakespeare and Milton); at any rate, he was certainly the leading force in establishing the Romantic movement in England. Wordsworth's outstanding collections are Lyrical Ballads (co-authored with Coleridge, and considered the founding work of English Romanticism) and Poems in Two Volumes.6

Mark Twain, often considered the foremost American novelist, is known primarily for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (his masterpiece). Though consensus is less strong regarding America's greatest poet, the leading candidate may be Walt Whitman, whose masterpiece is the massive lyric collection Leaves of Grass.

1 - "Western Literature", Encyclopedia Britannica.
2 - "Lyric", Encyclopedia Britannica.
3 - "Novel", Columbia Encyclopedia.
4 - "Drama", Columbia Encyclopedia.
5 - “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe”, Encyclopedia Britannica.
6 - “William Wordsworth”, Encyclopedia Britannica.