Further reading - Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Further reading
Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945



The masterpiece of the US writer London (1876—1916), The Call of the Wild, a popular and unashamedly emotional tale of survival, is set during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. The main character is a dog, half Saint Bernard, half Collie, purloined from a California ranch and set to work as a sled-dog in faraway Alaska. He suffers abuse by his owners and aggression from a rival dog before finally turning feral. Shedding civilization and relearning primitive ways, he becomes leader of a wolf pack.

"They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang."

The Call of the Wild

Jack London



Poland-born novelist Conrad, a mariner for 20 years, took British citizenship in 1886 and wrote in English. Nostromo, subtitled “A Tale of the Seaboard”, is an analysis of politics, revolution, and corruption that plays out in a fictional republic of South America, and an important examination of postcolonial global capitalism. Fused with these themes is a tale of adventure that traces the fortunes of the eponymous hero, a man of principle. This is a dark work, full of betrayal and disillusion. Much of the story — even the climax — is conveyed by flashbacks.



The most popular work of US author Wharton (1862—1937), Ethan Frome is narrated by a visitor to a New England town who is intrigued by one of its residents, Ethan Frome, a dour and monosyllabic farmer. Switching from the first person to an extended third-person flashback, the novel tells the tragic tale of the secret love of Frome for his wife’s cousin, and the tragic outcome of a snowy “smash-up” that occurred 24 years earlier. The themes of passion, thwarted emotions, resentment, and frustration are magnified against the harsh rustic environment.



The most famous novella by German Nobel Laureate Mann, Death in Venice is about a famous author suffering from writer’s block, who takes a short holiday in the Italian city of the title, where he becomes obsessed by a 14-year-old boy. Cholera has been detected and there are health warnings in place, creating an atmosphere of dissolution. The book is a Freudian reflection on both the degenerative force of illicit homoerotic passion across the generations, and of the profound poignancy of ageing.


(1913), D H LAWRENCE

A partly autobiographical exploration of the working-class family and romantic relationships, Sons and Lovers is often seen as Lawrence’s finest work. Set in the mining region where Lawrence was brought up, the book tells the story of a young budding artist, Paul Morel, who has romantic involvements with an unyielding, religiously minded girlfriend and a married woman —both of whom are overshadowed by Paul’s mother, with whom he shares a close, suffocating bond. Paul’s father is violent and uneducated, which adds to family tensions. The book is an unsentimental portrait of childhood, adolescence, the clash between generations, and familial possessiveness and grief, set within a closely observed social setting. The mother’s unfulfilled life and final fatal illness are poignantly depicted.

D H Lawrence

Born in 1885, David Herbert Lawrence was the son of a coal miner and the first from his village in Nottinghamshire, England, to win a scholarship to the local high school. His early promise led to university and a teaching career, but his writing talent — his first story was published in 1907 — persuaded him to quit teaching in 1912. He eloped to Germany with married aristocrat Frieda Weekley in the same year. Marked by a spontaneous, vivid realism, Lawrence’s writing subverted prevailing social, sexual, and cultural norms, earning him censorship and — at the time of his death in 1930 — a tarnished reputation.

Key works

1913 Sons and Lovers

1915 The Rainbow

1920 Women in Love


(1913—1927), MARCEL PROUST

Published in seven volumes over 15 years, In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, is the masterpiece of French writer Marcel Proust (1871—1922). In a famous early scene, the taste of a madeleine cake releases memories of boyhood holidays for the first-person narrator. Proust’s leisurely, analytical prose outlines detailed accounts of the inner lives of both himself and the characters of the work, including love and jealousy, homosexuality, artistic ambition, and many varieties of vice and virtue. The experience of living in wartime Paris is vividly conveyed. Throughout, social nuances are subtly registered. Eventually the narrator learns that the beauty of the past lives on in the memory — time is regained. He then sets about writing his life’s story. This autobiographical dimension is one of the work’s many fascinations.



The first novel by Irish writer Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces the early years of a character who would later reappear in Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece, Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus rebels against the norms of Ireland and Catholicism, and sets out to forge his own destiny — as a writer in Paris. The book uses stream-of-consciousness narrative in a way that foreshadows the author’s later work.


(1917), YI KWANG-SU

A South Korean journalist and independence activist, Yi Kwang-su (1892—1950) was the author of the first modern Korean novel, The Heartless. It tells the story of a young teacher of English in Seoul, torn between two women in the period of Japanese occupation: one is traditionalist and working as a kisaeng (geisha), the other is inclined to liberated Western values. The protagonist’s predicament is used to dramatize social tensions in Korea, but the book also explores personal, sexual awakening as well as cultural ambiguities.



