The 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century


The 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, as drawn up by the editorial board of The Modern Library – Random House.

ULYSSES  by  James Joyce

The novel focuses on the events of June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland, in particular on the day’s experiences of Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, an artist in search of a subject. Although he has abundant intellectual and educational resources for the task, Stephen is burdened by a weak father image, a debilitating guilt over his recently dead mother, and insensitive and untrustworthy companions. Leopold Bloom, on the other hand, is an average citizen carried along in the flow of everyday life: We observe his every move, thought, sensation, and fantasy throughout the day, from his preparing breakfast for his indolent wife to his return to their bedroom at 2 a.m. on June 17. Among his many trials during the day is the awareness that Molly betrays him with an impresario named Blazes Boylan.

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The narrator of the story is Nick Carraway, who has moved to New York from the Midwest. He rents a house in the town of West Egg, Long Island. Across the bay, in the more respectable East Egg, live his cousin Daisy and her wealthy, overbearing husband Tom Buchanan, whom Nick knew at Yale.  The most interesting character he meets, however, is his next-door neighbor, a mysterious rich man known as Jay Gatsby. After attending a lavish but ostentatious party at Gatsby’s estate, Nick slowly becomes his one true friend. He discover that Gatsby has long loved Daisy, and that he has dedicated his life to winning her from Tom. Gatsby (ne Gatz) has tried to make himself into the kind of sophisticated man he feels Daisy deserves, but his money has come from gambling and other underworld activities.
Nick reflects Fitzgerald’s conflicting attitudes toward the wealthy, whom he found both glamorous and destructive. The book is also a testament to the power of the creative will to overcome, at least for the moment, the despair of everyday life.


Joyce’s quasi-autobiographical novel has at its center the issue of sin and its impingement on the human soul. It expands
the topic to cover all the ways the individual may be limited in his quest for fulfillment, by family, friends, and social and
national institutions. The novel is particularly noteworthy both in its use of the interior monologue and in its presentation of
life in Ireland at a time of unrest. Here, in contrast to the usual novel of adolescence, the primary emphasis is placed upon
the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual development of the protagonist.

LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov 

The novel’s middle-aged, Central European narrator, Humbert, traces his sexual obsession for girls between the ages of nine and fourteen to an instance of interrupted coitus he suffered when, at 13, he and a certain Annabel Leigh had the beginnings of their first affair forever aborted by her early death. (The allusions to Poe’s poem and life are among a multitude of literary references in Nabokov’s novel.) After a low-comedy marriage to a “life-sized woman” in Paris ends absurdly, Humbert emigrates to the United States, settling in a small New England town in the late 1940’s.
The novel works on many levels: a satire of billboard America, progressive-school education, and teenage mores; a commentary on Continental-American cultural relations; but above all as a moving love story, with Humbert captive to the cruel caprices of his indifferent child-mistress.

BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley 

The story begins with the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning giving a guided tour of his baby factory to a group of students. He explains how four levels of humans are artificially created in bottles, each predestined for a specific role.
Bernard Marx is a discontented intellectual, vaguely bothered by the values of his culture, which emphasize promiscuous sex, conspicuous consumption, and thought control. He and Lenina take a holiday in New Mexico, inhabited by “savages” who live in families, worship Christ, suffer pain, and often die of old age.

THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner 

Told chronologically, The Sound and the Fury is the saga of a Southern family in decline. Faulkner’s portrait of the once-prominent Compson clan shows two dysfunctional parents, a suicidal son, a fallen daughter, a retarded son, and a son racked with bitterness. For Faulkner, the Compsons represent the collapse of the old Southern order in the decades following the Civil War. Faulkner would elaborate on that compelling theme in future works and, in novels such as As I Lay Dying (1930) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), perfect the daring narrative such as strategies first employed in The Sound and the Fury.

CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller

World War, 1939-1945–Fiction.

War stories.

Yossarian, the protagonist, opens the novel in the hospital, where he is happily feigning illness in order to avoid combat. The outcome of the war is no longer in doubt, and his goal is survival. Indeed, the goal of the army itself seems to be anything but winning the war. The commanders who keep raising the number of missions the men must fly are concerned with their own careers; the bureaucrats who interrupt meals with loyalty oaths are pushing their own departments.Entrepreneurs such as Milo Minderbinder are only interested in making a profit. Heller’s army is a metaphor for theMcCarthyism, big business, and big bureaucracy of the Eisenhower 1950’s: a total system with no way out.

