top of page

What are the Themes in Postmodern Literature?

Postmodernism in literature is a movement that emerged in the mid-20th century, characterized by a departure from the traditional forms and conventions of modernist literature. This type of literature often employs unconventional narrative structures, employs multiple points of view and fragmented imagery, and questions the authority of single, authoritative perspectives. It also frequently employs irony, parody, and appropriation to subvert cultural norms and question the artificiality of cultural categories.

In this post we will explore how postmodernism expands the subjective nature of reality and perception, and the limitations of language and representation. Through its focus on fragmentation, ambiguity, and self-referentiality, postmodern literature serves to deconstruct traditional forms and conventions, and offer a more nuanced and fragmented understanding of the world.

The themes of postmodern literature are varied, but often reflect the fragmentation, ambiguity, and self-referentiality that are hallmarks of the postmodern sensibility.

Fragmentation and Decentralization

One of the key themes of postmodern literature is the fragmentation of reality and the decentralization of authority. In many postmodern works, traditional narrative structures are broken apart, and multiple points of view, fragmented imagery, and non-linear storytelling are employed. This fragmentation serves to disrupt the dominant, centralized narratives of the modernist era and question the authority of single, authoritative perspectives. The Christmas film "Love Actually" is an example of a text with fragmentation elements. The film takes us in and out of the lives of various characters, allowing some of their stories to intersect while others do not. Christmas and love are the only constants. This fragmentation is not necessarily negative in a postmodern context. But by playing with fragmentation and chaos, postmodernists typically celebrate them. This is in stark contrast to the previous literary movement, Modernism, which saw the modern world's complexities as tragic.

How Fragmentation and Decentralization is used in postmodernism?

Postmodern texts frequently employ a stylistic device known as #pastiche to express the fragmentation and complexity of the modern world. The term combines ('paste' together) various elements. It is about mimicking the style of other texts and combining these styles in a playful, ironic way while ignoring traditional rules of style and genre.

Pastiche, in particular, frequently involves the blending of genres. Seth Grahame-Pride Smith's and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) is one example. In this text, the plot, setting, characters, and dialogue of Jane Austen's famous love novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) are heavily borrowed, but elements from the zombie and ninja genres are added. For example, Elizabeth Bennet, the main character, uses her martial arts skills to fight off zombies while looking for a suitable husband.

A pastiche can be either a tribute or a parody. While some pastiches honor the original text by copying it, others mock it. Pastiche and intertextuality sometimes overlap because pastiche is just one way of expressing intertextuality.

Ambiguity and Irony

Postmodern literature AKA Post-irony is used to denote a state of confusion of serious and ironic intentions. terminology. We rarely refer to the opposite. This can take the form of deliberate confusion or reversals of expectations, and serves to highlight the limitations of language and the subjective nature of perception. In postmodern irony something is meant to be cynically ridiculed and not taken seriously, in New Simplicity something is meant to be taken seriously or "ironically". Whereas post-irony combines these two elements by either taking something absurd seriously or leaving it obscure. if something is meant to be ironic. (source)

Renowned comedian with a surreal sense of humor, Tim Heidecker portrays a man who leads a sarcastic lifestyle in his 2012 indie drama "The Comedy" (source). In literature, David Foster Wallace is often referred to as the founder of "postilonic" literature. His essays "E Unibus Pluram" (source) and "An Imaginary Future and a Remarkable Youth" describe and hope for literature that goes beyond postmodern cynicism.

How is irony used in postmodernism?

In postmodernism, the idea that everything was done before is replaced by obsessive quoting and remaking, and the only way to stand out is, ironically, to quote - not just in words, but in style of clothing and appearance. A time when it's hard to be original because so many things were created. As a result, media and fashion trends reflect historical trends. This is the main cause of sarcasm in postmodernism. We try to use the old to become the new, which is not expected in other situations. This irony is a dominant element of postmodernism, but we often don't even realize it. For example, the reference to the Matrix in the movie Shrek was meant to appeal to older audiences (children's parents), but too mature for Shrek's primary audience (children) to understand. This is an interesting concept that stems from postmodernism.