Hugely popular in the 1960s due its exploration of Eastern spirituality, Siddhartha by Swiss writer Hesse (1877—1962) describes the spiritual life of a young Brahmin in ancient India. The title is Sanskrit, meaning “he who has attained his goals”. The hero opts not to join the order newly created by the Buddha, but to discover his own form of insight. Sidetracked by wealth and erotic desire, he finally gains wisdom and love in the consciousness of the world’s unimprovable completeness. The book fuses spiritual thinking with psychoanalysis and philosophy.


(1924), E M FORSTER

English author E M Forster (1879—1970) sets A Passage to India during the period of the British Raj in India, amid the stirrings of the movement for independence. The book’s central event is an alleged and unspecified attempt at sexual impropriety in a cave complex, by a young Muslim Indian doctor against a British woman with whom he is on friendly terms. The case against the doctor, which leads to a trial, brings to the surface tensions between colonized and colonizing nations. Forster questions the underlying principles of British imperialism, in the process puncturing the romantic delusions of those seduced by the image of the British Raj. He also shows the marginalization of women in a milieu where male friendships are strong and mutually supportive.

"In England the moon had seemed dead and alien; here she was caught in the shawl of night together with earth and all the other stars."

A Passage to India

E M Forster



Written in 1914—15, The Trial is the most complete of three unfinished novels by Jewish Czech writer Franz Kafka, who wrote in German. Its account of Joseph K, arrested and prosecuted by an inscrutable authority without being told the nature of his crime, has been interpreted as an archetypal metaphor for modern alienation, and for the dehumanizing effect of elaborate, inflexible bureaucracies — and, by extension, of totalitarian states. The latter interpretation makes Kafka a prescient author, anticipating Fascism and Nazism.

"Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."

The Trial

Franz Kafka



Mrs Dalloway, written by Woolf when she was at the height of her powers, lays bare the consciousness of a well-to-do woman spending a day in London. Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts turn to a party she will be hosting that evening, but also range back in time, to her youth and the experience of her marriage to a reliable but unsatisfying man. The other major character is a traumatized soldier who spends time in the park with his Italian wife, before making a tragic decision. Technically the novel is accomplished and original, shifting between direct and indirect speech, and juggling between omniscient narration, stream of consciousness, and soliloquy.

Virginia Woolf

Foremost of the writers in the “Bloomsbury Set” of influential intellectuals and artists, Woolf was born in 1882 in London. She started writing as a girl and her first novel, The Voyage Out, appeared in 1915. She married, happily, in 1912, but is also known for her love affair with talented gardener Vita Sackville-West. Woolf soon established herself as a leading intellectual and writer, taking fiction in a new direction — inwards. But she was prone to depression and mood swings. She committed suicide by drowning near Lewes, Sussex, in 1941, aged 59. Many feminist thinkers since her death have revered her as an inspiration.

Key works

1925 Mrs Dalloway

1927 To the Lighthouse

1931 The Waves


(1926), ANDRÉ GIDE

Seen as a precursor to the 1950s nouveau roman novel form, The Counterfeiters by French author Gide (1869—1951) draws a parallel between counterfeit gold coins and the authenticity of human feelings and relationships. Structured as a story-within-a-story, the book is complicated by multiple plot lines and viewpoints in an attempt at a literary form of Cubism, an art style in which the concept of a single point of perspective was abandoned. Centred around young men in fin-de-siècle Paris, one of the themes is the possibilities for fulfilment within homosexual relationships.



Rómulo Gallegos (1884—1969) wrote Doña Barbara two decades before becoming the first democratically elected president of his native Venezuela. The novel — named after its charismatic female character, who exerts mysterious power over men — examines the tension between primitive and civilized impulses, and between the sexes. Set in the rural cattle-ranching Llanos prairie region, the story is told using evocative, vernacular language. There are magical realist elements that anticipate the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez.



An ambitious and enigmatic novel comprising four counterpointed perspectives, The Sound and the Fury is a masterpiece by Nobel Laureate Faulkner, arch-chronicler of the US South. The setting is Jefferson, Mississippi. The first section is a disjointed narrative told by Benjy, a 33-year-old, cognitively disabled man. The second section is narrated by his older brother, a suicidal Harvard student 18 years earlier; the third, by Benjy’s hard-nosed younger brother; and the last section is narrated by one of the family’s female black servants. Using stream of consciousness and radical time shifts, Faulkner creates a complex jigsaw of imagination and insight, and writes with an unparalleled understanding of race, grief, family dysfunction, and the decay of old Southern values.

