The Modern Age in English Literature started from the beginning of the twentieth century, and it followed the Victorian Age. The most important characteristic of Modern Literature is that it is opposed to the general attitude to life and its problems adopted by the Victorian writers and the public, which may be termed ‘Victorian’. The young people during the fist decade of the present century regarded the Victorian age as hypocritical, and the Victorian ideals as mean, superficial and stupid.
This rebellious mood affected modern literature, which was directed by mental attitudes moral ideals and spiritual values diametrically opposed to those of the Victorians. Nothing was considered as certain; everything was questioned. In the field of literary technique also some fundamental changes took place. Standards of artistic workmanship and of aesthetic appreciations also underwent radical changes.
What the Victorians had considered as honourable and beautiful, their children and grandchildren considered as mean and ugly. The Victorians accepted the Voice of Authority, and acknowledged the rule of the Expert in religion, in politics, in literature and family life. They had the innate desire to affirm and confirm rather than to reject or question the opinions of the experts in their respective fields. They showed readiness to accept their words at face value without critical examinations. This was their attitude to religion and science. They believed in the truths revealed in the Bible, and accepted the new scientific theories as propounded by Darwin and others. On the other hand, the twentieth century minds did not take anything for granted; they questioned everything.
Another characteristic of Victorianism was an implicit faith in the permanence of nineteenth century institutions, both secular and spiritual. The Victorians believed that their family life, their Constitution, the
British Empire and the Christian religion were based on sound footings, and that they would last for ever. This Victorian idea of the Permanence of Institutions was replaced among the early twentieth century writers by the sense that nothing is fixed and final in this world. H. G. Wells spoke of the flow of things and of “all this world of ours being no more than the prelude to the real civilisation”. The simple faith of the Victorians was replaced by the modern man’s desire to prob and question, Bernard Shaw, foremost among the rebels, attacked not only the ‘old’ superstitions of religion, but also the ‘new’ superstitions of science. The watchwords of his creed were: Question! Examine! Test! He challenged the Voice of Authority and the rule of the Expert. He was responsible for producing the interrogative habit of the mind in all spheres of life. He made the people question the basic conceptions of religion and morality. Andrew Undershift declares in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara: “That is what is wrong with the world at present. It scraps its obsolete steam engines and dynamos; but it won’t scrap its old prejudices and its old moralities and its old religions and its old political institutions”. Such a radical proclamation invigorated some whereas others were completely shaken, as Barbara herself: “I stood on the rock I thought eternal; and without a word it reeled and crumbled under me.”
The modern mind was outraged by the Victorian self-complacency. The social and religious reformers at first raised this complaint, and they were followed by men of letters, because they echo the voice around them. Of course, the accusation of self-complacency cannot be rightly levelled against many of the Victorian writers, especially the authors of Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, Maud, Past and Present, Bishop Blouhram, Culture and Anarchy, Richard Feveral and Tess. But there was felt the need of a change in the sphere of literature also because the idiom, the manner of presentment, the play of imagination, and the rhythm and structure of the verse, of the Victorian writers were becoming stale, and seemed gradually to be losing the old magic. Their words failed to evoke the spirit.
Thus a reaction was even otherwise overdue in the field of literature, because art has to be renewed in order to revitalise it. The Victorian literature had lost its freshness and it lacked in the element of surprise which is its very soul. It had relapsed into life of the common day, and could not give the reader a shock of novelty. At the end of the Victorian era it was felt that the ideas, experiences, moods and attitudes had changed, and so the freshness which was lacking in literature had to be supplied on another level.
Besides the modern reaction against the attitude of self-complacency of the Victorians, there was also failure or disintegration of values in the twentieth century. The young men who were being taught by their elders to prize ‘the things of the spirit’ above worldly prosperity, found in actual experience that nothing could be attained without money. Material prosperity had become the basis of social standing. Whereas in 1777 Dr. Johnson affirmed that ‘opulence excludes but one evil Poverty’, in 1863, Samuel Butler who was much ahead of his time, voiced the experience of the twentieth century, when he wrote: “Money is like antennae; without it the human insect loses touch with its environment. He who would acquire scholarship or gentility must first acquire cash. In order to make the best of himself, the average youth must first make money. He would have to sacrifice to possessiveness the qualities which should render possession worthwhile.”
Besides the immense importance which began to be attached to money in the twentieth century, there was also a more acute and pressing consciousness of the social life. Whereas some of the Victorians could satisfy themselves with the contemplation of cosmic order, identification with some Divine Intelligence or Superhuman plan which absorbs and purifies our petty egoisms, and with the merging of our will in a higher will, their successors in the twentieth century could not do so. They realised every day that man was more of a social being than a spiritual being, and that industrial problems were already menacing the peace of
Europe. Instead of believing in the cult of self-perfection as the Victorians did, they were ready to accept the duty of working for others. A number of twentieth century writers began to study and ponder seriously over the writings of Karl Marx, Engels, Ruskin, Morris, and some of them like Henry James, discussed practical suggestions for the reconstruction of society.
