The twentieth century gave us literary modernism, postmodernism, magical realism, dystopian fiction, and new perspectives on race, empire, gender, and politics. Below, we introduce ten classic twentieth-century novels which anyone aiming to be well-read in twentieth-century fiction should aim to read.
James Joyce, Ulysses. Although it has a reputation as a ‘difficult’ work – and Joyce’s 1922 novel is around 800 pages representing the pinnacle of literary modernism in the novel form – Ulysses is actually a very democratic book, taking in all classes and stripes of Irish culture. It’s also set over the course of just one day, 16 June 1904, as we follow the ad man, Leopold Bloom, as he wanders around the city of Dublin. Breakfast, visits to the library and to the pub, sexual arousal, and trips to the lavatory all ensue in a work that was deemed too dirty to appear in Britain until the 1930s, more than a decade after Joyce finished writing it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. This is not only one of the greatest twentieth-century novels but one of the greatest novels of all time, and often appears near the top of any list of great novels. It was published in 1925 during the ‘Jazz Age’, and is narrated by Nick Carraway, who enters the moneyed world of the titular Jay Gatsby, who owns a large Long Island mansion and is known for throwing lavish parties. Although Fitzgerald’s novel is known for its brilliant descriptions of cocktail parties and life among the wealthy ‘new money’ of America, it also evokes the other side of New York, and the industrial squalor many Americans were living and working in. Before he decided upon The Great Gatsby as his title, Fitzgerald toyed with calling his novel ‘Under the Red, White and Blue’, ‘Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires’, and, worst of all, ‘The High-Bouncing Lover’.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. Although we chose Mrs Dalloway as Woolf’s best novel in our pick of the greatest 1920s novels, really there’s little to choose between that novel (set on just one day, like Ulysses) and this 1927 novel, which focuses on the Ramsay family during their visits to the Isle of Skye just before, during, and after the First World War. In this novel we really see Woolf’s use of interiority – sometimes named (or misnamed) stream of consciousness – come into its own, especially in those sections focalised through the artist, Lily Briscoe.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. This novel often tops the list of ‘books people lie about having read’, with an estimated two-fifths of Brits pretending they’ve read Orwell’s classic dystopian vision in order to look smart. The term ‘Orwellian’, now in common use, shows the influence of this novel, which was initially going to be called The Last Man in Europe. Focusing on Winston Smith who works for the Ministry of Truth (loosely based on the BBC, where Orwell worked during the Second World War), and featuring Room 101 (based on a room at the BBC where Orwell had to sit through tedious meetings!), and newspeak (thoughtcrime, sexcrime, doubleplusgood, etc.), this novel remains the novel about state surveillance and totalitarianism, and although many people lie about having read it, thousands if not millions are still reading it every year.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. This novel about life in the United States for African-Americans was published in 1952, and is a touchstone for mid-twentieth-century attitudes to race, racism, and politics in the States. The novel won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953 – not bad for a book Ellison had started to write in a barn in 1945 while on leave from the Merchant Marine! Narrated by an unnamed black man living in squalid conditions in a town in the South, Invisible Man was proclaimed a ‘masterpiece’ by Anthony Burgess and continues to be read as a classic, and studied on college courses.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes named Britain’s favourite novel, The Lord of the Rings is a single novel – it was only published as a trilogy because of post-war paper shortages in the mid-1950s – in which Tolkien helped to create the blueprint for modern fantasy (although Tolkien’s work was itself standing on the shoulders of such earlier giants as William Morris and E. R. Eddison). The quest the hobbit Frodo Baggins undertakes to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mordor has become many people’s best-loved book, and despite its flaws (find someone who actually likes the Tom Bombadil section – good luck!), it remains a classic work of twentieth-century fiction.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. Written by the Igbo Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and published in 1958 at a time when many African countries were gaining their independence from European countries, and the ‘winds of change’ were blowing through Africa (in Harold Macmillan’s memorable words), Things Fall Apart focuses on what life was like in Nigeria before the British arrived, and then what happened when they did, with disastrous consequences, in the late nineteenth century. Although written in English, the novel makes use of many proverbs from Igbo oral culture.
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. One of the shortest novels on this list, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is, famously, a prequel to the novel Jane Eyre, which follows the early life of the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Bertha Mason, from Charlotte Brontë’s novel. The novel helped to reinvigorate Rhys’s struggling career as a writer (essentially, as a modernist novelist and short-story writer), and shows how our attitudes to empire were shifting by the mid-twentieth century and the breakup of the British empire.
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. This 1981 novel won the Booker Prize that year, and then the ‘Booker of Bookers’; it also won various other high-profile literary prizes, and remains a seminal work of magical realism showcasing Rushdie’s remarkable facility with the English language. The novel focuses on life in India just prior to, and after, the partition of the country in 1947 (hence the title: the protagonist, Saleem Sinai, discovers that all children born in India an hour after midnight on 15 August 1947, the day of the partition, are imbued with special powers).
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. We’ll conclude this pick of classic twentieth-century novels with another dystopian book, published in 1985 but still viewed by many readers as prescient of twenty-first-century attitudes to women’s bodies and the power of the patriarchy. Offred, the protagonist (not her real name, but one which denotes that she belongs to a man named Fred: ‘Of Fred’), is a Handmaid, a fertile woman who is kept by a male ‘Commander’ for the purposes of breeding. Atwood published a sequel, The Testaments, in 2019, but the original novel is the one to read.