William Faulkner

An American Nobel Prize winner, Faulkner chronicled the South of his country. He was born in 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. In 1902 his family moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where his father was business manager of the university. This was where Faulkner would spend most of his life, and the surrounding Lafayette County was the inspiration for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for most of his novels. He first wrote poetry, and it was not until 1925 that he tackled a novel. He also trained in Canada as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Faulkner’s books often depict the decline of the upper echelons of society, addressing controversial themes such as slavery; but he also wrote about the poorer classes. He died in 1962, aged 64.

Key works

1929 The Sound and the Fury

1930 As I Lay Dying

1931 These 13 (short stories)

1936 Absalom, Absalom!


(1930, 1933, 1943), ROBERT MUSIL

Unfinished and written in three volumes (the third was published posthumously), The Man Without Qualities was the life’s work and masterpiece of Austrian novelist Musil (1880—1942). Eschewing plot-driven momentum, Musil presents a complex social vision and exposes modern values and political folly. Set in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is satirized with heavy irony, the rambling story encompasses many characters in its more than 1,000 pages: a black page, an aristocrat, the murderer of a prostitute, and a hero who serves as a detached commentator on a collapsing society.



English writer Aldous Huxley (1894—1963) presents in Brave New World — whose ironic title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest — a vision of a dystopian future, set in London around the year 2540. A world totalitarian state represses individual freedom and self-expression, including emotions. Genetic engineering and brainwashing are used as tools of control, and recreational drugs (“soma”) and sex are freely available. Consumerism is rampant (“ending is better than mending”), while spiritual values have shrivelled to nothing. Even the terms “mother” and “father” are outlawed. A rebellious spirit, John the Savage, sets himself against the system and does battle with the World Controllers. The book is admired for its prophetic insights as well as its moral outlook and vivid writing.



Radically experimental in style and treatment, Journey to the End of The Night is a partly autobiographical novel by French writer Dr Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches (1894—1961), who wrote under the pseudonym Céline, which was also his grandmother’s first name. Characterized by black-comedic invective, the mood is darkly pessimistic, even misanthropic. The story traces the protagonist Ferdinand Bardonee’s journeys from France at the start of World War I, via colonial Africa to the USA and back to Paris. Focusing on human stupidity, Céline has challenging things to say about war, empire, and the ruling classes.



Banned by censors for its explicit and deliberately shocking sexual content, Tropic of Cancer was the debut novel of US writer Miller (1891—1980). A sprawling, plotless, semi-autobiographical masterpiece, it describes life and love at the extremes of existence in 1930s’ Paris. Publication in the USA and UK was delayed until censorship laws were overturned in the 1960s. The book inspired a new wave of writers, such as the US “Beat Generation”.



Described by Portuguese author Pessoa (1888—1935) as a “factless autobiography”, The Book of Disquiet was only published 47 years after his death. A modernist masterpiece, it is a fluid, kaleidoscopic, and unfinished mosaic of fragments that combine glimpses of self-revelation with reveries and maxims of literary criticism and philosophy. Pessoa filtered his writing through the use of heteronyms — invented authorial personae — and this highly original book gives a spellbinding insight into the process. Although a study in loneliness and despair, the story has a brilliant inventiveness that makes it engaging.



Steinbeck’s most popular book and widely praised at the time of its publication, Of Mice and Men is set in 1930s’ California during the Great Depression. It follows two itinerant ranch workers whose dream is to have a small farm of their own. An incident involving a ranch-owner’s daughter propels the story into tragedy. Steinbeck’s themes include the hardship of penury, our desperate wish for comfort in loneliness, and the way aggressive self-interest can flourish in the weak as well as the strong.



A major work of existentialism, Nausea was the first novel by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905—80), who was later awarded — but declined to accept — the 1964 Nobel Prize. In a seaside town an introverted historian is captivated by the idea that his intellectual and spiritual freedoms are circumscribed by the objects and situations that impinge upon him. The consequence is nausea, which turns into a profound angst and self-loathing that undermine his sanity. He begins to feel that relationships are empty: the struggle to make sense of the world can only be conducted within himself. Eventually the protagonist views reality’s indifference to his life as liberating, since he is now free to create his own version of meaning, with all the responsibility it brings.



