THE 1910s/1920s: SPIRIT OF THE AGE AND LITERARY BACKGROUND-Early 20th century Novel and Poetry


At the beginning of the 20th cent. there were strong reasons for great expectation and optimism. Average Middle-class families led comfortable lives in pleasant homes and the number of well-off people had increased. They had bathrooms, electric lights, central heating, telephones, gramophones, cameras, washing and cleaning machines and many other modern accessories which made their lives easier.They enjoyed plenty of leisure time, went to the cinema, theatre, concerts, dinner-parties, music halls and also enjoyed the pleasure of day trips by motor cars, electric trams, trains or just riding bicycles. They read cheap sensational papers, danced to the new ragtime rhythms, indulged in smoking and drinking. This is enough to say that they had a lot of fun.

As far as the spiritual life things were different. There was a feeling of discontent, instability, discomfort and unease because the traditional beliefs had been shaken.Scientists had raised many doubts about long-established principles and truths which had been accepted up until then.The feeling of unrest and division was perceived in every field: women were fighting for their emancipation, workers still lived on bad and poor conditions, there were nationalist movements within many states and rivalries among the leading European countries which brought to the first World War and to the Bolshevik revolution, which had a very deep and shocking impact on the people.


People living at the turn of the century were doubtful and insecure and felt a sense of isolation. They had lost their faith in the supremacy of reason, in the value of science, in religion, in liberalism and capitalism.

Reason was seen as a limiting more than a liberating force on the human mind because it tried to repress its unconscious inner self.

Science had not produced a better world but a dreadful one inventing new powerful weapons of mass-destruction as the 1st world war had shown.

Liberalism and Capitalism had not solved the problem of the distribution of money: the Poor were poorer and poorer and the Rich had become richer and richer. Further it had caused economic depression and unemployment and had clearly shown that the Laissez faire, that is the free operation of competition, would not necessarily produce benefits for everyone.

The revealed truth of religion had been shocked by the new discoveries in geology and astronomy and by Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution. The former had cast doubts on the accuracy of the Book of Genesis: the world, it seemed, had not been created a few thousand years before but millions of years before and not in a few days. However it was Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection (1859) that was the real cause of anxiety. After Darwin’s book the traditional Christian belief found itself in open contrast with science. The ideas about natural selection and the struggle to survive had brought man to feel that he was not a divine animal but only a superior animal who lived in a world which did not seem to obey any divine principle or to be part of any divine plan. Worse still was for some Christians the interpretation of Darwin in his work The Descendant of Man of the Monkey Theory: if God had created man to his own likeness, what was then God’s real image?  

Other intellectuals and philosophers contributed to the crises of religion: Feuerbach had argued that Christianity was a Myth created by man in order to satisfy a deep need to imagine human perfection; Nietzsche had cried in his  La Gaia Scienza   and in  Thus Spake Zarathustra that ”God is dead” giving man the responsibility of his own existence and exalting the SUPERMAN who would have replaced the Christian ideal; the German philosopher Karl Marx had considered religion as “the opium of peoples because in its name men justified and tolerated injustice and      exploitation. So religion which had always been a steady point of reference to look for salvation and to give meaning to life lost its power and man found himself at a loss and confused. And indeed the only sure points of reference that the individual had was himself, and the only answer to the modern sense of insecurity was to break through the social conventions and restraints imposed by the conscious mind and find a new point of reference on his inner self. The importance of the irrational in determining man’s action was understood by Sigmund Freud. In 1900 he published The Interpretation of Dreams   which influenced enormously the literary field of the time.

Freud maintained that people’s behaviour depended very largely on the unconscious part of their minds in which their memories are stored. He was the first to map the subconscious world of the human mind and coined a new term: psychoanalysis.He listed three main forces in man’s life: The Id, The Ego, and the Super Ego. The Id is an instinctive force which operates at the unconscious level; The Ego is an executive force which operates at the conscious level and The Super Ego is a superior disciplinary force which controls The Id. So people are motivated by their instinct (ID) and are controlled by their social conditioning (SUPER EGO). This leaves little space to the conscious Ego and consequently to man’s power of reason. Another important aspect of Freud’s theory was libido and its demands: man was obliged to recognize that unknown irrational forces regulated his behaviour and his relationships.

Carl Jung, too, in his The Psychology of the Unconscious pointed out the importance of the irrational forces and their fundamental role in the organization of primitive matriarchal society (contrasting Victorian patriarchal Society, he contributed for the emancipation of women). In his book Jung argued that a basic element of man’s unconscious mind was formed by his Racial (or Ancestral) Memory, that is the primitive memory preserved by each individual of the experiences of his race during evolution. For the above mentioned Karl Marx, man was the object of conflicting socio-economic forces. All these theories contributed to reinforce the concept typical of modern age that man was not completely master of himself but was dominated by elements which he could not control.

After Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (Time and Space do not exist as separate absolute phenomenon but change according to the point of view of the observer)the bases of traditional science were shown to rest on false assumptions and the conventional ideas of time and space were rejected, too. It affected the faith in the solidity of science, which had always been seen as something which could give absolute certainties.

