Modern Era


In "The Second Coming," one of the most quoted poems of the modern era, the Irish writer William Butler Yeats wrote: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . . . ." These words might be a motto for the era, which coincides roughly with the twentieth century. For many centuries, the people of Western civilization had been trying to maintain some stability through political and cultural institutions. Gradually--some might say inevitably--these institutions have lost their unity, stability, and influence as they have had to cope with divisions and challenges. The Reformation of the sixteenth century, for example, divided Christians. The French Revolution of 1789 overturned the French aristocracy, and Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection led many to challenge Christian doctrine. By the twentieth century, many people were feeling that there was little left to provide stability. Compounding this deterioration of institutions was a series of catastrophes that threatened even greater destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, for example, more 13 million people died fighting in World War I. Even more devastating was World War II, in which some 40 to 60 million people died; some 6 million of these people were Jews who had been starved, tortured, or otherwise persecuted in German concentration camps. On top of these two disasters, humans of the modern era have had to cope with the Great Depression, the Vietnam and Korean conflicts, assassinations, riots, terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Responding to this chaotic environment while also continuing the artistic rebellion begun by the Romantics, the modern artists have created some of the most abstruse and abstract work the world has seen. Musicians Igor Stravinsky and Philip Glass have challenged musical conventions, for instance, and cubist Pablo Picasso and surrealist Salvador Dali have created daring paintings. Following the lead of nineteenth-century authors such as Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Henrik Ibsen, writers such as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Eugene O'Neill revolutionized literature by working with stream of consciousness, free verse, and expressionistic dramatic devices. In another important development of the modern era, literature has become much less dominated by white men than it once was as Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan have emerged and drawn attention to other perspectives. 

Study Questions


  • An important development of this century is the rise of minority writers. Citing several works by these writers, analyze the contributions that they have made to American literature. 
  • Several works published in this century reflect the influence of other arts, especially music. Referring to some of these works, explain how writers use other arts to complement the written or spoken word. 
  • How have writers of this era addressed the themes of good and evil? 

"The Open Boat"

  • Publication: 1897
  • Stephen Crane mentions several details about the dinghy. What is the significance of these details?
  • Analyze Crane's description of the waves in paragraph 10. In what ways might we interpret these waves, as well as other objects and persons in the story, as symbols?
  • In paragraph 11, Crane writes: "Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque." What does he mean? Who might be able to view this scene from such a perspective?
  • If you have read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," identify the allusion Crane makes to it in paragraph 30. What purpose does this allusion serve?
  • What is the nature of the "subtler brotherhood" described at the beginning of Section III? Why do the men feel this brotherhood?
  • What role do the elements--wind, waves, and tide--play in the story?
  • Analyze this line: "Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing."
  • Identify the point of view of the narrator and characterize Crane's style of narrating his story. In what ways are these features different from those of "To Build a Fire"? In particular, analyze paragraph 70.
  • Like "To Build a Fire," this story is considered a classic example of naturalistic fiction. What elements do the two stories share? In what respects are they different? What do these similarities and differences tell us about each writer's view of humanity and nature?
  • Why do you suppose the men in the boat direct so much animosity toward the man who waves at them from the shore?
  • Analyze this refrain from the story: "If I am going to be drowned--if I am going to be drowned--if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven made gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?"
  • Interpret this line from paragraph 174: "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples."
  • Characterize Crane's ideas about the purpose of fiction. In particular, consider the correspondent's thoughts about the "soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers."
  • Interpret this line from paragraph 228: "Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature."
  • Why do you suppose Crane chose to name only one of the characters?

  • Analyze your answers to all of these questions and identify the theme of this story.

"The Turn of the Screw"

  • Analyze the narrator. In particular, consider whether she is a reliable narrator or an unreliable narrator. Defend your answer and explain how this detail shapes one's reading of the story.
  • What does this story have to say about the nature of evil?
  • On one level, this story is a study of epistemology, a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowing. Discuss how the governess, the reader, or both know the truth about what happens at the estate.
  • Would you characterize this story as Gothic? Defend your answer by referring to specific details. How do these details shape our reading of the story?
  • "The Turn of the Screw" is an example of something called a "frame narrative." That is, it is a story within a story. How does this structure shape the work's meaning or effect?
  • Analyze the title's significance.

"To the Garden the World," by Walt Whitman

  • What allusion is at the center of this poem? What does it contribute to the poem's meaning?
  • This poem, like nearly all of Walt Whitman's poems, is an example of free verse. Define "free verse" and illustrate your definition by referring to "To the Garden the World."

"He fumbles at your spirit," by Emily Dickinson

  • Who is "He"?  Defend your answer.
  • How does the poem's conceit function?

"God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins

  • Identify the form of this poem and explain how this form gives shape to the poem's message.
  • Analyze the poem's tone. Refer to specific images, words, and passages.

"Carrion Comfort," by Gerard Manley Hopkins

  • Compare the tone of this poem and that of "God's Grandeur."
  • Analyze Hopkins' use of sound in this poem and "God's Grandeur." In particular, note examples of alliteration.

"Yet Do I Marvel," by Countee Cullen

  • Who is "He"?  Defend your answer.
  • How does the poem's conceit function?

"Dulce et Decorum Est," by Wilfred Owen

  • What can you say about the poem's persona? Whom is he addressing? Why?
  • Analyze the poem's imagery.
  • The final lines come from the Roman poet Horace's Odes and mean: "It is sweet and appropriate to die for one's country." How do these words function in this poem? Why do you suppose Owen quoted them and kept them in the original Latin?

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry

  • What is the source of the play's title? Why do you suppose Hansberry chose to allude to this poem?
  • Compare the major characters of the play. What motivates them?
  • Analyze Hansberry's treatment of different types of identity.
  • Identify a dramatic device, such as lighting or blocking, and explain how it contributes to the play's meaning. 
  • Define "realism" and illustrate your points by referring to this play. 
  • The words "dream" and "dreams" occur several times in this play. Why do the characters talk so much about dreams?
  • Analyze the scene in which Mr. Lindner offers Walter Lee Younger and his family money to keep them from moving into the white neighborhood. How does Mr. Lindner address the Youngers?  How do they respond to him? What does Lindner mean by changing people's hearts?  What do these elements reveal about the characters and the world in which they--and, to some extent, we--live?
  • Why does Beneatha feel conflicted about going to Africa? Do you think she will go? Consider this scene as an allegory. What does it say about race in America?
  • How does Walter become the head of the house?


  • Boucher, Jennifer, Harry Bowman, Teresa Bush. "Harlem Renaissance." 1999.
  • Breeden, Taneshia, Brandette Bullard, and Laura Stone. "Harlem Renaissance."  1999.
  • Elkins, Carrie Ann, Jennifer Finch, April Hall, Genator Hawkins, Danny Hendrix. "Modern Art." 1999.
  • Farrington, Melvin, Ben Gersh, Brandon Gibson, Veronica Hatton, Karen Sherrill, Kelly Tripp. "Modern Art." 1999.


  • Pablo Picasso 
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt 
  • Adolf Hitler 
  • Martin Luther King 


  • Harlem, New York 
  • Georgia 


  • World War I (1914-1918) 
  • Great Depression (1929-1930s) 
  • World War II (1939-1945) 
  • Civil Rights Movement (1950s-1960s) 
  • Vietnam War (1950s-1970s) 


  • free verse 
  • Harlem Renaissance 
  • Modernism 
  • realism