DARKNESS AT NOON by Arthur Koestler
Nicholas Rubashov, former Commissar of the People and once a power in the party, was in prison. Arrested at his lodgings in the middle of the night, he had been taken secretly to cell 404, which bore his name on a card just above the spy hole. His cell was located in an isolation block for political suspects.
At seven o’clock in the morning, Rubashov was awakened by a bugle, but he did not get up. Soon he heard sounds in the corridor. He imagined that someone was to be tortured, and he dreaded hearing the first screams of pain. When the footsteps reached his own section, he saw through the eye hole that guards were serving breakfast. Rubashov did not receive any breakfast because he had reported himself ill. He began to pace up and down the cell, six and a half steps to the window, six and a half steps back.

SONS AND LOVERS by D. H. Lawrence

Walter Morel, a coal miner, had been a handsome, dashing young man when Gertrude had married him. After a few years of marriage, however, he proved to be an irresponsible breadwinner and a drunkard, and his wife hated him for what he had once meant to her and for what he was now. Her only solace lay in her children–William, Annie, Paul, and Arthur–for she leaned heavily upon them for companionship and lived in their happiness. She was a good parent, and her children loved her. The oldest son, William, was successful in his work, but he longed to go to London, where he had promise of a better job. After he had gone, Mrs. Morel turned to Paul for the companionship and love she had found in William.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck
Tom Joad, Jr. was released from the Oklahoma state penitentiary where he had served a sentence for killing a man in self-defense. He traveled homeward through a region made barren by drought and dust storms. On the way, he met Jim Casy, a former preacher; the pair went together to the home of Tom’s family. They found the Joad place deserted. While Tom and Casy were wondering what had happened, Muley Graves, a die-hard tenant farmer, came by and disclosed that all the families in the neighborhood had gone to California or were going. Tom’s folks, Muley said, had gone to a relative’s place to prepare for going west. Muley was the only sharecropper to stay behind. All over the southern Midwest states, farmers, no longer able to make a living because of land banks, weather, and machine farming, had sold or were forced out of the farms they had tenanted. Junk dealers and used-car salesmen profiteered on them. Thousands of families took to the roads leading to the promised land: California.

UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry

Although Under the Volcano was well received on first publication, the novel did not sell well and was not reprinted for many years. Since 1958, however, it has shared in the growing appreciation of Malcolm Lowry that followed his death in 1957 and the publication of his third volume, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, in 1961. Lowry would have appreciated the irony of late acclaim. In the first chapter of Under the Volcano, Jacques Laruelle receives two messages from Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of the novel, who died the year before. The doomed, damned, and dead Geoffrey still manages to communicate with the living, and they possibly pay more attention to his words now than they did when he was alive. The posthumous publications of Lowry serve much the same purpose; readers and critics are paying more attention to what Lowry has to say now that he is dead.

THE WAY OF ALL FLESH by Samuel Butler
Although written in 1885, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH was not published until one year after Butler’s death in 1902. Largely autobiographical, the novel is said to have dealt the Victorian ethos its final blow and pulled England into the 20th century. Through the story of Ernest Pontifex and his godfather, the novel’s narrator, Overton, Butler attacks institutions that the Victorians held sacred, such as the Church, traditional family structure, and the educational system; in addition, he promulgates such new ideas as “creative evolution,” “life force,” and “unconscious memory,” thus anticipating such thinkers as Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung, and George Bernard Shaw.

1984 by George Orwell
Few novels have had the impact of Nineteen Eighty-four. Even those who have not read the novel are familiar with terms such as “Big Brother” and “doublethink.” Although the novel may be read as a grim political satire on George Orwell’s time–the horrors of the modern totalitarian state, whether Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930’s or Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1940’s–it easily qualifies as a dystopic vision of a nightmarish future awaiting the world if it ignores modern assaults on human freedom. Its warning of a negative utopia has not diminished with the passage of the year 1984, for its menace is just as possible for 2084 or 2184.

I, CLAUDIUS by Robert Graves
I, Claudius was a financial success when it was published in 1934 and has continued to be popular ever since. It was translated into seventeen languages and brought to the attention of additional millions of people around the world after being made into a television drama by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1976. Graves tells his story in the first person, using the ingenious fiction that the novel is a printed translation of the Emperor Claudius’ actual “lost autobiography,” which has been miraculously rediscovered in 1934 after having been thought to have been destroyed by war, accident, or natural disaster like so many other priceless artifacts of the ancient world.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf
The Ramsay family portrait is one that was intimately familiar to Virginia Woolf’s Victorian sensibilities. She presents an outwardly functional social structure. Beneath the surface of her characters’ actions and spoken words, however, rest contempt, frustration, and dissatisfaction with an outmoded code of behavior that nevertheless continues to be enforced.

