1940 to the 21st Century


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Among British writers in the 1940s and 1950s were novelist Graham Greene whose works span the 1930s to the 1980s and poet Dylan Thomas, while Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden and T. S. Eliot continued publishing significant work.



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Lecture 14

1940 to the 21st Century

Among British writers in the 1940s and 1950s were novelist Graham Greene whose works span the 1930s to the 1980s and poet Dylan Thomas, while Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden and T. S. Eliot continued publishing significant work. In 1947 Malcolm Lowry published Under the Volcano, while George Orwell's satire of totalitarianism, 1984, was published in 1949. One of the most influential novels of the immediate post-war period was William Cooper's naturalistic Scenes from Provincial Life, a conscious rejection of the modernist tradition.

Graham Greene was a convert to Catholicism and his novels explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Notable for an ability to combine serious literary acclaim with broad popularity, his novels include Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), A Burnt-Out Case (1961), and The Human Factor (1978). Other novelists writing in the 1950s and later were: Anthony Powell whose twelve-volume cycle of novels A Dance to the Music of Time, is a comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid-20th century; comic novelist Kingsley Amis is best known for his academic satire Lucky Jim (1954).

Nobel Prize laureate William Golding's allegorical novel Lord of the Flies 1954, explores how culture created by man fails, using as an example a group of British schoolboys marooned on a deserted island who try to govern themselves, but with disastrous results.

Philosopher Iris Murdoch was a prolific writer of novels throughout the second half of the 20th century, that deal especially with sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious, including Under the Net (1954), The Black Prince (1973) and The Green Knight (1993).

Scottish writer Muriel Spark pushed the boundaries of realism in her novels. Her first, The Comforters (1957) concerns a woman who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), at times takes the reader briefly into the distant future, to see the various fates that befall its characters.

Anthony Burgess is especially remembered for his dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), set in the not-too-distant future, which was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. In the entirely different genre of Gothic fantasy Mervyn Peake (1911–68) published his highly successful Gormenghast trilogy between 1946 and 1959.

From around 1910, the Modernist Movement began to influence English literature. Whereas their Victorian predecessors had usually been happy to cater to mainstream middle-class taste, 20th century writers often felt alienated from it, and responded by writing more intellectually challenging works or by pushing the boundaries of acceptable content.

The major poets of this period included the American-born T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the Irishman William Butler Yeats. Free verse and other stylistic innovations came to the forefront in this era.

The experiences of the First World War were reflected in the work of war poets such as Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon. Many writers turned away from patriotic and imperialist themes as a result of the war, notably Kipling.

Important novelists between the two World Wars included the Irish writer James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf.

Joyce's increasingly complex works included "Ulysses", an interpretation of the Odyssey set in Dublin, and culminated in the famously obscure "Finnegans Wake". Lawrence wrote with understanding about the social life of the lower and middle classes, and the personal life of those who could not adapt to the social norms of his time. He attempted to explore human emotions more deeply than his contemporaries and challenged the boundaries of the acceptable treatment of sexual issues in works such as "Lady Chatterley's Lover". Virginia Woolf was an influential feminist, and a major stylistic innovator associated with the stream-of-consciousness technique. Her novels included "To the Lighthouse", "Mrs Dalloway", and "The Waves".

Novelists who wrote in a more traditional style, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett continued to receive great acclaim in the interwar period. At the same time the Georgian poets maintained a more conservative approach to poetry.

One of the most significant English writers of this period was George Orwell. An acclaimed essayist and novelist, Orwell's works are considered among the most important social and political commentaries of the 20th century. Dealing with issues such as poverty in "The Road to Wigan Pier" and "Down and Out in Paris and London", totalitarianism in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and colonialism in "Burmese Days". Orwell's works were often semi-autobiographical and in the case of "Homage to Catalonia", wholly autobiographical.

The leading poets of the middle and later 20th century included the traditionalist John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and the Northern Irish Catholic Seamus Heaney, who lived in the Republic of Ireland for much of his later life.

Major novelists of the middle and later 20th century included the satirist Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, Anthony Powell, William Golding, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch.

In drama, the drawing room plays of the post war period were challenged in the 1950s by the Angry Young Men, exemplified by as John Osborne's iconic play "Look Back in Anger". Also in the 1950s, the bleak absurdist play "Waiting for Godot", by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett profoundly affected British drama. The Theatre of the Absurd influenced playwrights of the later decades of the 20th century, including Harold Pinter, whose works are often characterized by menace or claustrophobia, and Tom Stoppard. Stoppard's works are however also notable for their high-spirited wit and the great range of intellectual issues which he tackles in different plays.

The Twentieth Century:

Most important writers: James Joyce (1882 - 1924), Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941), Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963), Alan Sillitoe (1928 - ), George Orwell (1903 - 1950), Margaret Drabble (1939 - )

Most important works: Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), Look Back in Anger (John Osborne, 1956), 1984 (George Orwell (1949)

General information: In the period from the turn of the 20th century past World War II, writers experimented with the stream-of-consciousness technique to reveal their inner thoughts, dealt with the moral issues of war, published anti-utopian ideas. Many concentrated on the relationship between individual and society. In poetry, the "Movement" put emphasis on the ordinary and avoided sentimentality. Generally, experiments with form and technique were rare, the exploration of character is mostly being dealt with through traditional means. Only in English drama have writers turned against traditional dramatic conventions.


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