The Short Story, Literary Modernism, Kafka and Woolf

“The short story encapsulates the essence of literary modernism, and has an enduring ability to capture the episodic nature of twentieth-century experience” (Dominic Head). Examine the relationship between literary modernism and the short story with reference to the work of at least two authors.

The authors of literary modernism lived and wrote in a unique historical, social and artistic context. By the time Franz Kafka had published his short stories ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘In the Penal Settlement’ in 1919, and Virginia Woolf her ‘Kew Gardens’, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘Solid Objects’ between 1919 and 1921, both writers had been irrevocably shaped by a world which had been arguably subjected to the greatest multiplicity and rapidity of forces in the history of human experience. But before Dominic Head’s assertion that the “short story encapsulates the essence of literary modernism, and has an enduring ability to capture the episodic nature of twentieth-century experience” can be examined with specific reference to Kafka’s and Woolf’s short stories, the furnace in which the literary modernism movement was forged must be explored, to establish and understand its tenets. With this framework in place, any discussion positing the short story form as a natural extension of literary modernism, and therefore an ideal vehicle to “…capture the episodic nature of twentieth-century experience”, will be more contextually based and better informed.

In the confluence of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, three key events emerged: the Industrial Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848 and World War I. Sweeping across Europe, they cast the continent into a period of political, technological, cultural and social turmoil that would impose long-lasting and systemic change on the lives of people within its boundaries. Indeed, by the time Kafka and Woolf had published their short stories, these events had not only affected, but continued to effect a complete reimaginingof the world the modernist writers lived in. Everything from humanity’s relationship with the world, to humanity’s relationship with one another was fundamentally questioned. Naturally, this reimagining extended into the realms of art, and is central to literary modernism. The short story provided a framework and structure that perfectly encapsulated the rapid undermining of social sensibilities and beliefs. However, before examining the short story form in relation to literary modernism, a further detail of the reimagining must be understood to establish why the short story form is so apt. The reimagining must be divided into a pre-war and a post-war period to account for the discernible tonal change that occurred in the writings of post-war literary modernists.

Pre-war, the Industrial Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 redefined, in a complete and overarching sense, European society for the better, technologically, socially and politically. It is true that these rapid revolutions instigated their own problems, such as dangerous and exploitative working conditions for factory workers, but there was a clear sense of excitement and enthusiasm about the future, evident in the utopian tone of many modernist works written at the time, like H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia. The outbreak of World War I, however, demonstrated that governments were able to suborn technological advancements intended to increase production and ease human labour, and apply them to the destructive art of war. Modernisation facilitated a rapid development of weaponry that outpaced the development of military strategies to employ it. This combination of modern technology and antiquated tactics was devastatingly lethal, ensuring that the war had global effects and claimed the highest number of human lives of any conflict to that point. The war’s impact was to eradicate the utopian aspect of pre-war modernist works, and make post-war modernist literature decidedly more morbid. This is exemplified in writers such as T.S Eliot, the author of ‘The Waste Land’, who referred to contemporary history as an “…immense panorama of futility and anarchy”[1].

The impact of the Industrial Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 on the artistic realm can be observed in two precursors to modernism: the first Impressionist artwork, Claude Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872) [Figure 1], and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s seminal novel Crime and Punishment (1866). These works embody the beginnings of the artistic response to Europe’s shifting social, political and cultural paradigms and are helpful in aiding a modern reader’s understanding of the relationship between literary modernism, the short story form, and the 20th century experience.

Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’ depicts La Havre’s working harbour on a morning of low visibility. Monet’s deliberate choice of such a common scene and the techniques he used to depict it, led to a hostile reception at its showing. Louis Leroy, the art critic whose review of the painting was the genesis of the name of the movement, declared:

Impression – I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.[2]

Leroy’s lexicon, “impression… freedom… embryonic state”[3], embodies the link to literary modernism. Unlike Romanticism, where nature, everyday objects and common events were only depicted to symbolise and support a work’s wider narrative, for example the top hat symbolising the bourgeoisie in Eugène Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830) [Figure 2], the common, work-a-day setting of ‘Impression, Sunrise’, heralded a new freedom of depiction that would become the dominant feature of a range of artistic movements and forms, including literary modernism. No longer would portraits and landscapes dominate visual art. Art had been opened up to a wealth of new experiences, and the movements that stemmed from Impressionism, such as Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, would continue a common focus on the quality of the “impression”[4] after which the movement was named.

