Advertisements in Modernist Literature

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that posters and similar mediums of advertising were widespread. In Advertising in Modern and Postmodern Times, Pamela Odih finds that the surge in advertisements aligned with psychological theories at the turn of the twentieth century. Odih refers to Professor Walter Dill Scott’s The Psychology of Advertising (1908) as elucidating consumer behaviors. Scott discusses the “‘reason-why’ approach” that Odih defines as an attempt to “motivate consumer behaviour by constructing a reasoned argument to justify the purchase of a commodity.”

Scott, himself, unsurprisingly cites attention as being the most integral aspect of advertising. More specifically, he states the importance of attention fusing with a “favorable impression” of the illustrated goods. As a result, “the reader will desire to possess them.” Attention, then, depends upon several principles—some being an “ease of comprehension,” repetition, and emotion. Many advertisers aim to instill joy, but Scott holds that is only one of many targeted emotions.

Modernist literature illustrates both the differential emotions stemmed from viewing an advertisement in a time where posters, billboards, newspaper advertisements, and more were widespread. Some writers, like Hemingway, simply note the presence of advertisements, while others imply their exaggerated means of expression. The following excerpts holding descriptions of advertisements and instances of characters encountering them not only reveals their omnipresence, but also the differential ways in which society apprehended their prevalence.

Dorothy Richardson, Pointed Roofs
Miriam’s father could not be more disinterested in her sudden delight upon seeing a billboard displaying Sunlight Zeep soap. Called Sunlight Soap in England, she is fascinated by the Dutch translation, Sunlight Zeep. Her exclamations can be further attributed to the billboard actualizing her newfound presence in Hanover, as it is a Dutch soap.

Sunlight Soap (credit: and Sunlight Zeep (credit:

“They were caring a little low quay backed by a tremendous saffron-coloured hoarding announcing in black letters ‘Sunlight Zeep.’ ‘Did you see, Pater; did you see?’ They were walking rapidly along the quay. ‘Did you see? Sunlight Zeep!” She listened to his slightly scuffling stride at her side. Glancing up she saw his face excited and important. He was not listening. He was being an English gentleman, ’emerging’ from the Dutch railway station. ‘Sunlight Zeep,’ she shouted. ‘Zeep, Pater!’

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
In typical Hemingway fashion, the signs are absent of lurid description; the words that paint them are only detailed.

“Across the bridge we turned up a road to the corrals. We passed a wine-shop with a sign in the window: Good Wine 30 Centimes A Liter. ‘That’s where we’ll go when funds get low,’ Brett said.”

L’anis del Toro Poster (credit: Musée des Augustins)

“Outside, the fence that led from the last street of the town to the entrance of the bull-ring was already in place and made a long pen; the crowd would come running down with the bulls behind them on the morning of the day of the first bull-fight. Out across the plain, where the horse and cattle fair would be, some gypsies had camped under the trees. The wine and aguardiente sellers were putting up their booths. One booth advertised ANIS DEL TORO. The cloth sign hung against the planks in the hot sun.”

“The taxi coasted down a smooth street to the Puerta del Sol, and then through the traffic and out into the Carrera San Geronimo. All the shops had their awnings down against the heat. The windows on the sunny side of the street were shuttered. The taxi stopped at the curb. I saw the sign HOTEL MONTANA on the second floor. The taxi-driver carried the bags in and left them by the elevator. I could not make the elevator work, so I walked up. On the second floor up was a cut brass sign: HOTEL MONTANA. I rang and no one came to the door.”

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
In Mrs. Dalloway, advertisements and window displays can be sources of contemplation. Septimus, Clarissa, and Hugh Whitbread’s minds wander when hearing about or looking at them.

“It was toffee; they were advertising toffee, a nursemaid told Rezia. Together they began to spell t…o…f… ‘K…R…’ said the nursemaid, and Septimus heard her say “Kay Arr” close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper’s, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound which, concussing, broke.”

“But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchards’ shop window? What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country, as she read in the book spread open: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.”

Hatchard’s (credit:

“Looking up, it appeared that each letter of their names stood for one of the hours; subconsciously one was grateful to Rigby and Lowndes for giving one time ratified by Greenwich; and this gratitude (so Hugh Whitbread ruminated, dallying there in front of the shop window), naturally took the form later of buying off Rigby and Lowndes socks or shoes. So he ruminated. It was his habit. He did not go deeply. He brushed surfaces; the dead languages, the living, life in Constantinople, Paris, Rome; riding, shooting, tennis, it had been once.”

