Modern (20th Century) Novel in English Literature: Characteristics, Features & Novelists


The modern age is essentially the age of the novel. This is the most important and popular medium in modern times. English fiction (novel) is the only literary form which can compete for popularity with the film and the radio.

The publication of new English fiction (novel) by a novelist is received now with the same enthusiastic response as a new comedy by Dryden or Congreve was received in the Restoration Period and a new volume of poems by Tennyson during the Victorian Period.

Poetry, which had for many centuries, held the supreme place in the realm of literature had lost that position. The main reason for this change is that the novel is the only literary form which meets the needs of the modern world.



The novel of the Modern Age is realistic in nature. The realistic writer is one who thinks that truth to observed facts (facts about the outer world or his own feelings) is the great thing, while an idealist writer wants to create a pleasant picture.

The modern novelist is realistic in this sense. He tries to include within the limits of the novel almost everything and not a merely one-sided view of it. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Eliot’s Middlemarch had proven that the novel can be made as flexible as life itself.

The modern novelists have continued this experiment still further, and are trying to make the novel more elegant and flexible.

Love for Romance

Against the tendency of realism and materialism perceptible in the early years of the 20th century with an accent on the discussion of social problems, stands the tendency for the criticism of material values, and a love for sex, romance, and adventure.

The note of disillusionment against the realism in fiction and too much concentration on material values of life was sounded by psychological novelists of the age like Virginia Woolf and a few critics of modern life like Samuel Butler, Huxley, Forester etc.

Samuel Butler satirized the realism of modern civilization and its insistence on machinery in Erewhon. Virginia Woolf, too, severely criticised the Edwardian Realism.

Frank in Sexual Matters

During the Georgian Period, a new tendency began to be perceptible in English fiction, and it centred around the glorification of sex and primal human emotions and passions. The Victorian Novelists showed no interest in the naked dance of sex and their novels they preferred married love over illegal flirtation.

The Victorian’s anti-sexuality got a great jolt by the Georgian novelists who presented sex-relationships in their novels. Sexual frankness is used by writers like D.H. Lawrence.

The result is that whereas the earlier English novel generally dealt with the theme of the relation between gentility and morality, the modern novel deals with the relationship between loneliness and love.

Stream of Consciousness Technique

According to Diaches, Stream of Consciousness is a means of escape from the tyranny of the time dimension.

The stream of consciousness technique is a revolutionary modern technique which had tried to transform the art of narrative almost in every respect. The first user of this technique was the French novelist Edouard Dujardin.

The phrase “Stream of Consciousness” however was coined by the psychologist William James who wrote Principles of Psychology (1890).

By calling consciousness a stream, James meant that human consciousness in something fluid; it is an unbroken current of feelings, impressions, fantasies, half-formed thoughts and awareness in general. Consciousness is continuity like time and is independent of time.

At any given instance of time, an individual’s consciousness may not be entirely concerned with the present. He may be living through an experience of the past or fantasies about the future.


The Stream of Consciousness Technique bestows at least three major advantages on the novelists. They are:

  • Freedom from the constraints of time
  • Complete objectivity
  • Greater inwardness and profundity


There are mainly two disadvantages;

  • Disregard for material/outer reality.
  • Lack of form and pattern and even meaning

Novel of Ideas

In the first decades of the 20th century, English fiction was mainly confined to the discussion of problems, confronting us in social life. The Edwardian novel was essentially a novel of ideas including in its scope, a free discussion of all kinds of ideas; scientific, social, political industrial and so forth.

The Edwardian novelists considered it to be a sin to escape into a world of romance and psychology when the gaping wounds of social life were pleading for reform and healthy treatment.

H.G. Wells, Galsworthy, Arnold Bennet particularly centralized their attention to the social problems of their times and made the novel an instrument of social propaganda.