The Victorians believed in the sanctity of home life, but in the twentieth century the sentiments for the family circle declined. Young men and women who realised the prospect of financial independence refused to submit to parental authority, and considered domestic life as too narrow. Moreover, young people who began early to earn their living got greater opportunity of mixing with each other, and to them sex no longer remained a mystery. So love became much less of a romance and much more of an experience.
These are some of the examples of the disintegration of values in the twentieth century. The result was that the modern writers could no longer write in the old manner. If they played on such sentiments as the contempt for money, divine love, natural beauty, the sentiments of home and life, classical scholarship, and communication with the spirit of the past, they were running the risk of striking a false note. Even if they treated the same themes, they had to do it in a different manner, and evoke different thoughts and emotions from what were normally associated with them. The modern writer had, therefore, to cultivate a fresh point of view, and also a fresh technique.
The impact of scientific thought was mainly responsible for this attitude of interrogations and disintegration of old values. The scientific truths which were previously the proud possessions of the privileged few, were now equally intelligible to all. In an age of mass education, they began to appeal to the masses. The physical and biological conclusions of great scientists like Darwin, Lyell and Huxley, created the impression on the new generation that the universe looks like a colossal blunder, that human life on our inhospitable globe is an accident due to unknown causes, and that this accident had led to untold misery. They began to look upon Nature not as a system planned by Divine Architect, but as a powerful, but blind, pitiless and wasteful force. These impressions filled the people of the twentieth century with overwhelming pity, despair or stoicism. A number of writers bred and brought up in such an atmosphere began to voice these ideas in their writings.
The twentieth century has become the age of machine. Machinery has, no doubt, dominated every aspect of modern life, and it has produced mixed response from the readers and writers. Some of them have been alarmed at the materialism which machinery has brought in its wake, and they seek consolation and self-expression in the bygone unmechanised and pre-mechanical ages. Others, however, being impressed by the spectacle of mechanical power producing a sense of mathematical adjustment and simplicity of design, and conferring untold blessings on mankind, find a certain rhythm and beauty in it. But there is no doubt, that whereas machinery has reduced drudgery, accelerated production and raised the standard of living, it has given rise to several distressing complications. The various scientific appliances confer freedom and enslavement, efficiency and embarrassment. The modern man has now to live by the clock applying his energies not according to mood and impulse, but according to the time scheme. All these ideas are found expressed in modern literature, because the twentieth century author has to reflect this atmosphere, and he finds little help from the nineteenth century.
Another important factor which influenced modern literature was the large number of people of the poor classes who were educated by the State. In order to meet their demand for reading the publishers of the early twentieth century began whole series of cheaply reprinted classics. This was supplemented by the issue of anthologies of Victorian literature, which illustrated a stable society fit for a governing class which had established itself on the economic laws of wealth, the truth of Christianity and the legality of the English Constitution. But these failed to appeal to the new cheaply educated reading public who had no share in the inheritance of those ideals, who wanted redistribution of wealth, and had their own peculiar codes of moral and sexual freedom. Even those who were impressed by the wit and wisdom of the past could not shut their eyes to the change that had come about on account of the use of machinery, scientific development, and the general atmosphere of instability and flux in which they lived. So they demanded a literature which suited the new atmosphere. The modern writers found in these readers a source of power and income, if they could only appeal to them, and give them what they wanted. The temptation to do so was great and it was fraught with great dangers, because the new reading public were uncertain of their ideologies, detached from their background, but desperately anxious to be impressed. They wanted to be led and shown the way. The result was that some of the twentieth century authors exploited their enthusiasm and tried to lead their innocent readers in the quickest, easiest way, by playing on their susceptibilities. In some cases the clever writer might end as a prophet of a school in which he did not believe. Such was the power wielded by the reading public.
One great disadvantage under which the modern writers labour is that there is no common ground on which they and their readers meet. This was not so during the Victorian period, where the authors and the reading public understood each other, and had the common outlook on and attitude to life and its problems. In the atmosphere of disillusionment, discontent and doubt, different authors show different approaches to life. Some lament the passing of old values, and express a sense of nostalgia. Some show an utter despair of the future; while others recommend reverting to an artificial primitivism. Some concentrate on sentiment, style or diction in order to recover what has been lost. Thus among the twentieth century writers are sometimes found aggressive attempts to retain or revitalise old values in a new setting or, if it is not possible, to create new values to take their place.
The twentieth century literature which is the product of this tension is, therefore, unique. It is extremely fascinating and, at the same time, very difficult to evaluate, because, to a certain extent, it is a record of uncoordinated efforts. It is not easy to divide it into school and types. It is full of adventures and experiments peculiar to the modern age which is an age of transition and discovery. But there is an undercurrent in it which runs parallel to the turbulent current of ideas which flows with great impetuosity. Though it started as a reaction against ‘Victorianism’ in the beginning of the twentieth century, it is closely bound up with the new ideas which are agitating the mind of the modern man.