This everyday focus, in combination with a lack of narrative, permeated the literary form and became a major precept of literary modernism. It can be seen in the Imagist poetry of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, famous examples of which depict chickens beside a red wheelbarrow and faces in the Metro. Indeed, an everyday focus is present in Kafka’s and Woolf’s novels and short stories. As Anne Fernihough states in relation to Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room, “the trivial and the evanescent (a blade of grass, a discarded coffee cup) compete for attention with the historic and magisterial landmarks of the capital.”[5] This competition also exists in Kafka’s Metamorphosis’ and ‘In the Penal Settlement’, where despite the surreal event of Gregor turning into a bug, and the difficulty of imagining the form of the officer’s prized machine, the stories are founded in a mundane series of grounded and everyday actions: waking up for work; getting out of bed; and feeling pangs of hunger.

The basis of literary modernism in the ordinary and routine was also reflected in the techniques Monet employed creating artworks of “impression” and of an “embryonic state”, which lacked the grand, completeness of narrative and realism of past Romantic works. Describing the process of Impressionist creation, Monet stated:

When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you – a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.[6]

‘Impression, Sunrise’ provides an example of this. Monet’s thin brush strokes are clearly defined and separated. This remarkable simplicity and vivid luminance of colour captured an “impression” of the transience of daily life. The paint is not worked to capture a considered or contrived hue, it appears instead as singular flashes on the canvas. This draws particular parallel to Woolf’s work, which was described to be “…like an artist’s sketch book, or snap-shots in a photo album.”[7]

This notion of “impression” consistently developed, as rapid changes in daily life, due largely to swiftly evolving technology, continued to accelerate as the 19th century neared its end. It heralded the entrance of Post-Impressionist paintings, such as Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ (1884–1886) [Figure 3], which attempted to redefine the role of the artist and retain relevancy in the face of the camera, which could outdo any artist’s attempt at realism. Although Post-Impressionists maintained everyday subject matter and content along with vivid colour, they made stylistic and technical changes to reflect society’s changing sensibilities. Seurat framed the pictures as a camera would, exaggerated geometric forms, and employed pointillism, which involved the application of singular dots to the canvas.

Pointillism relies on the mind and eye to blend the dots to create differing tones and hues, imbuing the works with an inherent subjectivity. The fact that each dot equally contributes to creating the whole, with no one dot rising above the others in colour and depth, complements the idea that “the historic and magisterial landmarks”[8] that marked earlier written works such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, would now compete equally for attention with “the trivial and the evanescent (a blade of grass, a discarded coffee cup)”[9]. It is pointillism, therefore, that particularly reflected the subjectivity inherent in modernist literature, due to its reliance on the mind to blend a superabundance of dots into a form suitable to each individual viewer.

Indeed, even before Post-Impressionism, in Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’ the luminance of the sun is the same as the sky[10]. What would naturally be the brightest point, is in fact, indistinguishable from almost half of the painting, reflecting the method of pointillism. This subjectivity of interpretation reflected a rejection of assumed ways of knowing, in which ideas of quiddity were rejected in favour of haecceity. Bertrand Russell outlines this changing method of knowledge in The Problems of Philosophy:

The particular shade of colour that I am seeing may have many things said about it – I may say it is brown, that it is rather dark, and so on. But such statements, though they make me know truths about the colour, do not make me know the colour itself any better than I did before: so far as concerns knowledge of the colour itself, as opposed to knowledge of truths about it, I know the colour perfectly and completely when I see it, and no further knowledge of it itself is even theoretically possible.[11]

This new focus on sensory subjectivity was also found in the pages of modernist literature, challenging the notion that literature provided a reliable reading of the accepted, mainstream opinion of bourgeois society.

