Modernism and Post-Modernism: A Reductionist Approach

Reductionism is a philosophical approach to the understanding of complex, holistic entities by breaking them down into their fundamental core elements. Once the elements of the concept are understood, than so can the entire concept. The Modernist and Postmodernist era, though literary periods are examples of such abstract concepts. Both of these eras are polar opposites in many aspects, however when broken down reductively into their most bare and archetypal characteristics of form and content the two eras share more themes than one would expect. With this considered, the categorization of subsequent works to either era are left ambiguous. This categorization to either Post Modernism or Modernism depends completely upon the ways which the work interacts with these archetypal themes. Douglas Glover’s “Woman Gored by Bison Lives” is an example of a work which could fit into either era of literature. Post-Modernism however is the stronger association due to the way which the work adheres to Post-Modernist usage of these themes. Both eras share interchangeable themes such as realism, distortions of chronologic story lines and ‘connecting the dots’ of story-lines (non-exhaustive). However, the way which Glover’s narrative interacts with thematic variations seen in the Post-Modernist era is the defining factor of relativity. For example; realism is a theme which was pioneered within the Modernist era, however extensions of realism originated in the Post-Modernist era and allowed Post-Modernists to interact with the theme differently than did Modernists.

Realism is unarguably one of the more important features of Modernist and Post-Modernist era literature, due to the fact that no other attempted such a thing. The context of history would not have condoned these candid topics in earlier eras. The utilization of realism allowed for Modernists and Post-Modernists alike to touch upon unwelcoming, unpopular or touchy subjects within the socio-literary sphere. In regards to Glover’s narrative realism is used as it would have been used in Modernism, but extensions of this theme of realism set the final boundary of Post-Modernist motive. Glover utilizes realism to depict sexual events within the work, but particularly death is depicted grotesquely; realistically as it would be. Susan’s death is a realist portrayal of death itself. There is no happy ending or ‘medical miracle’, Susan dies as she would have. The moment of Susan’s death is depicted realistically, intensified by instances of gruesome visual and auditory imagery, “Her lungs begin to fill up, her breathing grows shallower. She makes a horrible bubbling sound in her chest, which I suppose is what they used to mean by the phrase ‘death rattle’” (Glover, 188). The events which lead up to Susan’s final death passage as the rising action attach the reader to Susan and the protagonist, and the realist portrayal of the protagonists heart breaking during Susan’s final days incites a melancholic response. “I miss you already I say, “It hurts so much I can hardly stand it.” “What’s the worst thing?” she asks. “I’m afraid that when you die it will be awful, that you’ll choke or vomit and be terrified.” (Glover, 185). This is standard usage of realism that one should expect to observe interchangeably within Modernist and Post-Modernist literature. Extensions of realism however emanate within the narrative, and this is what categorizes the work as Post-Modernist era rather than that of Modernist. One of these ‘extensions’ of realism manifests itself with the broadening of the literary canon; marginalization. This extension emphasizes the inclusion of all demographics, the ‘straying away’ from limited ethnicities/races/genders seen exclusively in past eras of literature. Glover includes a homosexual union between Susan and the protagonist, which does not conform to this literary demographic norm. This additionally serves as an attack on societal constructs of traditionalism entailing love and marriage. Another extension of realism emerging out of Post-Modernism is the theme of ‘non-eroticism’. This extension depicts styles of eroticism which see intercourse as troublesome, desperate and non-mutually satisfactory. This is contrary to the lustful and overt displays of mutual affection seen in Modernism, see Hilda Doolittle’s “Leda’ for example. In Glover’s work, the act of intercourse between the two women is described as “desperate” (Glover, 175) and is done in the need of “solace” (Glover, 175). This relationship is being depicted as non-lustful and realistically as an escape from obligation in the women’s lives. The protagonist is having an affair with Susan in spite of her husband, Danny. This is emphasized when the strewn clothing of the women is oddly referred to as “manacled” (Glover, 175) at the ankles; a symbolization of captivity in terms of being obliged to conform to normative relationship values.

