Modern Age Life: 1901-Present

Early Twentieth Century Literature—Because the early years of the 20th century in Britain saw huge changes in social and political life, the literature of the period reflected these changes. Authors increasingly turned to lower-middle-class and working-class life, like the Dublin stories of James Joyce and the novels of H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds).  In addition, political and social themes continues to occupy writers, especially the playwright George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion).
Far fewer poets wrote in the large forms favored by Victorian writers (the extended elegy, the dramatic monologue, the epic narrative).  Impressionism in literature—focusing on individualizing moments of experience, and not seeking to interpret life or moralize experience as Victorian literature had—became very important in both poetry and prose.

More closely aligned with Romantic and Victorian ideals was literary symbolism, associated with the slogan “art for art’s sake.”  Symbolist poets looked upon daily life as sordid, and used symbols to suggest the existence of a higher reality, accessibly only through art.


WWI—In Europe, “the war to end all wars” began in August 1914 and continued to November 1918.  While war had previously been considered an opportunity for heroism and a source of beauty, those who expected the same in the First World War were quickly silenced.  The realities of trench warfare—poison gas, exploding bullets, filth and vermin, machine guns and barbed wire—comprised the new face of war, and it proved a sharp contrast to the glorified battles of previous ages.  On the Allied side, more than seven million men died.  Both surviving soldiers and civilians at home felt the effect of these ghastly casualties, and many found it difficult to see WWI and a “just war.”  Young writers especially turned in disgust from public affairs, feeling neither side had been right and the leaders of society had lead them into purposeless, meaningless slaughter.  From 1919 onward, whatever was associated with the world before the war was condemned or ignored by writers, because it was that world that had produced the war.


The New Writing—Revulsion from the war gave support to Modernism’s call for an absolute break with prewar literary traditions.  The Modernist movement revolted against sentimentality, materials ideas, and the plot conventions of realism.  Instead, the writing of this time turned inward to explore the psychological depths of characters.  This required much technical experimentation in writing, and stream-of-consciousness was born.  This is a literary technique that presents the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of an individual as they occur as a continuous, flowing series of images and ideas running through the mind.  Major writers in this style include James Joyce (Ulysses), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway), and T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land). 

Moreover, literature of the Modern Age crossed many traditions of thought and literary expression in an immense variety of forms and voices.  In these works, no single voice could be identified with the author, and that is perhaps the most significant idea of the Modernist movement.  No single poem or novel speaks for the “real” writer, and the central theme of much writing of the time period is the continuing discovery of many selves, moods, and modes of thinking and feeling.


The Rise of Fascism—The rise of Fascism, based on the ideal of the great leader and exaltation of physical force, was the central political event in the years between the two world wars.  Two immediate causes of its appearance were increased, fervent nationalism and economic hardship.  After WWI, Germany was humiliated and made to pay large amounts of money in war reparations, and under this stress the German people looked for a source of hope and inspiration.  Of course, the world knows they found the answer in Adolph Hitler.  In 1922, Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy. Throughout the 1930s, the military was taking increasing control in Japan.  All in all, things were looking bad for democracy.


WWII—In Europe, World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945.  In this war, civilian populations paid a particularly high price.  London was subjected to “blitz” bombing in the first years of the war, and civilization began to collapse in flames.  In total, Britain suffered more than a quarter million civilian causalities, a staggering number that crippled the nation.  In some ways, however, this handicap became an advantage because it strengthened British resolve to win a war fought under enormous handicaps. 

After what the war had revealed about the cruelty and destructiveness at the very center of Western civilization, the overriding question for postwar writers was whether it was possible to go back to the way things had been.


The Aftermath of WWII—After World War II, the disintegration of the British Empire reached its climax.  By the middle of the 20th century, Britain had lost control of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Republic of Ireland, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya.  The Empire was replaced by the Commonwealth of Nations, but this ties these states to the mother country by little more than sentiment.  This loss of the Empire has been an important element in the formation of British literary culture in the Modern Age.

While things rumbled abroad, even greater changes were taking place at home.  The government took over a large share of the responsibility for health, employment, housing, education, and pensions of the great mass of the population.  Despite all these gains in domestic policy, Britain’s economy was plagued by problems.  Their export rate dropped substantially in the face of competition from other countries, and this deeply affected the ability to import enough food to the island to feed the country.

However, even in the face of such adversity, all was not lost.  While asking “what went wrong?” postwar writers have also looked for evidence of continuity in British traditions of tolerance, stability, and consensus.


Contemporary Writing—In the past few decades, writing has varied widely.  There have been authors drawing dark but comic conclusions about life in general, parables written that give form to new political and ethical uncertainties.  Philosophical comedy has thrived, and science fiction had proved to be a welcoming form through which to express an “alien” view of Britain, including using the large outline of history to express feminist ideals and beliefs.  The British class system has changed and brought power to the common man, and many colonial writers have spoken out about the history of the European impact on foreign societies.

Through it all, the writers of contemporary literature have made English a world language in the strongest sense: a language that is not only used elsewhere for business and diplomacy, but that also helps different writers and cultures around the world communicate with each other.