Just a decade back, the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000 and the event was marked by joyous celebrations and fireworks throughout the world. Television networks broadcasted this grand event from all over the world. Though the year 2000 belongs to the 20th century, none of us were actually bothered celebrating the turn on of the 21st century. However, I don’t think the same celebration took place when the calendar was turning on the very first day of 20th century. Hardly anyone had any idea on that day on what is about to unfold in the coming hundred years. Then the human civilization saw the most eventful century of the entire history. It was a hundred years when human race observed the greatest of the inventions that changed the lifestyle at a very rapid pace. It was the century when various social and political ideologies were born, spread and died.
The world saw two of the most devastating global wars, which could have caused the end of mankind. We saw the rise and fall of super powers and we saw a new kind of war that was not fought with the weapons. We saw the end of colonialism and we saw the rise of terrorism. The world economy suffered from two of the greatest financial meltdown. Knowingly or unknowingly, all these great events had enormous effect on the lives of the global citizens. And just like any other time, literary works from this period was influenced massively by the events of this happening century.
A hundred years is not a very lengthy period in the context of human civilization. But in these hundred years of 20th century, there were far more remarkable events or happenings than any other century. The century starts with the collapse of imperialism (“Twentieth Century’s Triumphant Entry”) which was followed by the collapsing of colonialism during the middle of the century. The first half of the century saw two great wars, World War – I (914-1918) and World War – II (1939-1945), and the Great Depression during the inter-war years (De 129). This is the century which saw the end of colonialism at the last decade of its first half. This is also the decade when a bomb named ‘Little Boy’ destroyed the life of half million people in Hiroshima in under 5 minutes (“Tale of Two Cites”). The second half of this century was ruled by a war of nerves, known as the cold war (Thompson 7). The end of the Second World War gave birth of 2 political super powers, United States and the Soviet Union, who tried to rule the post colonial period with their military strength and political influence.
The cold war dominated the geographical life for more than 45 years and came to an end with as the Soviet Union collapsed internally in 1991 (Brown). Though this century saw many major wars, the century itself was not just about wars. The century also saw the advancement on other fields such as medicine, science and technology. X-rays, antibiotics, contraceptive, penicillin, vaccination are just to name a few which had changed the world of medicine and so did the life of the people. Advancement in the field of science and technology was just enormous. From television to computers, from satellites to space shuttles- the advancement of science and technology is seen in every single place. Scientific theories such as the theory of relativity drastically changed the world view of the scientist. The mechanization and automation took place on every sector and still taking place even today. This is also the century when mass media, telecommunication and information technology has made the world’s knowledge more widely available. The media brought the world closer and as people see the struggle of others, awareness started to build up on issues like human rights and global warming.
Apart from the great wars, medical and scientific advancements, 20th century also saw the development of various new philosophical schools. Existentialism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism- just are a few to name. Such new philosophic thoughts influenced the religion, politics and social values. Existentialism is generally considered to be the philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the individual and the experiences of the individual (Coates). Such philosophic values have strong conformation with many religious philosophies. Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry centered upon a materialist interpretation of history (Wolff, and Cullenberg 130) and was an inspiration for the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Weber, and Vale 4). Then there was the rise of feminism, which means “the radical notion that women are people”, according to British suffragist and journalist Rebecca West. The feminist movement was a social and political movement that sought to establish equality for women and many writers from the 20th century reflected this ideology of equal right in their writing.
The 20th century has a great number of writers whose works reflect both the time and the nature of life in this period. However, a very significant notion is that the great literary works from this period did not come only from the American or British writers; it also came from different part of the world. The rise of globalization has allowed European and American literary ideas to spread into non-Western cultures fairly rapidly, so that Asian and African literatures can be included into these divisions with only minor qualifications. Also, many native African or Asian writers either started writing in English or their great works were translated. As a result, the literary resources get richer by day and the reflection of the people and their life from all over the world become more prominent in literature. Since 20th century has seen a very large amount of great literary works, only a handful selection of fiction is used in this paper. Each selection is unique and has its own theme. However, collectively they share a common pattern, portrayal of individuals than society, and show the various effects of socio-political factors of that time.