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser
Clyde Griffiths is a dreamer and social climber. His family is poor and fanatically religious. His narrow upbringing cannot, however, stifle the urge he has to make something of himself. One of his jobs (as a bellhop) fortuitously brings him in contact with a rich relative, who promises Clyde a job in the family-run factory.
Much of the novel centers on Clyde’s deepening involvement with two women–Roberta, whom he meets in the Griffiths’ factory, and Sondra, a high-society girl he encounters at a family party. Having already committed himself to Roberta, a hazardous thing to have done considering that the Griffiths strictly forbid anyone in the family consorting with employees, he falls deeply in love with Sondra, for she represents that promise of everything he has dreamed of: wealth and recognition.

Two mutes, one a grossly overweight Greek man named Antonapoulos, the other, a tall, immaculate man named Mr. Singer, lived together for ten years in a small, Southern town; they had no other friends. After an illness, the Greek man changed. When he began to be obscene in public, the cousin for whom he worked sent him to the state insane asylum. Mr. Singer was despondent without his friend.

Like Vonnegut, who speaks in his own voice in several places to confirm that much of the novel is based on his wartime experiences, Billy Pilgrim lives through the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. From the beginning of the book, war is presented as both comically and horrifyingly absurd. Billy and his comrades, American and German, are ludicrously inept as soldiers. As the subtitle of the novel indicates, they are children on a gamelike crusade, manipulated by inscrutable forces.
Yet the game is deadly: The destruction of Dresden, a city of no strategic importance, populated only by Germans too old or weak to fight and prisoners of war such as Billy, is senseless but inevitable. Because of the shock of this event, Billy becomes a perpetual prisoner of war, returning again and again in his mind to this scene. Vonnegut’s message is especially powerful as he reminds the reader that the destruction of Dresden is no isolated occurrence: SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE was written during the Vietnam War era and alludes frequently to a new generation of Billy Pilgrims and Children’s Crusades.

INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison
Having spoken in the prologue of his need to come out into the light, to surface from a building that has been “rented strictly to whites” and “shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century,” the narrator gives immediate notice that he is telling not a single but a typological, or multiple, story. Everything that has happened to him bears the shadow of prior African American history. He vows, however, that all past “hibernation,” all past “invisibility,” must now end. It falls to him to “illuminate”–that is, literally and figuratively to write into being–the history that has at once made both him and black America at large so “black and blue” and yet which has been a triumph of human survival and art.
To that end, he steps back into Dixie and into a “Battle Royal,” a brawl in which a group of blindfolded black boys fight for the entertainment of whites. The scene gives a crucial point of departure for the novel. In fighting “blind,” the boys illustrate an ancestral divide-and-rule tactic of the white South; the boys’ reward is money from an electrified rug. Equally, when a sumptuous white stripper dances before the townsmen, an American flag tattooed between her thighs, the ultimate taboo looms temptingly yet impossibly before the black boys. Literally with blood in his throat, the narrator thanks his patrons and leaves, having received a scholarship to a Tuskegee-style college. He thinks, too, of his grandfather’s advice, that of a slavery-time veteran of black mimicry, who tells him to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction”–the words of the trickster as seeming “coon” or “good nigra” whose every act of servility in fact derides his white oppressors. Nor can the narrator be unmindful of a dream in which mountains of paper contain a single, recurrent message: “Keep this Nigger Boy Running.”

NATIVE SON by Richard Wright
When first published in 1940, Native Son was an immediate success. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and in three weeks 215,000 copies were sold.
Richard Wright was a prolific writer, and his other works include Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945), Lawd Today (written 1935, but not published until 1963), Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), and The Outsider (1953).
As literature, Native Son employs the tenets of naturalism and existentialism to portray Bigger Thomas, the stereotypical “nigger.” If, as the naturalist contends, human beings are the products of their environment, then the very title of the novel–Native Son–seems to indicate that Bigger responds to environmental forces. In true naturalistic fashion, Bigger does not understand these forces, and hence he cannot control them.

