Ism’s Unit Study Guide Works Covered

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ISM’s Unit Study Guide

Works Covered:

“A Wagner Matinee” p. 650 Cather Realism/Naturalism

“The Killers” handout Hemmingway Modernism

“To Build a Fire” p. 594 London Naturalism

“Ambush” p. 808 O’Brian Contemporary

Realism: an attempt to present life realistically—all the good AND bad; realism is present in practically all the literary movements, but it was especially prevalent after the Civil War

Local Color or Regionalism—one aspect of realism; it’s realistic in that it portrays real people who sound and act like they come from real places; settings are places that you could actually find on a map

Minority Voices—racial minorities and women’s voices begin to appear in mainstream literature discussing their unique experiences
Southern Gothic—a movement resulting from a combination of the realist desire to portray the good and BAD in life and the appreciation of local color AND they threw in some of the Gothic tradition in that they portrayed decay in the form of chronicling the decay of the antebellum way of life
Naturalism: presents existence as a futile struggle between the individual and the environment; although you are the only creature in Nature with the faculty for reason, you are the weakest physically and it’s only a matter of time before Nature destroys you; London describes man’s fate in this manner: “to be a thinking creature of flesh in a supremely indifferent universe.”
SCIENTIFIC ORDER is paramount; suggests that anyone placed in the same situation will react exactly the same way; we simply react to forces that we can neither understand nor control, which suggests that individuality is an illusion, as are all our other appearances of civilization (reason, technological power, scientific understanding) (Scientific Determinism)
Modernism: agrees with realism that life isn’t always rosy, but stresses the universal rather than the regional and breaks with tradition whenever it can

agrees with Naturalism in that man’s fate is destruction, but disagrees that there is any order to it—randomness and ambiguity are the banners of Modernism

FEAR is the primary motivating factor in modern existence—fear that we cannot make an impact on the universe; SO, we attempt to make an impact, fail, experience despair, which leads to more fear, then the cycle repeats
4 aspects of modernism:

  • Alienation: no one can connect with anyone or anything—everyone is lonely and feels unable to impact their universe

  • Subjective reality: reality is based upon perception instead of objective reality, so it can be different for each person, therefore meaningless

  • Ambiguous morality: there is no one standard for morality, so in some circumstances, an action might be moral, and in others, immoral

  • Fear as the motivating factor in modern life—we’re afraid that life is meaningless, so we try to impact our universe or connect with others, our attempts are doomed to fail, when they fail, we perceive that life is meaningless, and that terrifies us, and we start the cycle of fear all over again.

Differences in TONE between Modernism and Contemporary Literature



Detached, unemotional


Serious irony

Humorous irony (not haw-haw funny)

Concern with individual in isolation

Concern with connection between people

No heroes


Antihero: a protagonist who has the opposite qualities of a hero—insecure, ineffective, cowardly, sometimes dishonest or dishonorable, most often a failure; purpose is not to incur praise or criticism but to help us understand how anyone can survive/thrive in this disjointed universe


A Wagner Matinee” p. 653

  • This story reflects realism in that it depicts real settings (east coast city and frontier country)

  • This story reflects realism in that the young woman’s ideals of love and adventure play out far differently than she expected

  • This story reflects realism in that the protagonist, a good woman, is depicted as both virtuous and foolish, as beautiful and sophisticated and care-worn and peasant-like.

  • This story reflects elements of Naturalism in that the environment takes a physical and mental toll on the woman

  • This story reflects elements of both Realism and Naturalism in that the woman reacts predictably to the change in her environment from harsh to luxurious—she doesn’t want to go back

  • This story reflects REALISM in that the nephew doesn’t think about what a culture shock it will be for her to come for a day and return, nor does he think about her inability to adjust to a new environment so quickly

  • This story refutes the optimism of the Romantics.

  • This story refutes the Romantic idea that nature nurtures.

  • This story refutes the Romantic idea that being away from society makes us better people.

To Build a Fire” p. 597

  • This story reflects Naturalism in that the man fights against nature for survival but is doomed to be destroyed by an indifferent universe, note the cheeriness of the fire in the face of his demise.

  • The man’s feelings prove to be ineffective. He notes that “it sure is cold,” and he suggests that “any man who is a man” can get along fine alone, but his feelings and bravado ignore the objective reality that humans cannot survive in -75˚ F.

  • The man’s knowledge and logic prove ineffective. He knows survival strategies, but he makes mistakes, like forgetting to build a fire before he eats and building a fire under a snow-laden tree.

The Killers” handout (This story can be found in e-text form on the Internet.)

  • This story illustrates the fatalistic view of the Modernists in Ole’s refusal to evade his killers and in Nick’s inability to impact his environment even when he tries.

  • This story illustrates the Modern view that one’s destruction has any purpose or meaning in the fact that strangers plan to take Ole’s life simply because they’re being paid to. There is no personal motive for this most personal of violations. (detached, unemotional)

  • This story illustrates the Modern idea that man fears that his life is meaningless because he cannot make an impact on his universe in that Nick tries to do good for others but is as unsuccessful as if he had never bothered to act. We can presume that Ole does not decide to act in self defense, that the killers do kill Ole, and that Mrs. Bell is not protected from the harsh knowledge of reality and does witness the murder. In the end, Nick runs from the knowledge that life is meaningless as much as from having to witness a senseless crime. (the anti-hero)

  • This story illustrates the Modernists feeling of alienation in the fact that the workers in the diner are willing to turn a blind eye to Ole’s fate, that Nick attempts to make a connection with a stranger, Ole, but is unsuccessful in making a meaningful connection, and that humans don’t value the life of other humans (eg. the killers for hire).

  • This story illustrates the Modernist view of ambiguous morality in that the diner workers see no shame in ignoring the needs of others to protect themselves, and the killers see no shame in taking another’s life for money.

Ambush” p. 808

  • This story presents the uncertainty of reality that people have felt since the Modern Era. The protagonist questions whether what he did was justified. He can never know what the Vietnamese man’s intention was, so any attempt to justify his actions is based upon supposition—not fact.

  • This story continues to foster disjointed realities as he refuses to tell his daughter the truth about his actions in the war. Although he has good reasons, he still fosters a reality in his daughter that does not jive with actual reality. He wants to protect her innocence by protecting her perception that her father is wholly good. She’s too young to deal with the reality that the line between right and wrong is blurred.

  • Tim is an antihero.

  • The father is concerned with the connection between the Vietnamese man and himself as humans.

    • Ron Rash’s short story “Last Rite” is also concerned with this idea of failed interconnectedness.

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