This combination of sensory experience and subjectivity is a pillar of modernist literature, and in Kafka’s and Woolf’s short stories it is encapsulated and further developed with the use of an unreliable narrator. For example, in Woolf’s ‘Solid Objects’, bits of glass and pottery, discarded, ignored and thought worthless by society, find value in the hands of John. At the end of the story, John’s non-conformist obsession remains unresolved; he is not forced to adopt a more normal understanding of his collection as worthless, nor are we any closer to understanding the supposed beauty of the bric-a-brac. Indeed, his friend Charles, who likely mirrors most readers’ outlook, leaves John as we do, to his unending task. It is a cruel and unsettled ending that reflects the severity of the post-war world and is eminently suited to the short story form. The unreliability of the narrator is also evident in ‘Metamorphosis’, where the actions of the various family members, filtered through Gregor’s internal thoughts, throw into question exactly who has metamorphosed, and exactly who is the monster. Has Gregor actually become an insect, or is this a substitute for the difficulties Kafka faced becoming a writer? Possibilities abound, but there is no concrete proof to test their veracity. Reflecting on the innumerable interpretations of ‘Metamorphosis’, Stanley Corngold asserts that the story:

…is perfect, even as it incessantly provokes criticism… But what is distinctive about such literary perfection is that it does not leave the reader’s mind settled, satisfied, at peace with itself.[12]

It is this final feeling of unease that marks modernist texts so strongly.

Impressionism and the tenets it helped inspire in modernist literature – subjectivity, reliance on sensory experience as a way of knowing, lack of narrative and an unreliable narrator – were complemented and enhanced by the contemporary emergence of radical scientific and philosophical theories espoused by individuals like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Ernst Mach. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment particularly illustrates the impact of these philosophical and scientific concepts, perhaps mostly in the protagonist, Radion Raskolnikov’s contemplation and consideration of the target of his murder – an elderly woman. His thoughts reflect Charles Darwin’s theories on evolutionary biology outlined in On the Origin of Species (1859), published only a few years prior. This subjective re-examination of moral and ethical precepts in light of emerging scientific propositions signified a wider societal shift towards questioning supposedly known truths in the face of rapid and far-reaching change. Raskolnikov’s justifications for his crime act as a subjective reappraisal of actions widely condemned as evil, and also reflect the subjectivity and sensory experiences of unreliable and questionable narrators that were entering into all forms of art.

Darwin’s theories redefined common conceptions of human nature, and his notion of man as an evolving and developed animal continued to be cultivated and explored in the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis. The theories of men such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Ernst Mach would come to constitute, as W.H. Alden stated in his 1939 poem ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’, written just after Freud’s death, the “…whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives”[13]. It is interesting to note that 1939 is the year widely considered to mark the end of modernism[14], sustaining the notion that Modernist writers were an indisputable product of the tumultuous environment that flourished in the conjunction of the 19th and 20th centuries. The development of psychoanalysis and the evolution of man’s understanding of the animal derivation and potential darkness of human nature would be starkly solidified by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Global conflict ushered in the post-war period of modernist literature, which is typified by a morbidity and darkness that contrasts with the utopian views of earlier Modernist works. The muck and mire, misery and massacre of the trenches revealed an absurdity and irrationality inherent to lived experience, and is apparent in the perturbing and uneasy endings of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and Woolf’s ‘Solid Objects’. This enigmatic and disconcerting quality of literary modernism manifested itself in the stream of consciousness technique that defines so many modernist works: James Joyce’s Ulysses; William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and naturally, the works of Woolf, To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway and Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. William James had coined the term in The Principles of Psychology in 1890:

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits… it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.[15]

The technique had been employed before, for example in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, but was well-suited to literary modernism. It included the subjectivity of an unreliable narrator providing multiple and often conflicting views of their texts’ events, as well as an increased pace of life precluding drawn out inspection and description of details, and it instilled a transient view of life, as demonstrated in Gregor’s unceasing worries in the opening of ‘Metamorphosis’, and the puzzle present in the most ordinary of items in Woolf’s ‘Solid Objects’.

