Celebrating the (19)20s in the (20)20s

By Pranjali Wakde

If one is to give an example of the phrase ‘History repeats itself, then it is the 1920s being mirrored in the 2020s. Not only are the depressing events of the century-old decade being repeated, but there are also some stark parallels in the deceptively advanced developments of the two. The 1920s was known as the Roaring Twenties – and roaring, they were. The Great War was recently done with, with the Spanish Flu taking its place in the world. The depressing vibes carried themselves into the 20s, transforming society into an exact opposite of what it was before.

The 1920s, however, had so much going on than just dispersing the repercussions of the Spanish Flu all around the world. This is exactly what seems to be happening in the 2020s – admittedly, there was no World War in the decade before (fortunately), the Flu has made a comeback in the form of the Covid19 Pandemic. The racial issues, unemployment and income issues, technological advancements and consumer culture – including the different ways of increased entertainment consumption – are uncannily similar.

With so many parallels to draw from both the decades, one of the important fields to consider is literature. The literature of the 1920s was undoubtedly influenced by all the changes happening in the society, which made the novels written then a perfect window to look at and experience the 1920s. Not only that, but it also saw the birth of amazing novels by some of the best authors of all time! While these books defined the decade and consequently, the century, we’re yet to experience the literature of this decade to give out any concrete view. However, even if we apparently won’t be there to read an article of this decade’s lockdown literature in the next century – we can celebrate the glorious literature of the 1920s right now!

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

 

It was in 1920 that we were blessed with the first published novel of Agatha Christie. The Mysterious Affair at Styles features her popular character, Hercule Poirot, as he solves the murder of Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy woman. The plot, which seems simple at first, becomes increasingly clever as the story progresses. According to a blurb in the first publication, Christie wrote this novel as a result of a bet about writing a detective tale where the readers won’t be able to pinpoint the murderer. And the attempt was successful, as the novel paved a path for Christie’s literary career. Now that you know the story behind the novel, aren’t you glad Christie made this bet – and won?

Women in Love (1920)

 

Though being a sequel, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love can still be read as a standalone novel. It follows the lives of the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun, an artist and Ursula, a teacher. While Gudrun falls for Gerald Crich, Ursula is seen pursuing a relationship with Rupert Birkin. These relationships form the premise of the novel, with the 1920s British society as the backdrop. Lawrence explores the complexity of these bonds, the desire and its repressions, the sacred sensuality attached to it and places it with industrial advancements and the nihilism of the current society. It is an oddly fascinating novel and one of the best from D.H. Lawrence.

The Wasteland (1922)

Regarded as one of the best poems produced in the 20th century, The Wasteland is a powerful example of modernist poetry from T.S. Eliot. It goes on for 434 lines, which are divided into five sections. The poem makes use of canonical literary allusions – including Dante’s Divine Comedy, Buddhism, Hindu Upanishads and even Shakespeare – to form a base for his satirical commentary on the futility of post-war modern life. Just as the name suggests, the poem focuses on the nature of the land that we live on, in a deceptively simple manner. The Wasteland is so brilliant that it is relevant to this day even – and that says a lot about Eliot.

Ulysses (1922)

James Joyce helped shape the 20s with one of his amazing works, Ulysses. Set in Dublin, it follows an itinerant Leopold Bloom, covering every significant – and insignificant – details of just one day in his life. There is a telling similarity between the novel and Homer’s The Odyssey, including the characters, the incidents as well as the themes. While the book has garnered intense scrutiny and criticism when it was published, its intense use of stream of consciousness technique, allusions, humour and neat structure has transformed it into a much-loved novel of all times. Fans of the author celebrate 16th June – the day the novel is set in – as Bloomsday!

The Great Gatsby (1925)

If there is any novel that is an apt portrayal of the shallowness of society back then, it has to be The Great Gatsby. Considered to be one of the greatest novels of all times, it is written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and tells us the story of Jay Gatsby, narrated by Nick Carraway. The novel juxtaposes the brilliant, sparkling but superficial life of the wealthy and the meaningless squalor of the poor population. Layering this conflict is Gatsby’s obsessive love for his former love, Daisy Buchanan. A lively commentary on the American dream, relationships, antisemitism and class conflict, the novel remains a fresh and recommended read!

Mrs Dalloway (1925)

 

It is in the 1920s that Virginia Woolf produced some of her finest works, including Mrs Dalloway. The novel is set in post-War England, exploring only a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a woman belonging to high society. Woolf combined two of her short stories to give birth to this genius of a novel, which employs stream of consciousness technique – something she used extensively – jumping among different modes of narrations. The novel explores feminism, homosexuality, mental illness and the nature of time, through the characters of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. Though critics argue it has many similarities to Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway is every bit worth a read.

The Weary Blues (1926)

 

One of the prominent movements of the 1920s was the Harlem Renaissance, an art movement of African Americans. This renaissance brought Langston Hughes to the forefront, who authored the beautiful poetry collection, The Weary Blues. Hughes brings jazz and language together to put forth this heart-touching collection. Like all of his works, this collection also talks of the African-American experience; the titular poem talks about the thoughts and feelings of the blues player with the help of striking imagery and conversational language.  Other important poems include The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Mother to Son and Dream Variations, which are as beautiful as The Weary Blues.

While some novels are just a one-time read, some linger in the readers’ mind – only to be re-read, discussed and counted as the greatest additions to world literature. Almost all the literature produced in the 1920s fit perfectly in the latter category. Not only were they an amazing read but offered the same reading experience over and over again, if not better. Now those are some serious goals for 2020s literature to surpass, right?

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