Period Introduction Overview

The Enlightenment in Europe and the Americas

The Enlightenment in Europe and the Americas

  • The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England and France in particular was a time of great tension between those who believed in ancient (or classical) ideals and those who believed in progress and modernity.
  • Despite this tension between "ancients" and "moderns," both groups believed in the primacy of reason (as opposed to, say, faith, or imagination, or intuition).
  • Philosophers at this time explored the subjective "I," trying to delineate precisely what it meant to be human (i.e., to be a reasoning, communicating, observing entity).
  • While some explored the possibility that there was no truth beyond the isolated, individual mind, others (like Newton) asserted that there was a fundamental set of physical laws that governed the universe.
  • Even when Enlightenment philosophy was skeptical about any final knowable certainties in regards to the individual and the world he or she lived in, those in the Enlightenment still privileged the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge about self and world.


  • Through the seventeenth century, the growing belief in reason as the best guide to governance, ethics, and morality led to great social change, not least in regards to a weakening in the belief in the divine right of kings to rule absolutely over the social body–thus contributing to the spirit of rebellion in places like England and France, not to mention Britain's colonies in America.
  • Despite–or maybe because of–its being an era of social instability, the Enlightenment was equally a time that emphasized rules of decorum and social civility.
  • Elaborate social hierarchies emerged, with aristocratic elites at the top, a growing "middle" or working class, and the poor or enslaved at the bottom.
  • Gender roles were rigid, and women, even of the upper class, enjoyed few opportunities for education or gaining a profession.
  • There were writers, however, in both Europe and the Americas (and both male and female) who argued for women's rights to education. A number of these authors appealed to reason and pointed out that better opportunities for women would make them better partners to men in marriage and thus both genders would benefit from greater equality.
  • Despite the gender inequality of the time, some women emerged as important literary figures.
  • Among the many common literary topics of the Enlightenment, authors often sought to expose the gap between social ideals of propriety and actual human behavior.
  • Satire became an important genre, as it could be used to reveal ignorance or hypocrisy even in those who otherwise seemed "proper" and could speak or write eloquently. In other words, it was not how they expressed themselves but what they expressed that was truly deplorable.
  • The topic of children is curiously absent from much Enlightenment writing, largely because the age believed so strongly in the capacity of reason to guide behavior and judgment, and children were understood not to possess a reasoning power developed enough to warrant much attention.

Humanity and Nature

  • Deism was a belief in God which understood the divine to be revealed only in His works, particularly the natural world itself. Thus the "scientific" study of nature could be understood as, in part, the work of understanding the divine.
  • Many Enlightenment philosophers explored the relationship between the individual and the universe. One widely shared idea posited a "Great Chain of Being": a vast hierarchy that explained every creature's relationship–above or below on the great chain–to all others.
  • As is evidenced by the Great Chain of Being, many Enlightenment ideas depended on a basic belief in the world as a system, even if it was one that we didn't yet understand. Part of understanding the system meant identifying the universals–the constants that would persist regardless of place or time.
  • Just as Enlightenment thinkers understood the world to be a system, governed by constants, so too did they understand human nature itself to be a constant. Thus, writers could imagine themselves writing ahistorically–in other words, the touchstones of human nature had not changed since ancient times and would not change in the future.

Convention and Authority

  • The eighteenth century was a time of great emphasis on decorum–proper behavior at the proper time.
  • The idea of decorum extended into the literary world as well. Writers understood that there were proper genres and styles that were suitable for certain subjects. For example, it would have been deemed "indecorous"–or lacking in decorum–to write about common, domestic subjects in a grand, poetic style.
  • Enlightenment writers–and readers–understood that the purpose of literature was to both delight and instruct.
  • An important tension for Enlightenment philosophers and writers was that between the value of permanence and the value of change. This manifested itself in almost all aspects of literary, philosophical, and political thinking.

An Age of Revolutions in Europe and the Americas

An Age of Revolutions in Europe and the Americas

  • The eighteenth century was a time of radical, and often violent, change in Europe and the Americas. The fundamental ways in which industry, government, and society worked were changed forever.