All that was reflected in the early 20th century  literature, both in the Novel and in Poetry.

The main authors of the time didn’t concentrate on plots and society but on man himself. The characters became important not because of what happened outside and around them but because of their inner selves. They tried to go beyond the limits of the rational and to give expression to the irrational forces in man’s nature.These ideas were shared by the expressionists inGermany, the Surrealists inFrance and the Modernists inEngland.Other influences on British culture came from new movements in the visual arts in particular Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism and Dadaism.

Cubism evolved in France through the paintings of Picasso and Braque. It offered a new conception of perspective: the objects were no longer presented from only one point of view, but from various angles, allowing a simultaneous perception of the most significant features.

Futurism came from Italy. Its main representative was Tommaso Marinetti. It demanded revolution and innovation in all the arts, exalting the machine age, glorifying war and violence.

Dadaism evolved inSwitzerland: It rejected any expression of rationalism and had a desecratory approach to form and meaning.

Vorticism (after the image of a vortex from which ideas were constantly rushing) was started by the American painter Wyndham Lewis and involved Erza Pound and T.S. Eliot. It was an aggressive movement which attacked the sentimentality of the 19th century art and exalted energy and the machine.


As far as the Novel during these period, there were some novelists who wrote about the material aspect of social life (labelled for this as Materialists by Virginia Wolf), some who wrote exotic novels (Kipling, Conrad) and some other who experimented with new forms of expressions; they were referred to as Modernists.

The Modernist novelists focused on the mental process that develops in the human mind using the so-called Stream of Consciousness Technique. It was a new technique of narration experimented by Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Wolf and James Joyce.

The Stream of Consciousness had got a philosophical base and derived from the philosophical thinking of the Frenchman Henry Bergson and the American William James.James and Bergson argued that past and future exist in man’s mind together with the present. According to James the present represents the continuous flow of the already into the not yet, then past into future: people are simply a sum of their past experiences and future expectations which fuse together with the present and run into one another in what Bergson described as  the stream of consciousness . This expression indicates the casual association of thoughts, impressions and emotions of a man who is not thinking intentionally as they surface simultaneously to his consciousness with no separation or order, but letting his mind flow freely. Each person lives moments and experiences that cannot be measured in fixed periods of time since the mind has its own time, which is different from the time of the clock, and its own space values apart from the conventional ones established by the external world. It is possible and quite common, for example, to look at an object, think about something different, be remembered of past experiences, make future plans, while we are talking at the same time of something which has nothing to do with the other impressions present in our mind. John Locke, an English philosopher of the 17th cent. had already dealt with something like that in his theory of Association of Ideas .Locke maintained that everybody is inclined to associate one thing with the idea of something else, often having no natural connection with the previous idea, but a deep connection in the unconscious mind of the thinker.

The instrument used by the novelists to translate the stream of consciousness into words is the Interior Monologue. To reflect the apparently disconnected and chaotic sequence of thoughts the interior monologue does not use traditional syntax, logical transitions and conventional punctuation.

We have to distinguish the Stream of Consciousness Novel or Psychoanalytic Novel from the Psychological Novel: the former deals with the rational communicable awareness while the latter is concerned with the area which is beyond communication. Someone has compared them respectively to the submerged part of an iceberg and the emerged part; what we can see of an iceberg, the emerged part, is only the small part while what we can’t see is the biggest one.


The first two decades of the 20th century can be considered the starting point of what is called Modern Poetry. A revolution started to take place in poetry. The first attempts to get free from the romantic, sentimental, elegiac poetry were made by some poets Known as the Georgians, after George V, who had become king in 1910. They were: Edward Thomas, A.E. Housman and Walter De La Mere. They broke out with the late romantic tradition, but did not represent the spiritual anguish of the modern world; they only expressed their regret for a world they did not like.

The need to express new feelings and new ideas was felt by three great poets: W.B. Yeats, Erza Pound and T.S Eliot. They brought a true revolution into poetry experimenting new forms of style and innovation but above all they produced poetry which reflected the cold, mechanical reality of the modern world, in which as Yeats wrote in a poem, “things fall apart”.

The 1st World War had a very deep and shocking impact on the people and a new kind of poetry, known as War Poetry, developed. The War Poets were soldiers who described the horrors of the war and the life in the trenches. They expressed the sense of powerlessness of the soldiers who were compelled to sleep in their uniforms, in the mud, in places infested with rats and often surrounded with the dead bodies of both enemies and friends. When the survivors went back home, they realised they had been cheated by their Government. They felt they were the true victims of the war: they did not find the promised fit land for “HEROES” to live in, but only unemployment, social division and radical changes. They were physically and psychologically traumatised and felt unfit for the new reality. Among them we can mention Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to THE 1910s/1920s: SPIRIT OF THE AGE AND LITERARY BACKGROUND-Early 20th century Novel and Poetry

  1. Charutha says:

    Very helpful! Thank you 🙂

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