Three Main Schools of Literature in 20th Century



Making a general survey of development situation of schools of literature in America and western countries in 20th Century, we can find American and western literature in 20th Century can be divided broadly into three main sections: Realism Literature, Modernism Literature, Postmodernism Literature. These there sections are usually called by many scholars three main schools of literature in 20th Century.

1. Realism Literature——Face afflictions directly and embrace hard life bravely. Be free from traditions and dare to absorb new techniques and thoughts of Modernism, therefore, it had diversified means to create.

2. Modernism Literature——This most influenced school is a general term of many anti-traditional schools. It reflects the transformation and innovation of traditional American and European literature in new era. Realism Literature and Modernism Literature influenced and permeated each other.

3. Postmodernism Literature—— It is a general term of many anti-traditional schools after the Second World War. Writers of this school always strive continually to be different. Both in artistic thought and in technique, Postmodernism Literature is the continuation and development of Modernism Literature, and these two schools are crossing-complementing.

Generally speaking, the Second World War is the boundary of Modernism Literature and Postmodernism Literature. The sub-schools of Modernism Literature usually include later Symbolism, Expressionism, and Stream of Consciousness, Surrealism, Existentialism and Magical Realism literature etc., and sub-schools of the later include Theater of the Absurd, Nouveau Roman (New Novel), Black Humor and so on.




1. 现实主义文学——直面惨淡人生,勇敢拥抱生活. 不拘泥于传统,勇于吸纳,大量吸收现代主义的技巧和思路,其创作手段更加丰富,呈现多元化。

2. 现代主义文学——影响最大,具有“反传统”倾向。现代主义文学不是—个单一的流派,而是许多反对传统文学的流派的总称。它表现了欧美传统文学在新时代的转型与创新。现代主义和现实主义并不是绝对的相互排斥,而是相互影响、相互渗透。

















1. History of Development

This important literary school was at its height between 1910 and 1925 ——in the period just before, during, and after WWI. It emerged in paining in Germany, and then spread into literature. The first person used it is a German critic Walden in one of his painting comments. It is used to emphasize internal world by breaking external representation and using show to substitute representation.

2. Main Features

(1)abstraction; (2)deformation; (3)the real time dislocation; (4) using symbolic and absurd technique; (5) using mask; (6)lay stress on effect of sound and light. Among these features, the first four refer to novels, and the last two refer to dramas.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) In drama

Eugene O’Neill: Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922)

August Strindberg: Go to Damascus(1898), The Ghost Sonata(1900)

(2)In novel

Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis (1915), The Castle (1915)















Existentialism Literature存在主义文学


1. History of Development

Existentialism Literature emerged in 1930s in France and climaxed after the Second World War. It gained the strongest momentum in modern literature throughout the world. Based on Existentialism, it expresses existentialism thought in form of literature.

2. Main Features

(1) The basic themes of this school are “The world is absurd” and “The life is painful”. On one hand, it describes the absurdity of capitalist world, on the other hand, it presents man’s misfortune, devastation, solitude, disappointment and terror.

(2) Artistically, Existentialism Literature combines philosophy in literary images, and utilizes both traditional and modern techniques of expression to present themes.

3. Representative Writers and Works

    (1) Albert Camus: The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947)

(2) Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea (1938), Les Chemins de la liberté (1945), etc.

(3) Simone de Beauvoir: L'Invitée(1943), etc.














Black Humor黑色幽默)


1. History of Development

This literary school flourished in 1960s and got the name from the collection Black Humor compiled by American writer Freedman. “Black Humor” is a writing method in literature to use form of comedy to show tragic content “Black” refers to terrific and absurd objective reality, and “humor” refers to the sarcastic attitude of a personality with purposes and strong will towards this objective reality. Adding “black” to “humor”, this attitude becomes a humor showing desperation, which is also called “humor under gallows” by western critics.

2. Main Features

 (1) Special humorous style. Black Humor breaks the traditional boundary between comedy and tragedy which is comedy usually satirizes the ugliness and deformity of antagonists, and tragedy often shows heroes’ sufferings and misfortunes. However, Black Humor utilizes form of comedy to show tragic content, joking sufferings and misfortunes.

(2) “Antihero”. These antiheroes doubt and negate all traditional values, being lonely just like only he is awake while all others are drunk, and they have certain pursuit.

 (3) Anti-novel narrative structure. Black Humor abandons completely the traditional “storytelling”, without complete structure and inherent logical relationship. It utilizes hints, foil, contrast, simile, and symbols to break the constraints of space and time and exaggerate the expanse of man’s inner world.