The Industrial Revolution

  • In late-eighteenth-century England, the industrial revolution completely changed the way most people lived and worked (in no small part by changing where they lived and worked).
  • Populations moved from rural farms to growing urban centers.
  • Partly as an effort to find new markets for its manufactured goods and partly in search of natural resources, England began a concentrated effort to acquire territories abroad, especially in North America.
  • By the mid-nineteenth century, England (a relatively small island nation) had become the hub of a new world economy.
  • England's industrial economy grew so quickly that it went unregulated in many ways. This gave rise to dangerous and unfair working conditions for the vast majority of laborers, including children.
  • Urban population growth usually outpaced any city's ability to provide for its new inhabitants. This meant cramped and unsanitary living conditions for most people.
  • Industrializing England saw a series of urban epidemics–including typhoid fever and cholera–though it was primarily the lower class that was affected, and not the wealthier middle or upper classes who could afford access to better living conditions.
  • Yet another result of the industrial boom was expansion of the slave trade, which provided much of the labor in England's colonies.
  • As England became an increasingly important economic power, it began to have greater and greater effect on other national economies. For example, English textiles, produced through the use of innovative new technologies, were cheaper than what India could produce. This led to de-industrialization in India as laborers moved out of the cities and back into agriculture.

Democratic Revolutions

  • As the industrial revolution changed the way that people worked for so many in England (and abroad), so too did democratic revolutions change the way that people lived at the most fundamental level.
  • Revolutionaries in North America and in France argued against long-standing traditions of rule by an unelected monarchy. Instead, they rallied for government of the people, by the people, and for the people (to use Abraham Lincoln's later formulation).
  • In 1776, colonists in North America declared their independence from the English king. Political rule would devolve, not from hereditary monarchy, but rather by consent of the governed. The people would elect a president. This was a radical shift in how political power would be determined and made legitimate.
  • In France, the monarchy had long ruled with absolute power, and with little concern for the majority of the people. In 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille (a Paris prison and symbol of royalist power). This marked the beginning of the French Revolution, in which the general citizenry would rise up against an oppressive, tyrannical monarchy.
  • The new revolutionary government in France insisted on political rule based on reason, not royalist heredity.
  • The French Revolution, a revolt that saw the public execution of the king, had an enormous impact around the globe, as populations saw the possibility for social uprising that could lead, even through violence, to a fundamentally new form of government.
  • However, ruling classes also learned the lesson of the French Revolution, and many feared that their own populations would revolt as well. A number of nations, including England, went to war against France.
  • By 1792, France was at war and in disarray. A radical revolutionary group, the Jacobins, took power from 1793 to 1794. This period came to be known as the "Reign of Terror" and represented, to many, the worst aspects of absolute monarchy reborn in revolutionary violence taken too far: the Reign of Terror seemed to repeat the very tyranny that the revolution had fought to overthrow in the first place.
  • Out of this tumultuous period in French history would emerge a soldier of singular importance: Napoleon Bonaparte. He took power in a coup d'état in 1799 and crowned himself emperor in 1804. His ambition seemed to know no bounds: he sought (but ultimately failed) to conquer vast territories, not only most of Western Europe but also Egypt and Russia .
  • Napoleon's armies were thwarted in Egypt and Russia, and were finally defeated decisively at Waterloo, Belgium, in 1815. Nevertheless, though his rule as emperor was relatively short, its impact was considerable. He ruled as a tyrant but his "Napoleonic Code" established systems of governance throughout Europe (and beyond) that were based not on hereditary power or tradition but on merit and ability.
  • As Napoleonic ideals (which in part reflected the ideals of the French Revolution itself) spread across Europe, they began also to have an effect in European colonies abroad. Inspired by the French and American Revolutions, colonies in South America began to protest for their freedom and independence.
  • The year 1848 marked a high point of revolutionary activity in Europe and abroad as the lower classes began to argue, and to mobilize, for their rights. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their famous Communist Manifesto, in which they analyzed how workers were fundamental to economic prosperity and that, as such, they should enjoy rights and freedoms that had too long been reserved for an elite few.

Literature in the Age of Revolutions

  • Literature has always played an important role in revolutionary movements, either by provided those movements with grounding principles or by reflecting back to society what revolutions have meant.
  • The French and American Revolutions were grounded in the principles of Enlightenment thinkers, especially their belief in reason as the ultimate guiding principle that would lead to a better society.
  • Literature can contribute greatly to a revolutionary spirit as artists decry injustice in their works and as they bring to light social problems that need to be addressed.
  • Some artists take their role as revolutionaries literally. They do not just depict injustice in their works–indeed, some, like the Cuban poet José Martí, fight as revolutionary soldiers.
  • The revolutionary spirit of the age was echoed by artists as well, in that many took up the charge to reform art's basic principles, to break away from static traditions that they believed had limited art for too long.