Like Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. It focuses on the suffering of the Joads, an Oklahoma Dust Bowl family who drive a saloon car converted into a truck along Route 66 to California to find work. Like many other economic migrants, they flee drought, dispossession, and unpaid debts. This powerful novel, which conveys the resilience of the human spirit under stress through poetic prose and sharp characterization, publicized the exploitation of migrant workers in the USA during the 1930s and drew attention to the cause of social improvement. While the Joads are imperfect, they gradually exhibit a capacity for empathy: the final scene (controversial at the time of the book’s publication), features an act of great compassion by the family’s teenage daughter, Rose of Sharon.

John Steinbeck

A Nobel Prize winner, John Steinbeck explored in fiction the relationship between humankind and the land. Born, in 1902 in Salinas, California — most of his stories were set in the central and southern regions of the state — he was the son of a library treasurer. He majored in English at Stanford University but left in 1925 without a degree. His first successes as a writer date from the early 1930s, and in 1940 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Grapes of Wrath. As well as writing fiction Steinbeck served as a war reporter, covering World War II in 1943 and the Vietnam War in 1967. He returned to California in 1944 and concentrated on local themes in his fiction. He died in New York, where he was living at the time, in 1968, aged 66.

Key works

1937 Of Mice and Men

1939 The Grapes of Wrath

1952 East of Eden



An important antiwar play, Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618—48, although its ramifications are contemporary with the time of the author: German poet, theatre director, and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898—1956). By presenting the central figure, Mother Courage, without sentimentality, Brecht focuses his audience’s attention on issues and broad themes, discouraging any identification with character. The play shows his trademark “estrangement effect”, drawing attention to theatrical artifice through placard captions, bright lighting, and other effects.



French author, journalist, and philosopher Albert Camus (1913—60) denied that The Outsider is an “existentialist” novel, although its plot is saturated in the bleakness associated with this philosophy. In the book, a French Algerian, unmoved by his mother’s funeral, later unfeelingly shoots dead an Arab — someone he has never met. Convicted and imprisoned, he appears to be indifferent to his deprivations. However, the incident does awaken some self-awareness. The story, told from his viewpoint, is an example of the literature of the “absurd”, focusing on our attempt to find meaning where none exists.

"My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know."

The Outsider

Albert Camus


(1943), AYN RAND

A study of the triumph of individual artistic vision when confronted by traditionalist pressures to conform, The Fountainhead by Russia-born US author Ayn Rand (1905—82) tells the story of a modernist architect, who is thought to have been based on Frank Lloyd Wright. The novel combines uncompromising ethical individualism (in its subject matter) with romantic realism (in its treatment). More than seven years in writing, it became a rallying cry for the right-wing, anticommunist philosophy of Objectivism — a movement that Rand herself founded — which was based on reason, freedom, and personal talent and achievement.



An enigmatic short story collection, Ficciones reveals Borges’ ability to draw the reader into his fantastical, complex imagination with stories that are as enchanting as fairy tales. The 17 pieces are exuberant, yet finely controlled. The prose has jewel-like precision, while the characteristic tone is one of profound metaphysical anxiety. The first story revolves around an encyclopedia entry for a country that cannot be located. Other stories tell of the reviewing of a non-existent book that in the process brings it into being, an ancient society ruled by chance, the infinite Library of Babel, and a person with perfect memory. Certain symbols that are used in the book — particularly the mirror and the labyrinth — later become Borges’ trademarks.

Jorge Luis Borges

The Argentinian writer Borges, known for his intellectually intriguing stories, is a major figure of Spanish-language literature. Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, as a teenager he travelled with his family to Europe, and studied French and German in Geneva. He returned to Argentina in 1921. In 1955 he became director of the national library and professor of English Literature in Buenos Aires. He went blind at the age of 55 but never learned Braille, which may have been a factor in his vivid symbolism. As well as fiction he wrote poetry and essays. He died in Geneva in 1986.

Key works

1935 A Universal History of Infamy

1944 Ficciones

1967 Book of Imaginary Beings



Animal Farm shows that satirical allegory can be as effective as realism in revealing the evils of totalitarianism. English author Orwell uses a tale of talking animals to dramatize the communist politics of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. The human owners of the farm are ousted in a coup orchestrated by the pigs, Napoleon and Snowball. Initial idealism falls prey to “human” weakness, and hypocrisy sets in. Entertaining yet chilling, this is one of the most influential political books of the 20th century.