The movement is defined by experimentation, the use of metafiction, fragmented narratives, and more. It is often defined as “self-reflexive,” meaning that it is aware of its artificiality and will analyze its impact. It is common to find authors playing with meaning, order, irony, humor, and more.
Poetic movements associated with postmodernism include post-structuralism and deconstruction. Poets often chose to challenge the concepts of truth, knowledge, and reality itself.
Postmodernism is a literary movement that began as a reaction to World War II. The poets, authors, artists, scholars, and critics of this movement are known for their interest in redefining literature and its purpose. Intertextuality, metafiction, and a general playfulness with themes and techniques are common features found in the movement.
Authors commonly reference the literary works that came before them (known as intertextuality) and engage with elements of metafiction in which the characters, author, or narrator acknowledge that they’re parts of fiction.
Examples of Postmodernist Literature
Vonnegut’s literature is commonly referenced as an example of postmodernism. His best-known novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, demonstrates many of the elements that define the movement. It is a very popular anti-war novel that uses science fiction, satire, and humor to convey the absurdity of war and the way it impacts people. Here is a quote from Slaughterhouse-Five:
If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.
The novel follows the character of Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes “unstuck” in time. He experiences the events of his life out of order, including being transported to another planet and kept in a zoo. Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969 and solidified Vonnegut’s reputation as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
Read about Kurt Vonnegut’s best books.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude is commonly considered to be Márquez’s best novel. It is a staple of the magical realism genre and a great example of postmodernism. It demonstrates the postmodernist author’s willingness to play with narrative perspectives and events. Here is a quote:
Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.
The novel was published in 1967 and follows the Buendía family. Today it is commonly considered to be one of the greatest novels in world literature.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
This popular anti-war novel is another great example of postmodernist literature. The book was published in 1961 and is set during WWII. It follows Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier. Here is a quote:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
This quote is one of the best in the novel and firmly represents Heller’s interest in deconstructing truth and language.
Postmodernism is an interesting literary movement that includes numerous literary works that challenge readers’ ideas of what language can accomplish and how attached to reality writing should be. Poets and novelists of this movement utilized literature in ways that had not been done before.
The main features of postmodernism include a willingness to play with language and the reader’s concepts of the truth. Authors sought to challenge reality, ask readers to reevaluate their concepts of time and what can be accomplished through characterization, as well as a desire for self-reflexive analysis.
There are many similarities between these two closely related literary movements. But, modernism is distinctly characterized by authors breaking from traditional forms of writing. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is noted for its use of metafiction and self-reflexive analysis of those same styles and conventions. Some scholars have separated the two movements by describing modernism as a search for the truth about life while postmodernism accepts that there is no universal truth.
Related Literary Terms
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
- Dadaism: an art and literary movement in Europe during the 20th century. It was a reaction to the senselessness of war during the early 1900s.
- Dirty Realism: a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.
- Fugitives: a movement comprised of a group of poets and scholars from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid-1920s.
- Futurism: an avant-garde movement that originated in Italy in the 20th century. It was part of the broader Futurist art movement.
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.