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Study Guides to Classic Books From the 1900s

By Peter Boysen

Secondary students and undergrads alike will find useful content about the twentieth-century novels they are reading in their classes.

How to Use This Guide

Encountering literature from the 1900s can be easier than earlier works when it comes to understanding the language, but the plot lines Student and thematic complexity of twentieth-century works can make understanding them just as challenging as a Shakespearean play, if not more so.

The articles in this guide are designed to help students who are encountering these works for the first time in a high school or college setting. Whether you're looking for a detailed character analysis, an explanation of significant quotations in the book, or study questions so that you can prepare for an upcoming test, this series will help tremendously.

George Orwell

George Orwell is the author of 1984. George Orwell was the first master of the dystopian novel in the twentieth century. His works Animal Farm and 1984 showed not only the ways that we would use technology to make ourselves and others miserable and alone, but also how greed would remain just as pervasive in a world technologically capable of eliminating want as it has ever been.

Orwell's pessimism stemmed from watching the events at the end of World War II unfold -- not just the atomic holocaust that fell on Japan, but also the swift consumption of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union. These events inspired him to write a satirical allegory about the corruption of Russian Communism (Animal Farm) and a bleak prediction of humanity's future (1984).

William Golding

Sir William Golding's Lord of the Flies addresses the question of what we would do if we were stripped of the maturing influences of adulthood and left to our own devices; or, stated another way, what humans would be like without a superego. The novel appears on high school lists for many schools across the country.

During an era in which bullying is such a prevalent problem in schools, studying the lessons at work in the interactions among the children in this story would serve a vital role in character development, not only literary analysis.

J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was an anthem for the disaffected and cynical everywhere when it came onto the literature scene. While Salinger would write other novels, the rest only gathered niche interest, while Catcher became a must-read for high school literature students across the country.

While tenth and eleventh grades are the most common places this book appears on curricula, it can also be valuable in an American literature course at the undergraduate level because of the distinctive narrative point of view.

Social Justice: The Story of Nat Turner; John Steinbeck; Harper Lee

The Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and was a fictional first-person account of the slave revolt led by Turner in 1831 in Virginia.

John Steinbeck wrote several novels regarding the plight of the dispossessed workers in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. His most commonly read works in secondary classroom are "Of Mice and Men" and The Grapes of Wrath.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird describes the trial and death of an innocent man trapped by the endemic racism of his era. This novel frequently appears on tenth-and eleventh-grade reading lists.

Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut

While Joseph Heller wrote several novels, his enduring classic is Catch-22, the story of John Yossarian's tangle within the contradictory goals of the American military in World War II. The term "catch-22" has come to mean a situation out of which there is no escape because of paradoxical regulations on both ends. This novel has textbook examples of irony and paradox that make it a common choice for high school literature lists.

Kurt Vonnegut's works aren't quite dystopian in nature, but they do show what happens if people are left to their own devices and the House in Dresden mayhem that can result. Ray Bradbury's science fiction is more creative and more colorful, but Vonnegut's is more of a visceral satire of the modern condition.

The image to the right shows the house in Dresden where Vonnegut lived as a POW during World War II.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway

F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the most painstaking writers in all of American letters, taking eight or nine years to complete each one of his major novels. While The Beautiful and the Damned and Tender is the Night are both classics, only The Great Gatsby is a staple on most high school American literature lists.

Ernest Hemingway wrote during the same time period as F. Scott Fitzgerald, but his blunt style and quick pacing draw a sharp contrast with Fitzgerald's swirling prose. The Old Man and the Sea is a popular novel for study in secondary classes.