The revolutionary period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fundamentally reshaped societies in England, continental Europe, and ultimately across the globe. Its lasting impacts are still felt today, as are its tensions: Can the revolutionary spirit be taken too far? Is violence in the service of revolution justifiable?


  • The mid-to-late nineteenth century saw a new era of globalism. Empires enabled (or forced) cultural exchange, and new methods of communication and transportation enabled the diffusion of people and ideas like never before. Artistic styles and ideas–just like their commercial counterparts–spread widely and quickly as well.
  • Realism was one of the most important literary movements of the nineteenth century, and it influenced many different artistic traditions.
  • Realism had its roots in Europe, particularly in France and Britain, but it also emerged at more or less the same time in other, non-European literary traditions.
  • Realism, as the name suggests, featured characters that had often been ignored in earlier literary traditions, like the poor and the disenfranchised, among other marginal characters.
  • These characters were presented in "realistic" situations, featuring everyday realities of life. Further, they spoke in colloquial language, just as most readers would use in their regular lives.
  • Other aspects of realism involved artists observing the world closely and reflecting it in their work, as objectively and with as little sentiment–or artificiality–as possible.
  • In fact, the "realism" that most contemporary audiences expect in popular fiction and film was startlingly new in the nineteenth century.
  • Realist writers were inspired by social revolutions. Unlike their Romantic era counterparts, however, realist writers of the late nineteenth century did not seek in nature the same respite from industrialization. Rather, they imagined art's role as simply to reflect the sometimes dirty reality of the day.
  • In their efforts to represent reality through art, many artists had to confront the nature of reality itself. How much of the world "out there" is objectively perceptible by the senses? And how much of reality is an effect of our subjective experience in the world? Indeed, some began to see the world as a product of our subjectivity. There was no "out there" at all. This philosophical position led many artist away from realism, which was otherwise concerned with the physical, empirically measurable world.
  • The novel and short story were the preeminent genres of the realist movement in literature. The novel in particular allowed for experiments in form (like the inclusion of other genres–letters, diary entries, news reports) and also the expansive space that realist writers used to elaborate the details regarding characters, storylines, and settings.
  • Plot and character were of equal importance for realist writers. Each of these literary elements allowed for the development and exploration of moral dilemmas, which was a hallmark of realist fiction. And rarely were these dilemmas resolved in neatly turned endings. Such inconclusiveness reflected the reality of life itself, which rarely presents clear cases of right or wrong, black or white.

Modernity and Modernism, 1900-1945

Modernity and Modernism, 1900-1945

  • New means of transportation and communication at the beginning of the twentieth century produced a world that was more interconnected than ever before. People, goods, and information could travel faster than at any other time in history.
  • For the first time in history, the majority of the world's population was living in large cities. Improvement in food production, distribution, and in medicine meant that cities were healthier and safer than ever before as well, certainly relative to their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century counterparts.
  • Innovation in science and medicine was accompanied by innovation in warfare and weapons. The twentieth century thus became the bloodiest in human history, despite great advances in science and medicine.