The seeker in Bellow’s fiction is no Ulysses, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Gulliver, Huck Finn, or Ishmael. He is the philosophical clown, the innocent American, and adventurous discoverer of a spiritual quest that begins with the knowledge that “man’s character is his fate” and ends with the realization that “man’s fate is his character.” Eugene Henderson is a tremendously comic figure, oversized in physique, great in his appetites, obsessed by the demands of an “I want, I want” that clamors without appeasement within him. He is fifty-five years old and has a violent temper; he has more money than even his eccentric needs demand, a second wife, and an assortment of children. He has turned his home into a pig farm, learned to play the violin, and acquired a reputation for drinking and crude manners. When he tries to sum up his life, it is, as he says, a mess, a fact he realizes without knowing the reasons for it. When he can no longer face himself, his family, or his past, he flees to Africa with dreams of becoming another Dr. Grenville or Albert Schweitzer. Africa, as Henderson sees it, is an empty and secret land, the last outpost of the prehuman past, a land unmarked by the footprints of history.

One of O’Hara’s shortest and best-structured novels, Appointment in Samarra is the story of hubris in a modern setting. It takes place in 1930, after the crash of 1929 but before people understood just how bad the Depression would become. The hero of the novel, Julian English, has social status but destroys himself by not living up to it. Julian has two problems: people and alcohol, but both are revealed to be part of the inner problems that ultimately ruin him. There is much discussion in the book of who “belongs” and who does not, which clubs count in Gibbsville, what preparatory schools and colleges matter, and where one should be seen or not be seen. The laborer, mobster, and society man all think constantly about their position on the social ladder. Julian English thinks about it too much.

U.S.A. (trilogy) by John Dos Passos
A steady theme throughout the trilogy is the erosion of individual liberty. In war and at peace, the country seems increasingly corrupted by a mania for self-aggrandizement and a concentration of political and economic power that thwarts the integrity of individual lives.

WINESBURG, OHIO by Sherwood Anderson
Winesburg, Ohio has the stature of a modern classic. It is at once beautiful and tragic, realistic and poetic. Without being a novel in the usual sense of the word, the connected stories have the full range and emotional impact of a novel. In simple, though highly skillful and powerful language, Sherwood Anderson tells the story of a small town and the lonely, frustrated people who live there. Although regional in its setting and characters, the book is also intensely American. No one since Anderson has succeeded in interpreting the inner compulsions and loneliness of the national psyche with the same degree of accuracy and emotional impact.

Aziz, a Moslem doctor, shows off one of few sights of the region, the Marabar caves, to two visiting Englishwomen: Adela Quested, who has come out to marry an English official, and Mrs. Moore, the fiance’s mother. Something happens to Adela at the caves, but both the alleged assault and the philosophical meaning of the Caves, with which Adela’s experience is associated, remain mysterious. The philosophy is centered in Mrs. Moore, an old woman who is merely bored by the fuss being made over Aziz, and in the Hindu Professor Godbole, who also finds questions of individual guilt and innocence irrelevant. The critique of colonialism is centered in Fielding, who becomes friends with Aziz and breaks ranks with the English in order to support him.

Kate Croy was dependent on her aunt, Mrs. Lowder, because Kate’s own father was a ne’er-do-well. Mrs. Lowder had great plans for her niece and encouraged Lord Mark as a suitor for Kate’s hand. Kate’s own mind was set on a young reporter, Merton Densher, who worked for one of the London papers. Mrs. Lowder liked Densher and even invited him to her home, but she did not want him to marry her niece, for he had no apparent prospects of money or a place in society. Mrs. Lowder breathed more easily when she learned that the young man was being sent by his newspaper to the United States to write a series of articles on life there.

Lambert Strether was engaged to marry Mrs. Newsome, a widow. Mrs. Newsome had a son, Chadwick, whom she wanted to return home from Paris and take over the family business in Woollett, Massachusetts. She was especially concerned for his future after she had heard that he was seriously involved with a Frenchwoman. In her anxiety, she asked Strether to go to Paris and persuade her son to return to the respectable life she had planned for him. Strether did not look forward to his task, for Chadwick had ignored all of his mother’s written requests to return home. Strether also did not know what hold Chadwick’s mistress might have over him or what sort of woman she might be. He strongly suspected that she was a young girl of unsavory reputation. Strether realized, however, that his hopes of marrying Mrs. Newsome depended upon his success in bringing Chad back to America, where his mother could see him married to Mamie Pocock

TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Rosemary Hoyt was just eighteen, dewy fresh and giving promise of beautiful maturity. In spite of her youth, she was already a famous actress, and her film Daddy’s Girl was all the rage. She had come to the south of France with her mother for a rest after having become very ill from diving repeatedly into a Venetian canal during the shooting of her picture.
At the beach, she met Dick Diver and suddenly realized that she was in love. After she became well acquainted with the Divers, she also came to like Diver’s wife, Nicole, a strikingly beautiful woman, and her two children. Rosemary’s mother approved of Dick. At one of the Divers’ famous parties, Rosemary told Dick outright that she loved him, but he made light of her declaration.

Studs Lonigan traces the growth and demise of an Irish Catholic boy on the South Side of Chicago. He smokes, drinks too much, goes to “cathouses” (brothels), fights to prove his courage, and dreams of distinguishing himself as the toughest guy in his neighborhood. He does not want to finish high school and can barely tolerate the Catholic grammar school he attends. His parents do not know how to control him: His father cannot keep him off the streets, while his mother is tender with him but knows nothing about his desires or feelings and nurtures the unrealistic hope that he will become a priest. Studs does have a tender streak. He is infatuated with Lucy Scanlon, a provocative young girl with whom he manages to spend a day but who then teases him about the episode, so that he stays away from her even as he yearns to resume their intimacy.

THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Maddox Ford
Graham Greene has called The Good Soldier the finest French novel ever written in English, and it has often been considered one of the best novels written in English in the twentieth century. What Greene probably meant is that the novel is remarkable for the subtlety with which it gets into the nuance and detail of male-female relations. What saves the novel from being simply a tale of sexual obsession is John Dowell. He is the key to understanding the work. Most narrators are, at best, only part of a story. He is, despite his inaction, the most interesting person in it.

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell
Old Major called a meeting as soon as Mr. Jones went to sleep. Jones, who was cruel to his animals, had been drinking excessively of late. When all the animals were gathered, Major began to speak. He had had a dream in which he remembered the song Beasts of England from his distant past. He taught it to the others and told them they should rise up to defeat Jones and do their work for themselves, for their own benefit. He said that all men were evil and that all animals were good and equal.  An anti-Soviet satire, the book was ahead of its time. The U.S.S.R. was fighting with the allied forces in World War II, and the book would be seen as an attack on the U.S.S.R. and Joseph Stalin. After World War II, the book was published. The political situation was different then, and Animal Farm appeared just as the Cold War was beginning.

THE GOLDEN BOWL by Henry James
Adam Verver, a rich American, has come to Europe with his daughter Maggie, to buy works of art for his collection. Along with various objets d’art, Verver also acquires a husband, the Prince, for his daughter and a wife, Charlotte Stant, for himself. Adam and Maggie are unaware that their spouses had had an affair that they were forced to abandon because they were not well-off enough to marry. Instead, the Prince and Charlotte separated, and Charlotte, a friend and contemporary of Maggie’s, returned to America. It is on the eve of the Prince and Maggie’s wedding that Charlotte appears in London, “extraordinarily alone,” to witness the marriage of her dear friend. Charlotte’s desire to find a perfect wedding gift, of the Prince’s choosing, for Maggie, leads the ex-lovers on a search through London to a small antique shop in Bloomsbury where Charlotte discovers a golden bowl. The bowl is actually gilded crystal; it seems perfect but in fact is flawed“Does one make a present,” Charlotte asks, “of an object that contains, to one’s knowledge, a flaw?” The golden bowl symbolises the fundamental flaws in the square of relationships that appear, superficially, to be so perfectly arranged and played out.

SISTER CARRIE by Theodore Dreiser
Carrie Meeber, a poor and inexperienced young woman, leaves her hometown in Wisconsin to live with her sister and find work in Chicago. Life soon becomes a grind of never-ending labor for mere survival. Falling ill and losing her poor-paying job, she accepts money from Charles Drouet, a man whom she met on the train when she traveled to the city. Eventually, she becomes his mistress.
Drouet’s friend, G. W. Hurstwood, is fascinated by Carrie’s charm and beauty. Carrie and Hurstwood fall in love and begin an affair. Mrs. Hurstwood threatens that unless he leaves Carrie, she will sue him for divorce. Faced with social and financial ruin, Hurstwood steals several thousand dollars from his employer and takes Carrie to Montreal. Given the opportunity to return the money, he does give back most of it, but his life is changed forever.