The subject of racism has been a lively theme in the literary works of the 20th century. The supremacy of white over the black or “whiteness” as the standard of beauty- they are just the effects of racism. “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison is a great example of how racism played a significant role in defining the social relationship. The novel shows the social position of black people in the white dominated American society during the 1940s. The novel is full of various notions and symbols which shows how discrimination existed in almost all levels of the society. Also, “The Bluest Eye” is written around the concept of whiteness as a standard of beauty. The novel talks about how little Pecola long for a pair of blue eyes. Her fascination towards white dolls or Shirley Temple also represents the view of entire society to the definition of beauty. Morrison tried to point out this stereotypical view of people. As like Morrison, Nadine Gordimer also portrayed the view of the whites against the black through an imaginary war in South Africa. As Maureen takes refuge with her husband and family in July’s village during the war, she never changes her view towards July or other blacks. She still thinks they are inferior to the whites, even when they are actually her savior. Gordimer portrayed the view of the dominating whites regarding racial equality.
Along with racism, the class system of the society is another prominent feature of the 20th century. Imperialism, colonialism, communism or capitalism- there has always been social classes. Even communism, which is based on Karl Marx’s theory of ultimate classless society, could not get rid of the class. British writer George Orwell pointed about this class system in his satirical novella “Animal Farm”. In the 20th century, as the colonialism was falling, different political philosophies were emerging. Communism was one such new political movement that took place in Soviet Union. However, Orwell was not like the other British socialist during the 1930s or 1940s who took their side of the Soviet policies. In fact he pointed out the loopholes of the so called classless system in socialism and the satiric statement “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” shows the irony of almost every political system.
Colonialism is another political theme that can be found widely in the 20th century literature. Though the largest British colony America is already freed by this time, the British dominance still remained in most parts of Africa and America. Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” is a great piece of writing that shows how the colonial powers conquest and how the local cultures and heritages were swept away on the influence of the colonizers. Colonialism is mostly a political perception but it affects to the core of social foundations. Every society has its own values and ethics and upon that their culture and heritage are developed. African continent was known as the ‘Dark Continent’ by that time and was believed to be ‘uncivilized’. There have been several literary works that revolve around the African life and a common feature of those writings is that they are written from the colonizers point of view.
The colonizers had little or no respect for the tradition or the lifestyle of the indigenous people in Africa. Achebe took a very strong stand against this and with his very skilful writing; he tried to show the richness of the African tribal lives. However, a very unique feature of African writers from that time is that they did not just blindly criticize the colonial dominance. Like in Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” he presented the character of Mr. Brown who is a symbol of progressive white man, who does not try to write off the local tradition. Similarly, in Gordimer’s “July’s People” we see Mr. Bam Smales and his children who adapts themselves during their refuge in July’s village. They were a contrast to Maureen who cannot get over with her superiority complex, just like Achebe showed Mr. Brown as a contrast of Mr. James. As I mentioned earlier in the paper, the emergence of non-American or non-British writers increased in the 20th century, this actually opened the opportunity to see the distinction of the view point of writers from two different continents. The writers from the colonial powers had a perception that the white civilization is superior and their writing hardly could find anything good about the indigenous cultures. The African writers are a contrast to them and they possessed a more liberal view, where they welcomed the bright sides of western culture but simultaneously they uphold their native culture and heritage with pride.
20th century has also seen the outburst of the capitalism and naturally fictions from this period show how it affected the life of people. In fact modernization is the by-product of the capitalism together they all have not just created an immense impression in the lifestyle of people, they have also changed the course of life and brought a lot of complexities. Many 20th century fictions are dedicated in those complexities of modern life. “Seize the Day” by Saul Bellow is one such quest towards the complexities of modern life. Bellow created the character of Tommy Wilhelm who can be seen as the epitome of modern human. With the great inventions, 20th century has made the life easier and created a huge number of opportunities. But in the process, it has also affected the core bonds of the society. Money has become more important than ever. Be it Orwell’s “Animal Farm” where the pigs are asked to “work harder” or be it Bellow’s “Seize the Day” where Tommy’s father who sees there is no alternative but to work hard to be succeeded in life. In fact the concept of being succeeded has already changed by this time. This is something that D.H. Lawrence mentioned once “Every civilization when it loses its inner vision and its cleaner energy; falls into a new sort of sordidness, more vast and more stupendous than the old savage sort”. Lawrence was a great critic of that so called modernization which he thought was destroying the inner human values. In his short story “Odour of Chrysanthemums” he showed how the bond of the human relationship is being affected with the modernization. And what Lawrence feared once, happens in Bellow’s story.