Modernity and Conflict in World History, 1900-1945

  • The beginning of the twentieth century marked the height of European exploration and imperialism.
  • This imperial control (or "abuse" as many came to see it) would not last much longer, however, as colonized nations fought for their independence, and as political opposition in imperial countries (like Britain) became increasingly critical of colonial expansion and control.
  • The First World War (1914-18) altered the physical landscape, scarring and devastating vast swathes of land. Of even greater consequence was the fundamental alteration in people's faith in the basic institutions and ideals that had organized society. Fifteen million people died in the First World War. It was hard for people to make sense of death and destruction on this scale.
  • In 1917 the Bolsheviks, under V. I. Lenin, led a communist revolution in Russia. Under Lenin, and then his successor, Stalin, communist rule in Russia became ever more repressive and violent. It was "communal" in name only, since just a small ruling elite held all of the power and enjoyed a decent standard of living.
  • Communist Party rule under Lenin and Stalin resulted in untold misery and the deaths of tens of millions of people: this was, again, death on a scale that the world had seldom experienced before.
  • The League of Nations, formed after the First World War, was the first international organization aimed at keeping the peace among European nations. Yet while the League of Nations embodied lofty ideals, it was powerless to achieve its own goals.
  • The League of Nations was incapable of enforcing demilitarization in Germany. Further, Allied forces (including Britain, the United States, France, and other European powers) demanded reparations from Germany as a result of the First World War. These factors kept the German economy in chaos, which paved the way, at least in, part, for the rise of the German National Socialist party–the Nazis.
  • The Nazi Party came to power in 1933 under Adolf Hitler. The promise of a strong, reunified, and remilitarized Germany was attractive to many at the time. The Nazi Party emphasized the racial purity of German society (and was thus built on violent anti-Semitism). It was hostile to modern literature, and most writers either chose to flee or were sent into exile.
  • As Nazi power continued to grow in Germany, the United States experienced a financial collapse, beginning in 1929, that would become known as the Great Depression.
  • During the worst of the Great Depression, a third of American workers were unemployed.
  • The New Deal, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45), helped to reverse the depression to some degree, providing employment to many through government funding of massive public works projects (including the building of highways and bridges).
  • Having amassed considerable political and military strength, Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, setting off the Second World War.
  • The Allied powers of France, Britain, and eventually the United States (which entered the war in 1941) were pitted again Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
  • The Nazi desire for racial purity reached its abhorrent climax during World War II with the "Final Solution": six million Jews were killed, along with millions of others (including Poles, Gypsies, and homosexuals) who were deemed unfit for a pure Aryan race.

Modernism in World Literature

  • Literature across the globe responded to these world-changing events (world wars, revolutions, financial collapse) with an unprecedented wave of artistic experimentation, as though the previous modes and forms of art were simply no longer able to capture, recreate, or express the shocking realities of the modern world.
  • Because Modernism, as an artistic movement, continually sought new forms of expression, it gave birth to a number of smaller movements (like futurism, Vorticism, or Dadaism) as artists experimented with new possibilities.
  • Given world events of the early twentieth century, many artists and philosophers began to challenge the notion that humans are fundamentally rational beings and thus that social institutions are rational entities that can enact rational policies.
  • Writers like Sigmund Freud–a pioneer in the field of psychoanalysis–reflected growing interest in the non-rational: the subconscious and the unconscious.
  • While Modernist art often involved experimentation, many Modernists still practiced earlier techniques, working in the realist or symbolist styles of the late nineteenth century.
  • The "stream of consciousness" style reflects Modernist interest in interiority; i.e., the subjective experience of a particular character as he or she observes and acts in the world.
  • Many Modernists, particularly in the theater, broke radically with convention in the degree to which their works made reference to themselves as works of art. In theater, for example, playwrights might involve the audience or have actors (who by tradition should be acting as if the audience were not there) break the "fourth wall" and address the audience directly.
  • Modernists often experimented with new forms, but they were equally concerned to address subjects that had previously been taboo, like sexuality.
  • Modernism emerged from primarily European and American roots; however, Asian writers also became interested in experimentation, often blending new forms or styles with traditional subject matter.
  • As the European empires, so strong in the late nineteenth century, began to break apart during the twentieth century, African American, African, and Caribbean voices emerged to articulate a new vision for race relations and racial equality.
  • The post-Second World War era (sometimes identified as a postmodernist or postcolonial period) saw a mixture of avant-garde artists who continued to pursue Modernist experimentation and many other artists who returned to more traditional forms (though often to address the pressing social and cultural concerns of the period).
  • The Modern period arose as a response to dramatic world events, and it had an correspondingly dramatic effect on literary history.