It is the capacity of the short story format to effectively capture this enigmatic character, and powerfully portray the 20th century experience within its historical context that makes it the natural extension of the tenets of literary modernism. There was a contemporary conception that the novel struggled to portray the “…life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing”[16], as Woolf stated in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’. She continued to ask, “Is life like this? Must novels be like this?”[17] proclaiming that:

The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour.[18]

This clearly demonstrates the short story’s relation to the precursors of Modernism, especially to the artists of “impression” such as Monet, and the inherent lack of narrative that both these forms share. Indeed, Brander Matthews in his The Philosophy of the Short-story, states “A true Short-story differs from the Novel chiefly in its essential unity of impression”[19], supporting my assertion that the short story is a natural extension of the modernist form, whose own attributes were founded in Impressionism. This is perfectly summarised by Henry James’ pithy suggestion that “The formula for the presentation of it [the short story] in 20,000 words is to make an Impression – as one of Sargent’s pictures is an impression.”[20]

Impression, and its intrinsic combination with transience and subjectivity is derived from the short story’s lack of narrative. “A Short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation…”[21] This imbues the short story with “…what the Novel cannot have, the effect of ‘totality’, as Poe called it, the unity of impression.”[22] While Matthews states that the novel is broken into a series of episodes, drawing an immediate parallel to Dominic Head’s quote in the prompt, I would argue that the singularity and the unity of impression that a short story stimulates better captures the episodic nature of the 20th century experience than the series of episodes that comprise a novel. This is because a short story is not part of a cohesive, developed and detailed series of episodes; rather it is a singular event, a snap-shot that creates an impression, a general sense of what has happened – it does not provide a detailed description. The short story displays a unity in its depiction, but disunity in its answers. This is an essential feature of modernism: the inability to answer questions, find resolution or provide reasons. The tumult of the rapid technological change of the early 20th century and the eventual eruption of the First World War was beyond comprehension – lives were disrupted and destroyed without reason, the individual was part of a larger machine, a machine beyond control or understanding. This therefore, made a short story the perfect vehicle to capture the experience.

The short story afforded the development of impressions, a sense of what had occurred. It better reflected the unease and unreliability of life than a novel composed of a single narrative, providing a reliable and rational conclusion. Life for literary modernists after the war was not like that – questions abounded and uncertainty was the norm. In life, only impressions could be gained, certainty and knowledge was limited. Knowledge of a part implies that the rest of the scene is obscured, just as fog obscures La Havre’s harbour in ‘Impression, Sunrise’. On factory assembly lines, fashionable scientific management methods limited workers to one job. The concept of the whole or the completeness of the endeavour was not required knowledge, and on a national scale their factory was just one part of an interlinked national economic endeavour. It became harder for individuals, be they workers or writers, to understand the whole. They only had their own singular impression as the world shrank due to technological advancement, but simultaneously expanded as decisions made in foreign markets, factories and capitals increasingly impacted them directly. This created a decrease in “…the communicability of experience…”[23] which is a central theme in Kafka’s and Woolf’s short stories. It is demonstrated in ‘Metamorphosis’, in Gregor’s relationship with his family, and ‘In the Penal Settlement’,in the belaboured attempts of the officer to explain to the explorer the merits of a barbarous machine that struggles to complete its sole task, as well as the numerous languages spoken in the story as opposing nations clash on a shrinking globe. In Woolf’s ‘Kew Gardens’, the incommunicability of existence is evident in the characters’ varied levels of attention to, and understanding of, their partners’ speech, and in ‘Solid Objects’ it is seen in Charles’ incomprehension of John’s obsession with bric-a-brac. This diversity of opinion and understanding, this subjectivity, that even a single impression can provide, reflects Clare Hanson’s assertion that in the modernist short story:

It was not generally thought desirable to break down experience into smaller units still, or example units of language: such a breakdown could theoretically proceed infinitely, leading to a complete degradation of meaning and value.[24]

The short story paralleled the wider context of evolving societal sensibilities, the unprecedented historical events, changing philosophies and scientific thought. That it became the preferred medium of literary modernists may have been inevitable, as the inherent paradox of the structure of the short story provided a perfect vehicle for modernists to capture the instability, uncertainty and unresolved characteristic of their 20th century experience. The 20th century was a series of episodes that frequently eluded comprehension and reason, and this experience was best expressed in a literary from that lent itself to posing, rather than resolving questions.