A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh
John Beaver lived in London with his mother, an interior decorator. Beaver was a worthless young man of twenty-five years who moved in the social circles of his mother’s wealthy customers. He was not well liked, but he was often invited to parties and weekends to fill a space made vacant at the last moment.
One weekend, Beaver was invited to Hetton Abbey by its young owner, Tony Last. Tony lived in the old Gothic abbey with his wife, Brenda, and his young son, John. It was Tony’s dream that someday he would restore his mansion to its former feudal glory. Brenda, however, was bored with her husband’s attachment to the past; she found relief in her weekly trips to London. Beaver’s stay at Hetton Abbey was rather dull, but Brenda liked him and did her best to entertain him. On her next trip to London, she saw him again and asked him to take her to a party. At first, Beaver seemed reluctant; then he agreed to escort her.

AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner
Addie Bundren was dying. She lay in a bed in the Bundren farmhouse, looking out the window at her son Cash as he built the coffin in which she was to be buried. Obsessed with perfection in carpentry, Cash held up each board for her approval before nailing it in place. Dewey Dell, Addie’s daughter, stood beside the bed, fanning her mother. In another room, Addie’s husband, Anse, and two sons, Darl and Jewel, discussed the boys’ plans to make a trip to sell a wagonload of lumber. Addie wished to be buried in Jefferson, the town where her relatives lay, and Anse was afraid that the boys might not get back in time to carry her body to the Jefferson graveyard. He finally approved the trip, however, and the boys set out.

ALL THE KING’S MEN by Robert Penn Warren
One of the richest and most powerful of twentieth century American novels is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. In its pages can be traced a multitude of fascinating subjects ranging from politics to religion, from sociology to philosophy. There is an equally wide scope to the thematic questions posed by the work. The novel’s complexities arouse various responses in its readers. Some, for example, praise it as Christian, while others revile it as nihilistic on exactly the same grounds. The book is generally regarded as the masterpiece of a novelist who was also a respected poet, critic, and professor.

On Friday, July 20, 1714, the bridge of San Luis Rey, the most famous bridge in Peru, collapsed, hurling five travelers into the deep gorge below. Present at the time of the tragedy was Brother Juniper, who saw in the event a chance to prove, scientifically and accurately, the wisdom of that act of God. He spent all his time investigating the lives of the five who had died, and he published a book showing that God had had a reason to send each one of them to his death at exactly that moment. The book was condemned by the church authorities, and Brother Juniper was burned at the

stake. He had gone too far in explaining God’s ways to humanity. Through a strange quirk of fate, one copy of the book was left undestroyed, and it fell into the hands of the author. From it, and from his own knowledge, he reconstructed the lives of the five persons.

HOWARDS END by E. M. Forster
The Wilcox family met Margaret Schlegel and her sister Helen while both families were vacationing in Germany. Neither group expected the chance acquaintance to amount to anything more, but later, after all had returned to England, Helen Schlegel was invited to visit the Wilcox family at Howards End, their country home near London. While there, Helen fell in love with Paul Wilcox. The Wilcox family disapproved of the match and Paul backed off. With that, the acquaintance ended. Several months later, however, the Wilcoxes rented a house across the street from the Schlegel home. Both of the young people were out of the country, and when Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel met again, they became friends.
Also acquainted with the Schlegels was a young man named Leonard Bast, whose umbrella had been accidentally taken by Helen at a concert. The young man interested the girls and their brother by his conversation when he had called to reclaim his umbrella. They did not know that he had a vulgar wife, a woman some years older than he who had trapped him into a distasteful marriage.  Some months after the acquaintance between Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel had ripened into friendship, Mrs. Wilcox became ill and died. Much to the surprise of her husband and sons, she left, in addition to her will, a note leaving Howards End to Margaret. Deeply upset at the idea of losing the house, the Wilcoxes decided to disregard the note, since it was not a part of the official will.

It was John’s fourteenth birthday, but he did not feel pleased. He was worried that no one would remember his birthday or help him to celebrate it in any way. He was surprised when his mother, Elizabeth, recognized the special day and offered him two different kinds of gifts. The first was money; the second was the opportunity to spend the day without interference from the rest of the family. He could be alone if he chose.
John had already accomplished the chores to which he was assigned, so he was free to experience uninterrupted adult events. He decided to go to the theater in Harlem, across Sixth Avenue, which he felt was an adventure. For John, it was a mature and independent thing to do. Even this decision, however, was not made without reflection; for him, it represented a kind of release from the protectiveness of his mother, in whom he found a sense of security. It also represented, however, a release from the tyranny that he experienced from his stepfather, Gabriel, in whom he no longer had any confidence or trust. He had always felt that Gabriel favored his own children, such as John’s stepbrother, Roy.

