The Contemporary Period/Modernism 1900

Key concepts

Key events and people

Key authors

In Wider Contexts

Psychoanalysis c. 1900


Einstein’s Theory of Relativity  1905

First World War: disillusionment, uncertainty, pessimism





















Disintegration of the British Empire


Cold War


Closure of coal mines and factories


Mass media: film and television

First Labour MPs elected to Parliament 1906


First World War 1914-18


Easter Rising in Ireland 1916


Voting rights given to married women over 30 1918


Equal voting rights for men and women 1928


Wall Street Crash, the beginning of the Great Depression 1929


Adolf Hitler gains power in Germany 1933


Second World War 1939-45: Holocaust, nuclear bombs


Labour government, National Health Service introduced 1945


Indian Independence 1947


Suez Crisis 1956


Building of the Berlin Wall 1961


Cuban missile crisis 1962


Assassination of J.F. Kennedy 1963


Margaret Thatcher Conservative Prime Minister 1979-90


Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe 1989


Tony Blair, Labour Prime Minister 1997-2007





World War One poets:

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)


Wilfred Owen 1893-1918)

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)


Other poets:

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)


W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)


T.S. Eliot (1888- 1965)


W.H. Auden (1907-73)


Philip Larkin (1922-85)


Ted Hughes (1930-98)


Sylvia Plath (Am) (1932-63)


Seamus Heaney (Irish) (1939- )



E.M. Forster (1879-1970)


James Joyce (Irish)(1882-1941)


D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)


George Orwell (1903-50)


William Golding (1911-93)


Cormac McCarthy (1933 - )


Ernest Hemingway (Am) (1899-1961)


Raymond Carver (Am) (1938-88)

F. Scott Fitzgerald (Am) (1896-1940)

Margaret Atwood (1939-) (Can)



Eugene O’Neill (Am)



Harold Pinter (1930-)

Thomas Hardy, “The Voice”; “After the Journey”, 1912/13


Rudyard Kipling, “We and They”, 1926


T.S. Eliot, “Preludes”*, 1917


Ernest Hemingway (Am), “Hills Like White Elephants”*, 1927


George Orwell, Burmese Days, 1934


W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”, 1938; “The Unknown Citizen”, 1939

Jawaharlal Nehru (Indian), “Tryst with Destiny”, 1947


Richard Matheson (Am), “Born of Man and Woman”, 1950


Raymond Bradbury (Am),  “The Sound of Thunder”, 1955


Ted Hughes, “Hawk Roosting”, 1960


Shirley Jackson (Am), “The Lottery”, 1960

“Biography of a Story”*. 1960


Elizabeth Jennings, “Warning to Parents”, 1964


Mary Payne, “The Song of the Spectators”, 1964


Joyce Carol Oates (Am), “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, 1966


Roger McGough, “At Lunchtime”, 1967


R.K. Narayan (Indian), “Another Community”, 1967


Eric Hoffer (Am), “Nature and the City”, 1968


Ursula Le Guin (Am), “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, 1976


Raymond Carver (Am), “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, 1981


John Krakauer (Am), Into the Wild, 1996


Hasan Manto Saadat (Indian), “The Dutiful Daughter”, 1997


Ben Elton, (Am) Popcorn*, 1998


Ian McEwan, “Only Love and Then Oblivion”, 2001; “The Hot Breath of Civilization”, 2005 


Cormac McCarthy, The Road*, 2006


Aravind Adiga (Indian), The White Tiger, 2008


James Lasdun, “It’s Beginning to Hurt”, 2009


Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2009


Liz Jensen, “Survivor Syndrome”, 2011


Historical and Social Context

The contemporary period is strongly influenced by war and death. The First World War saw the death of nearly a million soldiers from Britain and the Empire. During the Second World War, about 30 million people died. This number includes many civilians and about 6 million Jews who were exterminated in concentration camps. This added to the feeling of despair and meaninglessness. After the Second World War, the British Empire disintegrated, but many of the new independent countries now cooperate in the Commonwealth of Nations, which is not a political union, but a co-operation between independent states seeking to further certain values and goals based on democracy, human rights and good governance.


The experiences of trench warfare, the introduction of psychoanalysis´and the development of the Theory of Relativity contributed to the gradual scepticism towards and rejection of traditional values and religion, particularly Christianity. This is echoed in a sentiment by the main character in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914/15): “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church.”


Literary Context

The atrocities of the First World War inspired numerous authors to write about their experiences. Particularly well-known are many poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. Some saw warfare as their national duty (Brooke) whereas others (Sassoon and Owen) opposed the British government’s stand. In the same period W.B. Yeats wrote “Easter 1916” in honour of the Irish Rising against British rule in Ireland.


Modernism is an -ism which broke with traditional approaches to all art forms. Some authors challenged traditional approaches - including the Great Narratives - and introduced new ways of writing, an example of which is ‘stream of consciousness’, which became a key technique in the literature of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.


The novel, which had previously dealt mainly with the life of the middle classes, now included other social groups, particularly the working class, and drama included this group as well. They came to represent what was known as ‘the angry young men’, a group which tried to make the voices of post-war restlessness and dissatisfaction heard. 


According to poet Philip Larkin, “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles' first LP.” By saying this, he suggests that talking about sex had been taboo till the 1960s. D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover although written in the late 1920s, could not be published openly till 1963 because of its very explicit sexual language in certain parts of the book.


The 1960s came to represent a massive improvement in material welfare and living standards, the rise of consumerism, improved health and increasing wealth. The Youth Revolt was a protest against the ensuing materialism, authority in the education system and old-fashioned traditions in general. Instead it promoted freedom, new spiritual ways of thinking, pop music and drugs. Some of these ideas continue well into the Postmodern Period.