James Joyce, Ulysses
Advertisements are detailed as the character consciously sees and analyzes its components before the mind wanders to another idea or awareness to another sensation.

“While the postmistress searched a pigeonhole he gazed at the recruiting poster with soldiers of all arms on parade: and held the tip of his baton against his nostrils, smelling fresh printed rag paper. No answer probably. Went too far last time.”

“Then she stared at the large poster of Marie Kendall, charming soubrette, and, listlessly lolling, scribbled on the jotter sixteens and capital eases. Mustard hair and dauby cheeks. She’s not nicelooking, is she? The way she’s holding up her bit of a skirt. Wonder will that fellow be at the band tonight.”

Marie Kendall Promotional (credit: @JJ_Gazette)

“Wise Bloom eyed on the door a poster, a swaying mermaid smoking mid nice waves. Smoke mermaids, coolest whiff of all. Hair streaming: lovelorn. For some man. For Raoul.”

“‘Take page four, advertisement for Bransome’s coffee, let us say.'”

“‘The Old Woman of Prince’s street was there first. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth over that. Out of an advertisement. Gregor Grey made the design for it. That gave him the leg up. Then Paddy Hooper worked Tay Pay who took him on to the Star. Now he’s got in with Blumenfeld. That’s press. That’s talent.'”

“‘Because, you see, says Bloom, for an advertisement you must have repetition. That’s the whole secret.'”

“The financial success achieved by Ephraim Marks and Charles A. James, the former by his 1d bazaar at 42 George’s street, south, the latter at his 6 1/2d shop and world’s fancy fair and waxwork exhibition at 30 Henry street, admission 2d, children 1d: and the infinite possibilities hitherto unexploited of the modern art of advertisement if condensed in triliteral monoideal symbols, vertically of maximum visibility (divined), horizontally of maximum legibility (deciphered) and of magnetising efficacy to arrest involuntary attention, to interest, to convince, to decide.”

“the advertisement of Alexander Keyes (Urim and Thummim).”

Hope Mirrlees, “Paris”
Similar to Ulysses in the sense that advertisements are detailed as consciously seen, Mirrlees’ portrayals of signs and advertisements concern the streets of Paris.

Au Bon Marché Ad from the 1910s (credit:
Dubonnet Ad from 1915




Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories
A spread of food seems as unrealistic as that in an advertisement.

“Tea was laid on the parlour table–ham, sardines, a whole pound of butter, and such a large johnny cake that it looked like an advertisement for somebody’s baking powder.”

Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
Advertisements are described as they appear in the paper, but in the instance of one promoting an elixir at a chemist shop, Rhys emphasizes the hyperbolic nature of ads.

“I have been going through the advertisements in the Figaro, marking those of people who want English lessons.”

“I give English lessons. Ten francs an hour. I have three pupils – a girl who works in a scent shop, a man who advertised in the Figaro, and a young Russian whom Enno met at the Lapin Agile.”

“At the corner of the street, the chemist’s shop with the advertisement of the Abbe Something’s Elixir – it cures this, it cures that, it cures the sickness of pregnant women. Would it cure mine? I wonder.”

La Jouvence de l’abbé Soury Ad (credit:

John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers
French posters are a source of unfamiliarity.

“When it was nearly light, the train stopped and they opened the sliding doors. They were in a station, a foreign-looking station where the walls were plastered with unfamiliar advertisements. ‘V-E-R-S-A-I-L-L-E-S’; Fuselli spelt out the name. ‘Versales,’ said Eisenstein. ‘That’s were the kings of France used to live.'”

John Dos Passos, U.S.A. Trilogy
Dos Passos’s work holds war-related recruitment posters and touches on the connection between ads and the sophistication of Americans.

“Union Square was all lit up and full of navy recruiting posters. A big wooden model of a battleship filled up one side of it. There was a crowd standing around and a young girl dressed like a sailor was making a speech about patriotism.”

“Johnny sat in the office alone under the twoflanged electric fan. He was dressed in white flannels and a pink tennis shirt rolled up to the elbows, drawing the lyrical description of Ocean City (Maryland) that was to preface the advertising booklet that was the Colonel’s pet idea: ‘The life-giving surges of the broad Atlantic beat on the crystalline beaches of Ocean City (Maryland) … the tonic breath of the pines brings relief to the asthmatic and the consumptive … nearby the sportsman’s paradise of Indian River spreads out its broad estuary teeming with..”


“The American public has become sophisticated … when I was a boy in Pittsburgh all we thought of was display advertising, the appeal to the eye. Now with the growth of sophistication we must think of the other types of appeal, and the eradication of prejudice.”

