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British Literature after WWII

<pSpecial thanks to Eastern's own Catherine Allegretti for writing this introduction!

World War II ended in 1945 and its conclusion marked an important shift in Great Britain’s global role. For the first time, Britain was a secondary imperial power, something that was painful for many British citizens. The expectations after the war were that the economy would again rise, but inflation and unemployment led to an overall increase in national cynicism. Postmodernism found most of its success in America and was difficult to identify in England, as many Modernist writers continued to write well into the 1940s and 50s. Postmodernism incorporates the idea that the world is in a state of incompleteness. Postmodernists believe that there are many truths and that knowledge comes from perspective. Stemming from this is the tendency for Postmodernists to have a skeptical approach to culture, literature, and art, often leading the movement to be associated with deconstructionism. Although this approach can be found in some of the literature of the time, the writing during this period was very diverse.

POETRY

While some poets from the Modernist period were still writing well into the 1950’s and 60’s, new poets also emerged. Two of these poets were Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. One of Larkin’s better-known collections of poems was The Whitsun Weddings (1964). Within this collection, his poem “The Whitsun Weddings” remains one of his more famous. It is one of three poems written about his train journeys. Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), was dedicated to his wife, American poet Sylvia Plath. This collection featured poems about animal relationships, erotic relationships, and war stories.

ANGRY YOUNG MEN

The “angry young men” is a title applied to a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and novelists who expressed discontent with the organization of society. The media characterized these men as those disillusioned with traditional British society. These novels and plays featured working class heroes and were successful in changing the genre.

Playwrights

The name for this group came from playwright John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger (1956). This play examines a marriage between a working class man, Jimmy, and his middle class wife, Alison. Their differences in class make it difficult for them to get along and when Alison becomes pregnant, their marriage falls apart. Another playwright who is considered part of this group is Arnold Wesker, whose kitchen sink drama, Roots (1959) addressed social concerns of the time. Kitchen sink dramas typically depicted the living conditions of working class Britons. They would often show cramped apartments, poor neighborhoods, and the political and social issues of the working class. This was a turn away from the “well-made” plays of the previous generation. Roots tells the story of Beatie Bryant, an uneducated working-class woman obsessed with her boyfriend. When he leaves her, she transitions into a woman who can express herself and her working-class struggles.

Novelists

Many novelists were also categorized as part of the “angry young men” group. Kingsley Amis often wrote novels that acted as social criticism. He is considered one of the leaders of the “angry young men” group. His first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), is probably his most famous and follows the character Jim Dixon as he becomes a lecturer at a prestigious university. Another writer who focused on the economic conditions of Great Britain is John Braine. His novel Room at the Top (1957) is about an ambitious young man named Joe Lampton, who uses seduction and lies to overcome his socioeconomic struggles. It is set in post-war Britain, as many novels written during this time were.

OTHER BRITISH DRAMA

Aside from the “angry young men,” there were several playwrights finding success in post-war Britain. During this period it became more difficult to find funding for plays and only certain commercial successes were performed.

Harold Pinter, who is sometimes added to the list of “angry young men,” found success with several plays including The Birthday Party (1958), Tom Stoppard (1937), and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966). The latter of these plays is an absurdist comedy that expanded on minor characters from the Shakespearean play, Hamlet. The absurdist genre during this time focused largely on existentialism and the meaning of human existence. Existentialism is a philosophical theory that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as responsible for determining his or her own fate through acts of free will. Samuel Beckett was one of the most significant playwrights post-World War II and had a lot of influence on writers like Pinter. His play Waiting for Godot (1955) is about two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who spend the entirety of the play waiting for someone named Godot to arrive. Gradually the two men realize it is unlikely that Godot will arrive and resolve to commit suicide, but the two men are unable to follow through with this.

Radio Drama

During the 1950s and 60s, many British playwrights began their careers by writing plays made for radio. Caryl Churchill started her career with radio broadcasts. Churchill often wrote about the abuses of power. Her most famous play, Cloud Nine (1979), satirizes British colonization and explores controversial topics of feminism and homosexuality. Churchill was well known for writing about sexual politics and feminist themes.

