Modernist literature attempted to move from the bonds of Realist literature and to introduce concepts such as disjointed timelines. Modernism was distinguished by an emancipatory metanarrative
Contemporary metanarratives were becoming less relevant in light of the implications of World War I, the rise of trade unionism, a general social discontent, and the emergence of psychoanalysis. The consequent need for a unifying function brought about a growth in the political importance of culture.
Modernist literature often features a marked pessimism, a clear rejection of the optimism apparent in Victorian literature. In fact, "a common motif in Modernist fiction is that of an alienated individual--a dysfunctional individual trying in vain to make sense of a predominantly urban and fragmented society." But the questioning spirit of modernism could also be seen, less elegaically, as part of a necessary search for ways to make a new sense of a broken world.
Modernist literature often moves beyond the limitations of the Realist novel with a concern for larger factors such as social or historical change. This is prominent in "stream of consciousness" writing. Examples can be seen in Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens and Mrs Dalloway, James Joyce's Ulysses, Katherine Porter's Flowering Judas, Jean Toomer's Cane, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and others.
Modernism as a literary movement is seen, in large part, as a reaction to the emergence of city life as a central force in society. Furthermore, an early attention to the object as freestanding became in later Modernism a preoccupation with form. The collapse of the distance between subject and object represented a movement from means to is. Where Romanticism stressed the subjectivity of experience, Modernist writers were more acutely conscious of the objectivity of their surroundings. In Modernism the object is; the language doesn't mean it is. This is a shift from an epistemological aesthetic to an ontological aesthetic or, in simpler terms, a shift from a knowledge-based aesthetic to a being-based aesthetic. This shift is central to Modernism. Archibald MacLeish, for instance, said, "A poem should not mean / But be."