20th century British Literature: the bad and the fascinating


Ah, British Literature…from Chaucer and Shakespeare to George Orwell and Samuel Beckett, there has been a lot of social, political and cultural events and tragedies that shaped the literature. Numerous writers became well known after becoming “scandalous” or thinking outside the box. And most of those are so popular, even in today’s age, since their literary and poetic works are so interesting, absurd or relatable. So, let’s stop for a minute, “press” pause and hop on a new “reviewing” adventure in the realm of history and literature

Humanism, Renaissance and all that “new” stuff

Let’s go back in the 15th to 16th century when the Renaissance or “rebirth” was in vogue. It became a trend to reject or criticize what’s old (a.k.a. the Middle Ages’ obsession with religion, divinity and how humans were useless and insignificant) in favor to what’s new and fresh and rational. Basically, the intellectuals thought that people are not crap, but THE crap and every single thing revolved around humans. They looked back at ancient Greek philosophy and things got prettier. Literally. From paintings to poetry, they reflected a natural and more shaped, rendered and “rational” reality. So far so good, right?

Tumblr and Columbia University; Art during Middle ages (1st image) vs. Renaissance (2nd image)

How did this influence the 20th century literature? Welp, from now on, things were modern and marked the entrance in a new age of democracy and capitalism. The literature focused on individualism and didn’t felt at the mercy of God, since life became more stable. Reason and materialism was in, the rest was out. And, of course, this gave birth to the counter-Renaissance, Romanticism.

Romanticism, a key tool to modernity

Sounds strange, right? Romanticism is against the capitalism and materialism, how can it facilitate modernity? It’s easy: they took the idea of the individual, the nucleus of modernity, and used it in a different way. If before the Renaissance there was no individual (only God) and in Renaissance there was the rational individual, romantics became the “spiritual individuals”. Then comes Modernism at the beginning of the 20th century and changed the shape of British literature once again. And what else happened at the beginning of 20th century? Welp, A LOT!

Unsplash, a late 19th century painting depicting individuals

Modernism and crisis

The Soviet Revolution, the first World War, the formation of fascism, the decay of British technology, they all shaped not only the British Literature, but humanity as well. People criticized reason once again, but instead of shaping the literature in an idyllic world (like their older Romantic “brothers”), the Modernists moved towards irrationality and absurdity, towards myths and euphemia (the art of telling something without actually uttering it) and longing for the more simple, primitive world.


With this in mind, you can understand a little bit better how the absurdity of “Waiting for Godot” has a reason behind and how “1984” is criticizing the extreme control and “reason”. “Leda and the Swan” has deep roots in history, but Yeats is reinterpreting it, mirroring the state of a marginalized group (here, women) and “Heart of Darkness” explores not only the darkness of the mind (here, Marlow), but the darkness and cruelty racial minorities were drowned in as well.

Is there improvement?

Welp, as Victoria Woolf said, technology has evolved, but “we do not come to write better” since there is a circular tendency. It’s not better, it’s just different. Things go in circles and history is kind of repeating itself, not only in British Literature, but in the world around us as well. We have the impression we are better now (which in a sense, we are) just because we built better machines, but in terms of literature, artists are repeating some sort of patterns that humanity encountered over and over again. If and how British literature (and not only British literature, but the world as well) evolves is unpredictable.



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