In this article we are going to discuss the modern novel. We have traced the origin and development of the English novel in the preceding modules. We also studied selected novels from different periods in its development. We are now in the final module and we are going to study the novels of the 20th Century which is popularly referred to as the Modern Period.
The 20th Century marks the beginning of the Modern Period in English Literature. In this unit, we are not concerned with the historical background of England as we did in some of the units but we will concern ourselves with what makes the Modern English novel unique.
The English Novel in the 20th Century
Many of the techniques that are adopted in novel writing developed over the past centuries. The techniques evolved as the result of experimentations and innovations occasioned by competition among the writers as each writer tries to excel. The desire of excellence was propelled by the need to satisfy the reading public. However the style and techniques are still evolving in the modern period especially with the new 20th/21st century mass media like the Internet, films, cartoon comics and other forms of animated stories.
The new mass media has exerted tremendous influence on the novelist. Another influence on the 20th Century novel is the literary theories. The 20th Century novelist like his or her counterparts in the past ages was influenced by the period, the socio-political, economic and the intellectual climate that pervades in the nation in addition to his/her personality and background. The novelists of the 20th Century brought various experimentations in novel writing. Consequently, it is difficult to locate the modern English novel in a particular style.
Writers were free to explore new narrative techniques. For instance, Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) tries to create a new form of realism while some authors of the 1960’s “…fragmented their stories and challenged time and sequentiality as fundamental structuring concepts while Postmodern authors subverted the serious debate with playfulness” (Roe and Susan 2000, 79). Novelists adapted existing materials but reconstructed them to suit particular intentions and critics played important roles in the evolved forms of the novel.
For instance, a postmodernist could reread trivial literature as the essential cultural production. In the same way, The “creative avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s closed the gap and recycled popular knowledge, conspiracy theories, comics and films to recombine these materials in what was to become art of entirely new qualities” (DeMaria 2001,84). The difference between these authors and their 18th and their 19th century predecessors was the influence of literary criticism on the new authors who tried to interact with the critics.
Consequently, the 20th century novelists were eager to get their works into the hands of the critics and to a large extent, the success or failure of a novel is influenced by the criticism. Literary critics and theorists therefore become the privileged first readers of each new text and their judgments count. This is why James Joyce in reaction to his anticipation of how his novel Ulysses (1922) would be received, said: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality (DeMaria 2001, 86)”. 20th century novels can therefore be read as “…new textual constructs designed to prove that we are surrounded by virtual realities, by realities we construct out of circulating fragments, of images, and of concepts” that are part of everyday life (Encyclopedia Online). Personal realities, personal anxieties, daydreams, magic and hallucinatory experiences have also influenced the 20th and 21st century novelists.
They also reflect their own personal realities and reactions to these realities in relation to the new science of psychology that “almost automatically destabilises and marginalises the realities of “common sense” and collective history” (DeMaria 2001, 38). The novels portray unique aspects of each generation in the 20th century. The century also witnessed the emergence of more strong female voices like Virginia Wolf. Consequently, questions of gender, race, morality, sexual revolution, the assertion of the female heroine in a predominantly patriarchal system have been subjects for the 20th century novelists. Other important subjects of modern novelists are crime, political and military confrontations.
The novelists present the fact that modern industrialised, organised societies have failed as crime has been on the increase. They portray the intriguing motivations for personal and public involvement in crime. They also explore the actions of the criminals and also challenge the moral codes of detectives in these novels. Fantasy also reappear in fiction but has branched off into the “worlds of computer-animated role play and esoteric myth” which has since become a huge commercial venture.
Some 20th Century Novelists
Several novelists emerged in the early 20th century. Prominent among them are James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and many others. We will just discuss a few of them. You can find out more on your own.
George Orwell: (1903-1950). His real name is Eric Arthur Blair but writes with the pen name George Orwell. He was an English novelist and journalist whose allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945) has become a household name. Generally, he depicts the need for social justice, an opposition to totalitarianism, and belief in democratic socialism in his works. His work is marked by “…clarity, intelligence, wit … is considered perhaps the 20th century’s best chronicler of English culture” (DeMaria 1954, 68). He is best known for his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty Four (1949) and his other work is Homage to Catalonia (1938). He is said to have sold more copies of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four than any two books by any other 20th-century author (DeMaria 1954, 68). In 2008,
The Times ranked him second on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” (Stephen 200,315). Orwell’s work has continued to influence literary, popular, and socio-political culture so much that the term Orwellian has entered the world vocabulary.
E.M. Forster: was educated in Cambridge and is renowned for his critical work on the novel, Aspects of the Novel (1927). He is therefore a novelist and a critic. His notable works include Where Angels Feared to Tread (1905), A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1911), and A Passage to India (1924). His novel on homosexuality was completed but was not published until after his death.
H. Lawrence: in his works, focused on social life of the lower and middle classes, and the personal lives of those who could not adapt to the social norms of his time. Sons and Lovers (1913), is widely regarded as his earliest masterpiece. It was followed by The Rainbow (1915), and its sequel Women in Love (1920). Lawrence tried to explore human emotions more deeply than his contemporaries and challenged the boundaries of the acceptable treatment of sexual issues in the novel as exemplified notably in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The explicit treatment sexual relationships in the novel was championed by D. H. Lawrence in his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover which was censored in Britain and he was forced to publish it in Italy in 1928 although the ban by the British was lifted in 1960.
Virginia Woolf: was an influential feminist, and is acclaimed to be innovator of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Her novels include Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). She is also known for the famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” taken from her 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own”.
William Golding: is another English novelist and a Nobel laureate whose allegorical novel Lord of the Flies (1954) presents man as being responsible for the evil that plagues humanity. He uses as an example a group of British schoolboys, stuck on a deserted island, who try to govern themselves but degenerated into savage acts with disastrous results.
We have seen in this article that the English novel in the 20th Century is a product of the socio- cultural, political and religious climate that pervaded the century in England in particular and the world in general. It was a period of experimentation with the content and form of the novel. The century also produced many renowned writers.
One could conveniently say that the English novel reached its peak in the 20th century with the emergence of many novelists who treated different subjects including those that were hitherto considered taboos and in different styles. Issues bordering on crime, racism, the female question and sexuality are some of the subjects explored in the novel. The realism in the novel was also taken to different levels and interpretations as authors experiment with forms and techniques.