Sandra Kemp writes in her introduction to Woolf’s Selected Short Stories, “Reading the letters and the diary along with the stories dictates how closely related – even inextricable – are the stories and Woolf’s own life.”[25] The connection between Kafka’s own life and his stories is also readily apparent in his personal correspondence, and I would posit that this connection is true of the works of Modernist writers more generally. Modernist writers were inseparable from the historical, social, technological and cultural climate of the early 20th century, and this must be the lens used to gain an understanding of their work and the format they chose. This lens enables an understanding that the short story was a complementary and natural format to “capture the episodic nature of twentieth-century experience.” The whirlpool of political, historical, social, technological and cultural change from which literary modernism stemmed was paralleled in the singular impression, unresolved questions and uncertainty that the short story inherently generated.



Auden, W. H., ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ (1939) <> [accessed 13/04/2014]

Benjamin, Walter, “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938 (Belknap Press, 2002)

Chatterjee, Anjan, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Dettmar, Kevin J. H., Rereading the New: A Backward Glance at Modernism (University of Michigan Press, 1992)

Eliot, T. S., “‘Ulysses’, Order and Myth” in The Dial, 75.5 (1923)

Fernihough, Anne, “Consciousness as a Stream” in The Cambridge Companion to The Modernist Novel ed. by Morag Shiach (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Hanson, Clare, Short Stories and Short Fictions: 1880-1890 (Macmillan, 1985)

James, Henry, “The Coxon Fund” (Gutenberg, 1998) <> [accessed 09/04/2014]

James, William, The Principles of Psychology (Adelaide University Press: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014) <; [accessed 10/04/2014]

Kafka, Franz, Metamorphosis and Other Stories trans. by Muir, Willa and Edwin (Penguin Books, 1971)

Kafka, Franz, Metamorphosis and Other Stories trans. by Corngold, Stanley (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007)

Kleiner, Fred, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective (Cengage Learning, 2007)

Matthews, Brander, The Philosophy of the Short-story (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901) <> [accessed 02/04/2014]

Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy (Gutenberg, 2009) <> [accessed 13/04/2014]

Woolf, Virginia, “Modern Fiction” in The Common Reader (Adelaide University Press: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014) <> [accessed 07/04/2014]

[1] Eliot, T. S., “‘Ulysses’, Order and Myth” in The Dial, 75.5(1923)

[2] Leroy, Louis, “Exhibition of Impressionists” trans. by John Rewald in The History of Impressionism (1946) p. 257

[3] Leroy, p. 257

[4] Leroy, p. 257

[5] Fernihough, Anne, “Consciousness as a Stream” in The Cambridge Companion to The Modernist Novel ed. by Morag Shiach (Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp. 65-66

[6]Kleiner, Fred, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective (Cengage Learning, 2007)

[7] Woolf, Virginia, Selected Short Stories (Penguin Classics, 2000) p. xiv

[8] Fernihough, p. 66

[9] Fernihough, p. 66

[10] Chatterjee, Anjan, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (Oxford University press, 2013)

[11] Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy (Gutenberg, 2009) <; [accessed 13/04/2014]

[12] Kafka, Franz, Metamorphosis and Other Stories trans. by Corngold, Stanley (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007) p. ix

[13] Auden, W. H., ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ (1939) <> [accessed 13/04/2014] ln. 68-69

[14] Dettmar, Kevin J. H., Rereading the New: A Backward Glance at Modernism (University of Michigan Press, 1992)

[15] James, William, The Principles of Psychology (Adelaide University Press: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014) <;

[accessed 10/04/2014]

[16] Woolf, Virginia, “Modern Fiction” in The Common Reader (Adelaide University Press: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014) <> [accessed 07/04/2014]

[17]Woolf, “Modern Fiction”

[18]Woolf, “Modern Fiction”

[19] Matthews, Brander, The Philosophy of the Short-story (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901) <> [accessed 02/04/2014] p. 15

[20] James, Henry, “The Coxon Fund” (Gutenberg, 1998) <> [accessed 09/04/2014]

[21]Matthews, p. 16

[22]Matthews, p. 16

[23] Benjamin, Walter, “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938 (Belknap Press, 2002)

[24] Hanson, Clare, Short Stories and Short Fictions: 1880-1890 (Macmillan, 1985) p. 55

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