Student Question

What are the major features of 20th-century literature?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The major literary movements in the twentieth century are Modernism (circa 1900-1940) and Postmodernism (circa 1960-1990). Another term, Contemporary, is sometimes applied to literature with 1960 as the cut-off.


While it is difficult to establish the exact beginning of some literary movements such as Modernism, usually critics concur that literature written after World War I was Modernist. And, according to Virginia Woolf, human relationships changed after 1910. Yet, among the Modernists, there was variety of perspective, although most began to delve into the minds of their characters and portrayed the disjointedness of modern line by rejecting traditions forms. With Hemingway, for example, there are diffident heroes, characters who suffer disillusionment, isolation and nihilism. On the other hand, D. H. Lawrence has heroes who have characters of a more discussed sexuality in contrast to Hemingway's males, and he continues a more aggresuve use of symbols. Yet, there is in both author's treatment of characterization a certain self-consciousness often revealed through the technique of stream-of-consciousness with experiences presented sometimes in a fragmentary manner. Certainly, in Modernist writing there is the awareness of new psychological insights. For, the work of such as Signmund Freud, Carl Jung, and William James exerted tremendous influence upon the the writers of this era.

Although there are the unromantic Modernist novels and poetry, such a those about the senselessness of war, there are romantic strains--the idea of fleeing battle for peace and love in A Farewell to Arms; and the verses of those such as Rupert Brooke--..."there's some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England"--


With post-Modernism, there is suspicion of master narratives, rejection of traditional myths and theories such as the Grand Theory; there is also social pluralism, a perspective from a decentered self; fragmentation and a subverted order and lack of control. In many ways, Postmodernism rejects established modes of writing and thinking and mixes identities.  

A "hyper-reality" is more important than reality. There are merging and emerging images, and often "simulacra" appears as more powerful than the "real" Drug-induced images and thoughts are weighed and presented.
One prominent example of Post-Modernism is William R. Burrough's Naked Lunch that is semi-autobiographical in its depictions of drug use. At times, the novel is very impressionistic and disjointed.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial