20th Century

Angelica Scott and Elena Robles

The Early Twentieth Century, from 1900 to 1950 involved serious fracturing of the world as it was known. Everything was shifting, depressing, and people were walking around like chickens with no heads. Let’s see why:

Firstly, the World wars both held unprecedented violence and horror, shaking the concept of war and even humanity. In World War I, trench warfare showed new depths of horrific death and the holocaust of world war II displayed a very deep darkness of humanity- we got a very real hit with the reality of how horrible humans are. At the beginning of WWI or “the great war,” in 1914, many people could not begin to imagine what was to come. Many families even expected the soldiers to be home in a few short months, in time for the holidays. Boy, were they wrong. It was soon realized that this war could be seen as a “collapse of civilization as it had long been known” (Black). Pretty intense stuff.

During the recovery of WWI, a multitude of factors led to the onset of WWII, but most attribute it primarily to the decision after WWI the allies demand reparations from Germany. In hindsight, not the best move, guys. Crippling their economy and embittering the people, this decision essentially buttered up Germany for a psycho dictatorial monster to rise to power. It is important to note the ethical difference between these two wars in order to understand their individual effect on society. WWI was essentially a power struggle between Britain and Germany, more of big man versus big man show off, while WWII had far more moral imperative. The Nazi atrocities, once they were fully revealed, and the idea of a planned extermination of an entire people, really shook global society and led to a deep pessimistic outlook. No one was ready for the deeply horrible aspects of these wars and so #shook. Similarly, the atomic bomb dropped in Japan to end the war in 1945 displayed the fact that humans now had the power to destroy mankind. This concept, rightfully added to the melancholic, despairing tone of the literary work produced at the time. It’s hard to make this time period seem not totally depressing, sorry.

Other craziness that was going on was led by the complex theories and ideas of Marx, Freud, and Einstein (quite the group). Though Marx died before the turn of the century, his influence lasted into the 1900’s. Socially progressive writers derived several things from the intellectual foundation of Marxist theory. Firstly, it was believed that individuals are often “caught in a web” of social and economic forces that they have no control over, that class struggle is systemic, and finally that struggle and political action are what will bring about a better world. This added to the whole chicken without a head tone of the era. Einstein’s Special theory of Relativity declared that time and motion are not absolute. Talk about shaking things up, dude, good timing. This along with other theories of his, contributed to the societal sense of the world being a far less stable place than had been thought because like, how can time and motion not be stable. Stop. In a similar sense, analytical philosophy, led by ideas from Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, destabilized what was widely thought of as fixed relationships between words and meanings. It was established that the relationship is complex and inherently unstable which greatly affected writing.

Finally, the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud, particularly about the importance and complexity of human sexuality and the unconscious mind, had a large effect on writers. They were inspired to represent the centrality of sexuality in the human experience in their literature. We all know Freud was weird and revolutionary in his ideas so leave it to writers (like English majors) to try and be as weird as possible with their stuff.

The modernist era of literature was also going on at this time. This movement of literature was defined by a unity of thought and feelings, specifically with a search for meaning and truth within instability, and as we now know, there was no lack of that during this time. Writers like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were key in this movement, along with the most notable Samuel Beckett who expressed the action of psychological thought as well as the despair that went along with them.

Virginia Woolf was an extremely powerful voice for the feminist movement as she was part of the Labour Party, and a supporter of many socialist and progressive causes.  Not only was Woolf instrumental in the Modernist movement, she tried to free women from all of the restrictions that were placed on them by male dominance.  On the topic of women, continuing into the 20th century women were still treated as inferior to men in all regards and oppression in the workplace, education, and politics.  Sexual orientation was a huge deal during this time as well. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for committing indecent acts (homosexual) and this was considered a huge incident and a disease.  Male homosexuality was almost unspeakable, and so to be a homosexual woman was unheard of. Before the end of the 1918 war, the Representation of the People Act was passed, which allowed men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30 who passed certain criteria, to vote

Paperback novels became the most popular kind of book to buy and Penguin Books, helped with the spread of mass literacy.  a

Ireland was booming with new authors and poets during this time as well.  Bernard Shaw was born and lived in Dublin and many say that he was the most important dramatist in English writing since Shakespeare.  He was able to point out evils in the world, help people understand it, and did this with his wit and humor. The Potato Famine of 1845-51 killed almost a million Irish citizens, about 10% of the population.  After this there was huge amount of pressure for political and cultural changes. Fascism was a popular topic and is defined as an idea of the far right and it is usually mixed with capitalist economic restructuring.  The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted about 10 years, and in Britain it was estimated that a quarter of the population was reduced to eating a subsistence diet. Because of this, many people and their views moved further to the left politically.

George Orwell was seen as one of the writers who was able to write accurately about the conflict over socialism, communism, fascism, and liberal democracy.  His early work talk about the roll that capitalism played on the working class. Orwell was an avid socialist but his two most famous works, Animal Farm and 1984, are attacks on the socialist ideals under Soviet communism.  Another main writer of the time was WH Auden who was a political poet, well known for his call to arms against fascism in Spain.  He was disappointed with the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War after he saw the killings of Catholic priests, and then seeing the Nanking Massacre.  He was convinced that violence is a disease that everyone has inside of them.

The English language was changing during this time.  With the increase in the amount of universities, business, and government there was an increase in academic jargon.  Vocabulary continued to expand and Britain and the United States started to find different coinages because of the new technologies.  The biggest change in the English language was the elimination of forms marking the subjunctive mood. Ex: “If=I were to travel through time I would…” the old subjunctive form would be replaced by a simple past form of the verb.  “If I traveled through time I would…” which basically just allowed people to not use as many words to say the same thing.



Literary expert close reading:

Virginia Woolf, “A Mark on the Wall,” 1921

But as for that mark, I’m not sure about it; I don’t believe it was made by a nail after all; it’s too big, too round, for that. I might get up, but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain; because once a thing’s done, no one ever knows how it happened.

  • In these first few sentences, there is a clear sense of uncertainty and a lack of confidence in truth. This is important language to note because during this time period, especially due to the era of World Wars, was full of disorder and new discoveries that caused a feeling of disorientation in society.
  • no certainty, no belief, no sureness. The language in this stanza represents the chicken with no head mentality that we talked about before.


Oh! dear me, the mystery of life; The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity! To show how very little control of our possessions we have—what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilization—let me just count over a few of the things lost in one lifetime, beginning, for that seems always the most mysterious of losses

  • This part of the stanza is an even stronger example of this disorder. For instance, “inaccuracy” is a really important word to note here. New information that came into the light during this time, from the great thinkers like Einstein and Freud, made many people feel bummed or crazy because of what they had previously believed. I mean, imagine finding out that (supposedly) children have intense sexual drives and they control most of human behavior, and that time and space are not stable… you might feel mind blown too.
  • The idea of “very little control” can also point back to the wars. These escalating global atrocities that continued to surprise people and seemed never ending, increased the feeling of no control over life and even goodness in the world. Pretty dramatic, but I mean, fair.
  • Control also speaks to the feeling of instability, not just due to the violence, but also the popular Marxist theories circulating. All of these brilliant minds were throwing things out of wack, and the overall societal vibe was thrown with it.


Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation Copyright © by Angelica Scott and Elena Robles. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book