Many postmodern works are characterized by self-referentiality, in which the work refers to itself and its own processes of creation. "Self-reference in the media is interpreted as a symptom of postmodernity with its tendency towards historical self-reflection in scenarios in which even catastrophic current events are being interpreted as mere media events or even déjà-vu scenarios in a culture in which everything seems to have been said and shown." (source)

This can take the form of intertextual references, metafiction, or even the inclusion of the author's own commentary within the text. Self-referentiality serves to underscore the artificiality of the text and call attention to the ways in which literary works are constructed.

How is Self-Referentialityused in postmodernism?

In the context of language, self-reference is used to indicate a statement that refers to itself or its referent. The most famous example of a self-referential sentence is the liar sentence. "This sentence is not true." Self-referencing is also commonly used in a broader context.

Parody and Appropriation

Postmodern literature often employs parody and appropriation to challenge dominant cultural narratives and expose the artificiality of cultural categories. As Hutcheon explains, "Parody—often called ironic quotation, pastiche, appropriation, or intertextuality—is usually considered central to postmodernism, both by its detractors and its defenders" (source).

Parody has a "play" element in postmodernism. Parody itself is playful in the sense that it is a form of pluralizing the possible play of the system. In this way, postmodern parody puts old tools to new uses that surprise and confront the objectified world of humanism and history. (source) Fredric Jameson claimed that “the general effect of parody is, whether in sympathy or with malice, to cast ridicule.” (source)

In doing so, postmodern artists transform classical parodies. This can take the form of retelling familiar stories in new or absurd ways, or the appropriation of popular cultural icons or styles.

How is Parody and Appropriation in postmodernism?

Parody deflates the original by imitating the style, style, or characteristics of a particular literary work/genre/author and applying the imitation to a base or inappropriate subject matter. Hutcheon explains,

It is rather like saying something whilst at the same time putting inverted commas around what is being said. The effect is to highlight, or "highlight," and to subvert, or "subvert," and the mode is therefore a "knowing" and an ironic—or even "ironic"—one. Postmodernism's distinctive character lies in this kind of wholesale "nudging" commitment to doubleness, or duplicity. In many ways it is an even-handed process because postmodernism ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to say that the postmodern's initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as "natural" (they might even include capitalism, patriarchy, liberal humanism) are in fact "cultural"; made by us, not given to us. (source).

Playfulness and Experimentation

Postmodern literature is often characterized by a playful and experimental spirit, as writers seek to push the boundaries of conventional forms and conventions. This can take the form of unconventional narrative structures, avant-garde styles, or the incorporation of elements from popular culture.

In conclusion, postmodern literature is characterized by themes of fragmentation, ambiguity, self-referentiality, parody and appropriation, and playfulness and experimentation. These themes serve to challenge dominant cultural narratives, question the authority of traditional literary forms, and explore the subjective nature of reality and perception.

Transgressive fiction themes in postmodernism context

Transgressive fiction is a sub-genre of postmodern literature that explicitly challenges conventional norms and values through its themes and subject matter. Transgressive fiction often features characters and situations that are seen as taboo or outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior, and uses these elements to question and subvert cultural norms.

The themes of fragmentation, ambiguity, and self-referentiality that are common in postmodern literature are also present in transgressive fiction, but they are often taken to an even greater extreme. Transgressive fiction often employs graphic or explicit content to shock or disturb the reader, and to challenge conventional ideas about what is acceptable in literature.

In addition to these postmodern themes, transgressive fiction often explores themes of identity, power, and transgression, using characters and situations that challenge dominant ideas about gender, sexuality, and power relationships. This subversion of cultural norms serves to highlight the artificiality of cultural categories and question the power dynamics that underlie them.

In conclusion, transgressive fiction is a sub-genre of postmodern literature that builds on the themes of fragmentation, ambiguity, and self-referentiality, and adds a focus on the exploration of taboo and transgressive subject matter. Through its challenging of cultural norms and conventions, transgressive fiction serves as a powerful critique of dominant cultural narratives and power structures.

Do you know of any examples for these themes?

89 views0 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page