THE NOVELISTS

British writers from the Modernist period like Dylan Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and W.H. Auden (see Modernist introduction) continued to write well beyond World War II, but a new generation of writers would soon take their place.

George Orwell’s novels were largely political and reflected his opposition to totalitarianism and support of democratic socialism. His novel Animal Farm (1945) is an allegorical novel and uses animals as the metaphor for the Stalin era of Soviet Russia. The novel follows the rebellion of animals against man. After two pigs take control, one pig, Napoleon, abuses his power. He begins practicing human-like behavior and abolishes the equality for which the animals worked. Orwell’s second well-known novel is Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which is set in a world of perpetual war and constant government surveillance. The ruling party is called Big Brother and manipulates news and history to support the party. The novel’s protagonist is Winston Smith, a worker for Big Brother who assists in forging documents, but secretly hates the party. His attempts at fighting against Big Brother end in failure as he realizes the full extent of the party’s reach.

Two other novels that attained notoriety during the time are Lord of the Flies (1954) and A Clockwork Orange (1962). William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is about a group of boys stuck on an uninhabited island. The boys try to create a government among themselves, but this leads to disastrous consequences when a power struggle ensues, two boys are killed, and many others begin acting animalistic. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel. Dystopian novels typically portray an alternate world to that of the author. They are usually political and social commentaries and focus on oppression and corruption. Burgess’s novel is set in the near future where youth violence has become popular. The teen protagonist, Alex, narrates his violent actions and his run-ins with state authorities. While in prison he undergoes psychotherapy that creates an aversion to violence, but this violates his free will and makes him severely depressed.

Magical Realism

One of the strongest influences of 1980’s fiction was the embracing of magical realism, the concept in literature of accepting magic as a normal part of everyday life. Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) was an example of this. The novel focuses on the life of Sophie Fevvers, a girl who claims to have been hatched from an egg and who says she has wings. As she continues to tell her story, it becomes more obvious that her narrative is a lie. Another example of magical realism is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), a novel that follows India’s transition into an independent country. It is told through the perspective of Saleem Sinai, who has supernatural powers.

Post-Colonialism

Embracing some of the values from the Modernist period, there were several non-English writers that were part of the British Postmodernist period. Most of these writers came from previously colonized British territories and their writing reflected this colonization. Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is set in the 1890’s and highlights the struggle for some Africans to assimilate to the traditions of white colonists. Jean Rhys was born in the British West Indies and her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) also critically looks at the colonization of natives. Her novel was intended to be a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, and tells Bertha Mason’s side of the story.

Children’s Literature

Children’s literature saw more contributions post-World War II. Roald Dahl rose to success with his children’s fantasy novels including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988). C.S. Lewis was also prominent in the children’s fantasy genre and his seven-book series The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), are considered classics of children’s literature. They are all set in Narnia, a fictional, magical realm. All of the protagonists in the stories are children from the real world, transported to Narnia to play important roles in its history. Most recently, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (1997-2007) have also tapped into the fantasy genre. They center on a teenage wizard named Harry Potter who has been chosen as the one to defeat the most evil wizard of them all, Lord Voldemort. Rowling’s seven books take readers through Harry’s years at school as he finds allies in Hermione and Ron and prepares for his eventual battle with the Dark One.

21st Century

Martin Amis is one of the most prominent novelists writing at the turn of the 21st Century. His novel London Fields (1989) was a black comedy, one that makes light of serious or taboo subjects. It is set up as a murder mystery novel, with an unreliable writer, Sam Young, narrating. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) also came at the end of the 20th Century and revolved primarily around a group of heroin addicts. Contributing to 21st Century writing is Ian McEwan, an English novelist and screenwriter whose most famous work is Atonement (2001). This tells the story of the life-altering consequences that ensue after the protagonist, Briony, falsely accuses someone of rape.

There are many other writers of the 20th and 21st century that are still writing novels today and it is difficult to predict what will be popular in the future, but it is clear that literature reflects the history of its time. These seven introductions certainly do not encompass every writer from these literary periods, but I hope these literary introductions give you a taste of each movement and pique your interest in British literature.

For this introduction I consulted: Robert Barnard’s A Short History of English Literature, Stephen Coote’s The Penguin Short History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders’ The Short Oxford History of English Literature.