Feminism is another phenomenon that has widely influenced the writers of the 20th century. Though the concept of feminism started to grow in the later part of the 19th century, 20th century is the period when it was established as an idealistic movement. Literature from this period started to take a more insightful observation towards the women of the society. Many writers mentioned the oppression and social injustice that women have been facing over the years. The authors also tried to analyze the psychological aspects of women and how the surrounding male dominant environment shapes up their mind. D.H. Lawrence was perhaps the most prominent writer from the 20th century who analyzed woman psychology at a great depth. In “Odour of Chrysanthemums” Lawrence showed the transformation of an ordinary housewife who is no more afraid to face the life even after she becomes a widow. Similarly, Joyce also upheld this feminist self-dependency approach by ending “Evelyn” which can be interpreted that Evelyn no longer wants to get identified by his father or his to-be husband. It is also notable that not too many writers in the previous century showed the psychological development of women in their writing. But 20th century writers took a different approach and many of them actually tried to make a point that women are not just meant to cook, clean or bear babies, they can think as well. Morrison developed the character of Claudia in “The Bluest Sky” who tries to figure out not just how the life of another typical black woman rolls, she also tries to find out why they have to meet their “fate”.
Apart from the above themes, which are mostly resulted due to political and philosophic movements taken place in that period, 20th century literatures also carries certain characters that is very distinct from the literature of the other periods. The writers tried to focus on individuals, rather than society, how individuals are suffering from identity crisis, how the modern civilization is creating void in human relationship and how the psychological forces are shaping up their behavior.
Individualism is a very prominent feature in 20th century writing trend. If we look back at the fiction writers in the previous century or even earlier, we may notice that they highlighted mostly society and various social problems. Individuals were just representative of certain social segments. They do not have their own individual dimension. Social issues like slavery, racism etc. were focused but the individual lives that are affected by these forces, were hardly receiving any attention. But this trend changed in the 20th century, when writers started to focus on the individuals. If we take a look at all the discussed texts related to this paper, we will see every piece of writing address and prioritize the individual than the society. Whether be it Mrs. Elizabeth Bates, Evelyn or Tommy Wilhelm, they all represent individuals. In this connection it can be said many of the 20th century writers also wrote on the lives of the people of middle-class, which has emerged due to the industrialization and rapid urbanization.
20th century literature also takes the great suffering of identity crisis of the individual from almost all level of the society. From housewife to tribal hero to modern stock broker, almost everyone is in quest of their identity. Mrs. Bates seeks the meaning of life as she gets tired of being a good wife and mother. Evelyn is not sure which course of life she should choose. Oknowo just knows about masculinity, not about anything else that should matter in life. Maureen cannot figure out who she really is despite her husband and children adapts to a new life. And Tommy, who has tried almost all the professions of the world, is still unsure what suits him. So, almost every piece of text we have read, we see individuals are confused about who they really are and looking for their true identity.
Finally, the approach of the writers from the 20th century is more towards the psychic of human. We see enhanced analysis of ordinary individuals and how the social forces and factors are affecting their soul. Human alienation has been a dominant theme in the literature of this period. From the isolated death of Mr. Bates in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” to Tommy Wilhelm’s weeping over a stranger’s corpse in “Seize the Day”- they all represent how the modern men are getting more and more isolated, resulted by the complexities of life. Bellow was perhaps the master of all who portrayed a very realistic image of modern human through Tommy Wilhelm, who is termed very significantly as “alone in the crowd”. It is so true that today we have so many amenities around us to make our life comfortable but perhaps in doing so we are ignoring the human bond which has formed the relations and kept everyone tied together.
If someone is asked, how you would define 20th century in a single sentence, one may answer that this is the century which has seen enormous progress in human civilization but has also been bleed severely due to all the wars. And literature from this period also reflects these forces that shaped up the human life and civilization.