    (4) Special subjects. There are two special subjects: firstly, about science and technique; then about special situation full of dilemma and blurred vision while seemingly having greatly discerning and apprehending.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961)

(2) Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse- Five (1969), Cat’s Cradle (1963)

(3)Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)





(1)特殊的幽默风格。 “黑色幽默”文学打破了“喜剧讽刺反面人物的丑恶和畸形,悲剧表现正面英雄的痛苦和不幸”的传统,以喜剧形式表现悲剧内容,痛苦和不幸也成了开玩笑的对象。







  1. 品钦:《万有引力之虹》(1973)




Black Mountain Poets黑山派诗人)


1. History of Development

This American poetry school emerged in 1950s and consisted of a group of writers, professors and artists in Black Mountain College, a school of literature and art in North Carolina which established in 1933 and suspended in 1956. The writers and professors teaching here established their own publications——Black Mountain Review, in which they published innovative yet disciplined verse. Their experimental yet disciplined style took its impetus from the essay “Projective Verse” (1950) by Charles Olson. They developed and perfected the theory of “Projective Verse”, and gradually formed the new poetry school——Black Mountain. In the later of 1950s, this significant school converged with The Beat Generation.

2. Main Features

(1) In form, it advocates free verse instead of traditional metric foot, that is to say, there should be compatibility between lines of verse and poet’s thought, breath and gesture rhythm.

(2) In content, it believes poets transmit “energy” to readers through poems which accordingly are “energy structure” and “energy radiation”. It’s necessary for poets to write their own experience to resonate with readers

(3) It stands for spontaneity and colloquialism, and objects exquisite style of academicism

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Charles Olson: Projective Verse(1950)

(2) Robert Kyle: I Know a Man











Theater of the Absurd (荒诞派戏剧):


1. History of Development

This anti-traditional drama school emerged in France in 1950s and then became fashionable in other countries. Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano symbolized the birth of this school, and the name derived from the book The Theater of Absurd written by famous British drama theorist Martin·Aslin.

2. Main Features

 (1) Absurd and abstract theme. Broadly speaking, the theme of this drama school is man’s abstract depressed psychology in absurd surroundings.

 (2) Disintegrated images of the stage: Dramatist of this school think the essence of the world is absurdity, and the central content of drama is irrationality. Therefore, on stage there is no concept of time and space, no basic layout of structure, no characters with distinctive personality, no heart-thrilling conflicts, and with disordered speech and thought, all actors are absurd and irrational.

 (3) Peculiar function of props. It advocates properties can speak, and through properties, man’s upset is externalized. Man’s activities become visual images, and this kind of function of properties makes visual art come to its highest peak.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot (1952)

(2) Eugene Ionesco: The Bald Soprano (1949)



荒诞派戏剧是20世纪50年代兴起于法国,尔后迅速风靡于欧美其他国家的一个反传统戏剧流派。法国尤奈斯库是荒诞派戏剧的奠基人,其独幕话剧《秃头歌女》的上演,标志着荒诞派戏剧的诞生。“荒诞派”因1962年英国著名戏剧理论家马丁 艾思林写的《荒诞派戏剧》而得名。










The Beat Generation(垮掉的一代)


1. History of Development

It refers to a loose-knit group of young poets and novelists in the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s in America. This term was brought up firstly by Jack Kerouac around 1948 which is contrasted to “the Lost Generation”. “The Lost Generation” lost belief on life because of war, while they didn’t lose the desire for humanity. However, most members of “Beat Generation” lost the basic understanding of humanity. With this term, the public express their disappointment and dissatisfaction.

2. Main Features

    They use homosexuality, jazz, addiction and insobriety to escape reality, challenge the traditional value and perform their morbid revolt. They put forward the conclusion that degeneration is emancipation, and indulging in sensual pleasures is legal.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Jack Kerouac: On the Road (1957).

(2) Allen Ginsberg: Howl (1956)

(3) J.D.Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (1951)



“垮掉的一代” 是二战后风行美国的文学流派,是美国一群青年男女的松散集合体。这一名称最早是由作家杰克·克鲁亚克于1948年前后提出的。“垮掉的一代”实际上是“迷惘的一代”的对照。“迷惘的一代”之所以对生活失去信念是由于战争的创伤,但他们并未因此而失去对人性的渴望。“垮掉的一代”则不同,他们中的许多人已经丧失了对人性的最基本的理解,用“垮掉的一代”作为称谓也表达了公众对他们的失望和不满。






(3) 杰罗姆·大卫·塞林格:《麦田里的守望者》(1951)




Lost Generation迷惘的一代)


1. History of Development

The term in general refers to the post- World War I generation, but specifically a group of US writers who came of age during the war and established their reputation in the 1920s. It stems from a remark made by Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway used it as an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises, a novel that captures the attitudes of a hard-drinking, fast living set of disillusioned young expatriates in postwar Paris. The generation was “lost” in the sense that its inherited values were no longer relevant in the postwar world and because of its spiritual alienation from US, they seemed hopelessly provincial, materialistic, and emotionally barren. Although it exists not very long, it is significant in literature.