Traditionally, literature from outside of the Modernist and Post-Modernist era included a chronological development of events in a given story line. Modernist literature grew extremely experimental in its workings of content and form and put an end to these linear storylines, which characteristically carried over to the Post-Modern era. Much like angst-ridden teenagers, the two eras choose not to conform to what is expected. This disruption of chronology is observable in Modernist works such as Faulkner’s “The Sound and The Fury” or T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. The modernist era utilized de-linearization to further obscure works, while on the other hand the Post-Modernist era aimed to de-linearize chronology in hopes of painting a fuller picture by the end. Glover‘s narrative for example is divided into three sections, all of which are non-chronological. The first section is predominantly a description of the protagonist’s lesbian mistress Susan and an excerpt from a day that they shared with Susan’s daughter Gabriella in Batoche where they witnessed a woman get gored by a bison is also supplemented. This transitions to the second portion of the narrative, which opens shockingly with “Susan dies” (Glover, 181). This section is comprised by the process of which Susan passes, to an excerpt from a day Susan, Danny, the Protagonist and Gabriella spent at the zoo. Lastly, the third excerpt is about the protagonist going to visit Gabriella in Medicine Hat. The chronology of the work is distorted, but not for the same reason as Modernist works were obscuring their chronology. This narrative is a subjective response of our narrator to the death of her significant other whom she loved wholeheartedly, and such responses were advocated and accepted by Post-Modernists. This subjective response to Susan’s death could also be why the story-line is distorted chronologically as well, perhaps the protagonist was recollecting events separately due to gaps in consciousness.

Finally, the theme of “connecting the dots” within Post-Modernist literature. This element of the era proposes that the whole work must be read in order to see connect it as a holistic entity. This theme also suggests that literature can push you emotionally in whichever way it intends to. Firstly, the narrative itself is to be conceptualized holistically after the full work has been read. If the reader were to choose to stop reading halfway through the work, it would be far too obscure to bring together a coherent comprehension. The prominent de-linearization of the storyline plays a major role in the expectation which Post-Modernist writers placed upon their readers to read the entire work. If steps to bring together the work aren’t taken, than the understanding of the work will not take form. This theme also suggests that literature can and will push you into a direction of emotion if it intends to do so. In the case of Glover’s work, the first section of the work is light and fluffy; like the calm before the storm. The second section moves us into a direction of melancholy as we find out Susan has died, and the section provides both the moment of Susan’s death and additional events leading up to the passing. The final section though seems to be inconclusive, which is another characteristic of Post-Modernist literature; inconclusively terminating the story. It is observable that the process of this novel intends to touch on sentimentality within the last two sections. There is also an influence of realism to some degree in the intention of provoking emotions. Simply, the method of depiction that the author adopts to portray a melancholic and candid subject delegates just how much emotion will be compromised. Modernism used a theme along the lines of “connecting the dots”, but this version was extremely obscure and lead much of the period’s literature to incoherence. Modernism intends to be obscure, experimental and therefore is much more difficult to analyze accurately than that of Post-Modernism, which displaces events in a certain way so that the literature plays upon unconscious emotion and needs to be pieced together to paint the big picture.

To conclude, the categorization of a work in either Modernism or Post-Modernism depends largely upon how the work interacts in accordance to fundamental themes of both eras. Realism runs amok within both Modernist and Post-Modernist eras. Though, there is a clear border between methods of usage. Post-Modernist realism has more to do with incorporating realism in terms of its sub-ordinate extensions of the theme, whereas Modernism incorporates the theme of realism to depict all types of realism. Works within Modernism contain these extensions of realism when analyzed through the lens of a Post-Modernist, but the primordial usage of the theme within Modernism is to pervade the crude theme of realism in the grand scheme of things. Secondly, distorted time lines within Modernist and Post-Modernist works are overtly identifiable. Again, these themes are utilized within both eras but have to be categorized on the basis of content within the work. In works such as T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, there is an extremely obscured time-line. In fact, it is almost too obscure to come up with a feasible interpretation of the events. This is because Modernism utilized distortion to further obscure their stories true meaning, as James Joyce did in such works as “Dubliners” where he takes on the Catholic Church through sublimity. Post-Modernism however aims to distort time-lines in an effort to connect chronology in a different way. The goal of this incorporation is to paint a full picture by the end of the reading. Thirdly, the usage of “connecting the dots”, where the reader is expected by Post-Modernists to finish the work completely in order to reveal the full content of the work. Modernism uses a variation of this theme, where it intends to be obscure for either symbolism or sublimity, which is different than the intentions of that of Post-Modernism. This ‘differentiation’ culture which seems to have spawned in the Modernist period carried over to the Post-Modernist period, which is extremely important to the development of the ’anti’ ideology in Post-Modernism. Post-Modernism then, attacks both itself and the Modernist era by varying from themes developed within the Modernist era, acting as a ‘one-upping’ of the Modernist’s work.


Glover, Douglas. “Woman Gored by Bison Lives.” A Guide to Animal Behavior. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1991. 175-89. Print.