Modernism represents the elemental shift in artistic and cultural emotional responses evident in the art and literature of the post-World War One era. The structured world of the Victorians could not, in the words of T.S. Eliot, accord with "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." Modernism therefore marks a distinctive break with Victorian morality, discarding nineteenth- century hopefulness and instead presenting a deeply pessimistic vision of a World in turmoil. The movement is connected with the work of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein,

Modernism is often attacked for discarding the social world in favour of its obsession with language and the act of writing. Acknowledging language’s inability to ever say what it really wants to say, the modernists generally relegated content in favour of a concentration upon form. The fragmented, non- chronological, poetic forms utilized by Eliot and Pound revolutionized poetic language. An understanding of Modernism’s goals and beliefs, and of the traditions against which it was fighting, is central to an understanding of Woolf’s novels, especially Mrs Dalloway.

Woolf once said: ‘about December, 1910, human character changed’. By this she not only meant that with the turn of the century and the fading British Empire, people had begun to think differently. She is also implying that with the coming of Sigmund Freud, Picasso and Fry, the very way we perceive ourselves and others had radically altered. Freud’s work on the human mind had led to a vision of consciousness not as an unalterable constant, but as a fluid and shifting collection of perceptions and feelings. Not since Locke had there been such a profound change in the way we viewed the working of the human mind. This revolution was taken up by artists such as Picasso and Fry who attempted to capture the randomness and instability of perception. Mrs Dalloway is Woolf’s attempt to render this revolution in prose form.

Modernism looked to symbols to direct it towards meaning. Later in this guide some of the symbols will be looked at in greater depth, but Woolf shows the fluidity of the symbol in the image of the aeroplane high above London, whose vapour trail spells a word that nobody can read. Similarly the face in the car that no one can see is emblematic of the difficulty of interpreting these symbols.

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