2. Main Features

Firstly the simplicity and colloquial trend for language, and then form innovation.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises (1927), A Farewell to Arms(1927))

(2) Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby( 1925)


1. 发展历史


2. 主要特色


3. 代表作家作品






Magical Realism魔幻现实主义)


1. History of Development

Magical Realism is a .Latin American literary school in mid 20th century. It emerged in 1930s and 1940s, and became main stream in 1960s. The first person who used this term is a writer of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela Arturo Uslar Petri. People call its rise and development the explosion of Latin American literature.

2. Main Features

Magical Realism is a writing method using illusion caused by magic to show life in reality. That is to say, using illusion to hide reality and display a recycling illusory world with subjective and objective time mixing and without boundary of subjective ideas and objective materials. In description of reality, writers draw into a lot of supernatural factors, such as miracles, illusions, dreams and even ghosts. “Magic” not only comes from traditional culture and value, but many techniques of expression in western modernism, such as symbolism, absurdity and stream of consciousness.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Mexico writer Juan Rulfo: Pedro Paramo (1955), symbol of real maturing

(2) Colombia novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1966),symbol of climax







  (1)墨西哥鲁尔福:《佩德罗 帕拉莫》(1955),真正成熟的标志。

  1. 哥伦比亚马尔克斯:《百年孤独》(1966),形成热潮的标志。






1. History of Development

It is the earliest and most influenced school in the western modernism movement. Symbolism has two periods. The former symbolism originated in the mid- 19th century in France and flourished in the later 19th century. The later symbolism emerged after the First World War, and climaxed in 1920s.

2. Main Features

(1) Emphasize the world is the symbol of man’s mind.

(2) Emphasize “telepathy” and “synesthesia”.

(3) Emphasize the significance of mysterious beauty and synesthesia.

(4) In arts, symbolism usually uses symbols, hints and metaphors to show the communication of natural phenomena and self.

3. Representative Writers and Works

     French poet Charles Baudelaire and American poet Edgar Allan Poe are pioneers of symbolism.

    (1) T.S.Eliot: The Waste Land (1922)

(2) French poet Paul Valery: The Seaside Cemetery (1926)

(3) Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

(4) Maeterlinck. M: Blue Bird (1908)










(1)美国T S 艾略特:《荒原》(1922)







Nouveau Roman(New Novel)(新小说)


1. History of Development

    New Novel, also called anti-novel or Refused Novel, formed in 1950s and later became one of the most important novel schools after the Second World War in France and even all western countries.

2. Main Features

(1) Object traditional fiction’s representation of real life. They believe the world is absurd, nil and unreal, and traditional fictions just fool and cheat readers.

(2) Object the traditional fiction’s tendentiousness, and advocate that authors should present the existence of the absurd world without any intentional change, tone and loaded meaning.

(3) Abandon plots and characters, collage messy fragments and establish a style of only writing objects by using objects instead of people.

(4) Advocate that readers take part in writing novels and reconstruct characters and plots.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Nathalie Sarraute: Tropismes

(2) Claude·Simon: La Route Des Flandres (1960), Father of New Novel

(3) Alain Robbe-Grillet.: The Voyeur(1955)











(2)法国克洛德·西蒙:《佛兰德公路》(1960), "新小说派之父"




Stream of consciousness (意识流小说)


1. History of Development

    Here Stream of Consciousness refers to a kind of novel emerged in1920s used to present people’s stream of consciousness and display the blurred trance in their inner world.

2. Main Features

(1) A lot of inner soliloquy/interior monologue and free association

(2) Symbolizing, suggesting and association by contrast

(3) Time and space crisscross and psychological time

(4) Without author’s appearance in novels

(5) Without distinctive and attractive plots

(6) Innovation and variation in language, overstepping syntax specification

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) James Joyce: Dubliners (1914), a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

(2) Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927)

(3) Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time (1907-1922)

(4) William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (1929)













(2)英国的沃尔夫: 《达洛卫夫人》(1925),《到灯塔去》(1927)






Confessional Poetry(自白派诗歌)


1. History of Development

    This new poetry school emerged in 1950s-1960s in America. The first confessional poem is Life Studies written by Robert Lowell, a famous American poet. Just like a guilty Christian confessed to the priest, he disclosed his privacy, inner sufferings, spiritual wounds and sexual desire and impulse completely and directly in this poem, which caused a strong reaction in poetry circle. And then 1960s’ “Confessional Poetry” movement started in America. Because of the influence of existentialism and dissatisfaction to the irrational material civilization and rigid life-style, many young poets who couldn’t find lofty ideal and living purpose imitated Robert Lowell to regard poetry as a tool to self-disclose and self-vent. Furthermore, some of them expressed their disgust of existence and suicide after being well-known.

2. Main Features

    Poems of this school are usually absurd, depressed and lacking reason, and reflect intellectuals’ distress, up-set, confusion and desperation.

3. Representative Writers and Works

(1) Robert Lowell: Lord Weary’s Castle (1946)

(2) Anne Sexton: Live or Die (1966)

(3) Silvia Plath: Ariel (1965)