Rose Macaulay, Potterism: A Tragi-Farcical Tract
Similar to Rhys, Macaulay’s portrayal of advertisements are affable in their hyperbolic nature.

“So now the appeal to strikers which was published in the advertisement columns of the papers at the expense of ‘a few patriotic citizens’ said, ‘Don’t bring further hardship and suffering upon the innocent women and children…. Save the women and children from the terror of the strike.’ Fools.”

“In another column was the N.U.R. advertisement, and that was worse. There was a picture of a railwayman looking like a consumptive in the last stages, and embracing one of his horrible children while his more horrible wife and mother supported the feeble heads of others, and under it was written, ‘Is this man an anarchist? He wants a wage to keep his family,’ and it was awful to think that he and his family would perhaps get the wage and be kept after all. The question about whether he was an anarchist was obviously unanswerable without further data, as there was nothing in the picture to show his political convictions; they might, from anything that appeared, have been liberal, tory, labour, socialist, anarchist, or coalition-unionist. And anyhow, supposing that he had been an anarchist, he would still, presumably, have wanted a wage to keep his family. Anarchists are people who disapprove of authority, not of wages. The member of the N.U.R. who composed that picture must have had a muddled mind. But so many people have, and so many people use words in an odd sense, that you can’t find in the dictionary. Bolshevist, for instance. Lloyd George called the strikers Bolshevists, so did plenty of other people. None of them seem to have any very clear conception of the political convictions of the supporters of the Soviet government in Russia. To have that you would need to think and read a little, whereas to use the word as a vague term of abuse, you need only to feel, which many people find much easier. Some people use the word capitalist in the same way, as a term of abuse, meaning really only ‘rich person.’ If they stopped to think of the meaning of the word, they would remember that it means merely a person who uses what money he has productively, instead of hoarding it in a stocking.”

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
The sign detailed is notably electric and the illustration of an eye captures the abbreviated nature of advertisements. More specifically, the illustration grabs the watcher’s attention.

“He led Jason on around the corner of the station, to the empty platform where an express truck stood, where grass grew rigidly in a plot bordered with rigid flowers and a sign in electric lights: Keep your on Mottson, the gap filled by a human eye with an electric pupil. The man released him.”

E. M. Forster, Howard’s End
Like Macaulay and others, advertisements are a source of mockery.

“At times the Great North Road accompanied her, more suggestive of infinity than any railway, awakening, after a nap of a hundred years, to such life as is conferred by the stench of motor-cars, and to such culture as is implied by the advertisements of antibilious pills.”

“To him, as to the British public, the Porphyrion was the Porphyrion of the advertisement–a giant, in the classical style, but draped sufficiently, who held in one hand a burning torch, and pointed with the other to St. Paul’s and Windsor Castle.”

Jean Toomer, Cane
Posters are used in a way to paint a scene.

“One store window has a light in it. Chesterfield cigarette and Chiro-Cola cardboard advertisements are stacked in it.”

Chesterfield Ad, 1920 (credit: Pinterest)

Claude McKay, Home to Harlem
Like the food in Mansfield’s work, a boy seems too surreal for life and more fit for an ad.

“Billy Biasse was there at a neighboring table with a longshoreman and a strawcolored boy who was a striking advertisement of the Ambrozine Palace of Beauty. The boy was made up with high-brown powder, his eyebrows were elongated and blackened up.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The billboard holding the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is arguably the most-known of all fictional advertisements. Fitzgerald famously admired the illustration of the dust jacket for his novel so much that he incorporated it into the story.

First Edition Dust Jacket Designed by Francis Cugat (credit: Bauman Rare Books)

“She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw. He was astounded. His mouth opened a little and he looked at Gatsby and then back at Daisy as if he had just recognized her as some one he knew a long time ago. ‘You resemble the advertisement of the man,’ she went on innocently. ‘You know the advertisement of the man–‘”

“‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me but you can’t fool God!’ Stand-in behind him Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg which had just emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night. ‘God sees everything,’ repeated Wilson. ‘That’s an advertisement,’ Michaelis assured him.”

“I followed him over a low white-washed railroad fence and we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg’s persistent stare.”

“‘Terrible place, isn’t it,’ said Tom, exchanging a frown with Doctor Eckleburg.”

“But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic–their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many pointless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

(credit: Medium)

“We passed a barrier of dark trees, and then the facade of Fifty-ninth Street, a block of delicate pale light, beamed down into the park. Unlike Gatsby and Tom Buchanan I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs and so I drew up the girl beside me, tightening my arms. Her wan, scornful mouth smiled and so I drew her up again, closer, this time to my face.” 

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