Post-War and Post-Colonial Literature, 1945-1968

Postwar and Postcolonial Literature, 1945-1968

  • By the middle of the twentieth century, the United States and the Soviet Union (the world's superpowers) were locked in a cold war–i.e., state of hostility and competition just short of all-out military confrontation. This stalemate was the product of MAD: the tragi-comical acronym for "mutually assured destruction," with both sides possessing enough firepower to destroy not just "the enemy" but the entire planet.
  • Though the Cold War did not involve direct military action between the superpowers in their home nations, the superpowers did wage war by proxy in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1955-75).
  • Though the Soviet Union was undergoing a process of de-Stalinization (i.e., trying to recover from the worst excesses of Communist rule under Lenin and then Stalin), China (the world's other large Communist country) was going through a period of Stalin-like repression.
  • China's Cultural Revolution (under Mao Zedong) lasted from 1966 to 1976. It attacked intellectuals (among others), which had a drastic effect on Chinese art at the time.
  • During this period, many imperial colonies fought for, and gained, their independence. A generation of writers thus emerged who had social, familial, and cultural ties to a colonial (or now postcolonial) nation, but who had been educated in European artistic traditions.
  • Despite advances in food production and medicine, and despite growing prosperity in many developed nations, dire poverty and recurrent famine persisted in some underdeveloped nations (primarily in Africa and South Asia).
  • Because of its irreversible impact on the collective psyche of so much of the globe, the Second World War (and the Holocaust in particular) became a primary topic for many postwar artists.
  • The Second World War also exposed the lie of any argument based on the racial or cultural "superiority" that traditional imperial powers once claimed, which led to often-rapid (and sometimes violent) decolonization. In some cases, as colonies were granted independence, imperial powers imposed artificial boundaries between new "nations" that produced immediate cultural tension and violence.
  • As colonial powers vacated their former colonies, civil wars broke out and often dictatorships emerged in a new grab for power.
  • The Civil Rights movement occurred in the United States as previously disenfranchised voices demanded equality.
  • The postwar period was a time characterized by great artistic diversity and hybridity: the mixing of traditions, genres, subjects, and styles.
  • This sense of "mixed-ness" in art reflects the reality for many postcolonial artists: they often came from a mixed heritage, they had learned from a mix of traditions, and their native homelands may have been ruled by a number of different authorities (both colonial and indigenous). Thus, they sought to represent diversity in their work and to challenge long-held beliefs in the value of homogeneity and purity.

Global and Local in Contemporary World Literature

Global and Local in Contemporary World Literature

  • Throughout history, writers have been shaped by and have responded to social events, some great and some small.
  • The degree to which contemporary writers are also a product of their environments has not changed.
  • Contemporary world literature continues to reflect the degree to which writers are influenced by political and social movements of the day, whether it is the fall of the Berlin wall (and all it symbolized) in 1989 or protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
  • World systems can often change on a grand scale. For example, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that characterized the post-Second World War period gave way to a new opening ( glasnost in Russian) championed by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev starting in the mid-1980s.
  • In addition to the mid-1980s and '90s marking a time of political sea change for old Cold War antagonists, this period also saw the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa (i.e., strict racial segregation and white minority rule).
  • On the grandest scale, the world seemed to be moving away from its bloodiest times (the First and Second World Wars) and its most repressive regimes (Communist rule under Stalin and Mao, for example). The contemporary age was not perfect, of course, but the possibility for a generally peaceful and prosperous world seemed real once again.
  • However, events on September 11, 2001, fundamentally changed that optimism: hijackers claiming to act in the name of Islam took control of commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center (the "Twin Towers") in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (A fourth plane was forced to a crash landing in Pennsylvania after passengers wrested control from the hijackers.)
  • The wars, the political maneuvering, the new culture of fear, and all of the accompanying rhetoric changed the world, and, of course, had its impact on art and artists as well.
  • In other ways, the kind of idealistic life of ease, convenience, and prosperity that the post-1945 world of science of technology had promised was becoming more and more obviously a matter of wishful thinking. New industrial methods and liberal market policies, instead of raising the standard of living for all, were often having the opposite effect: further widening the gap between the developed and the developing world.
  • And if the telegraph and other new modes of communication had had a profound impact at the turn of the twentieth century, nothing could compare to the impact that global information technology would have by the turn of the twenty-first century.
  • The later twentieth and twenty-first centuries have continued to see increasing struggles for political and economic equality from groups who have otherwise lived as second-class citizens. The Gay Rights movement continues to seek equality for homosexuals and the feminist movement continues to fight for equality between men and women.
  • As with the literature of the post-Second World War period, contemporary world literature is marked by diversity and hybridity. In many ways, we are too close to our own age to see its definitive features, if there are any.
  • If anything, perhaps contemporary literature, even as it looks forward to the future and grapples with issues of its day, is beginning to look back nostalgically, at earlier, "simpler" times. Many contemporary authors, for example, often look to simple folk wisdom as an important source for knowledge about the human condition. So too are many writers turning again to nature (as did the Romantics, two centuries ago) as a restorative for the mind and soul.
  • Contemporary literature is thus sometimes a puzzling mix that reflects both a longing for days gone by but also an acknowledgement of the hardship and violence that have attended the unfolding of history that brings us to where we are today.