Major Scobie was chief of police in a British West African district. For fifteen years, he had built up a reputation for honesty. Then he learned that, in spite of his labors, he was to be passed over for the district commissionership in favor of a younger man. Those fifteen long years now seemed to him to have been too long and filled with too much work. Worse than his own disappointment was the disappointment of his wife. Mrs. Scobie needed the encouragement that a rise in official position would have given her to compensate for the loss of her only child some years before and her unpopularity among the official families of the district.  The fears and hopes, friendships and petty rivalries, loves and hates of Europeans immured in a colony on the African coast afforded Graham Greene, who actually worked in such a place during World War II, the material for this novel. The book continues the study of British people begun in earlier work by Greene. Major Scobie, like Arthur Rowe in The Ministry of Fear (1943), is a relatively friendless man—a type that seems to have fascination for the author. Like Rowe, in the earlier novel, Major Scobie is placed in a position where he can choose between life or death. The high point in both novels is that at which the choice is made. Beyond the immediate story, however, there are larger implications. The Heart of the Matter, written by one of the leading Catholic novelists of the day, is actually a religious story, a fable of the conflict between good and evil. It is a drama of the human soul in mid-passage toward heaven or hell.

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
A plane evacuating a group of schoolboys following an atomic war apparently is shot down, but not before a passenger capsule containing children is ejected. Initially happy to enjoy an adult- free, fruit-filled, sunny environment on a tropical island where they land, all the boys are determined to have fun. They soon see the need for governance and choose the “fair-haired” Ralph as their leader.  Placing a group of English schoolboys on a deserted tropical island sets up a what-if situation. The novel presumes an atomic war that threatens to wipe out civilization and a small group of children managing to survive on a previously uninhabited island. Its asks whether such children will re-create the democratic civilization they have experienced during their short lives or instead, because of animal survival instincts, revert to some precivilized form of existence. Finally, if children do slough off the veneer of cultural and ethical standards of conduct, the novel raises the question of the conclusions to be reached concerning human nature.

DELIVERANCE by James Dickey
Lewis Medlock, Ed Gentry, Drew Ballinger, and Bobby Trippe were four men who decided to canoe a river in north Georgia before it was dammed. Lewis promised them an enjoyable time away from the pressures and routine of the city. The four men spent September 14 on the river and had the type of day that Lewis had promised. The next morning Ed agreed to take Bobby in his canoe since Lewis was frustrated with Bobby’s ineptness and weakness.
Ed and Bobby stopped to rest on the bank since they were tired and, ironically, were well ahead of Lewis and Drew. Two men stepped out of the woods, one of them trailing a shotgun by the barrel. One man was taller and seemed to be toothless, and the shorter man had white stubble on his face and a stomach that fell through his overalls. In an attempt to pacify these mountain men, Ed told them that he and Bobby were not government agents looking for a still and would even be interested in buying some moonshine from them if they had it. This comment seemed to set something in motion for the mountain men, and they took Ed and Bobby at gunpoint deeper into the woods.

A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (series) by Anthony Powell
Nicholas Jenkins was in school at Eton along with three other young men, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer, and Kenneth Widmerpool. Jenkins used his friendship with the other boys to cement his acquaintance with various areas of life: Widmerpool’s ambition, Stringham’s aristocratic connections, and Templer’s social ease and familiarity with sex. A visit from Jenkins’ scapegrace Uncle Giles forecast unstable elements in the adult world. On a visit to Templer’s family, Jenkins met Templer’s sister Jean, for whom he developed a crush. He then went to France to practice the language in a French home, only to encounter Widmerpool, who was the object of jest and abuse on the part of the French people who knew him. Jenkins also fell in love with the daughter of his host. Returning to England, Jenkins entered Oxford, where he became initiated into literary circles, meeting two young writers, Mark Members and J. G. Quiggin, who seemed to have an odd love-hate relationship with

each other.


Walter Bidlake had been living with a married woman named Marjorie Carling for a year and a half, and he was growing tired of her. He felt tied to her by a moral obligation but oppressed by her attempts to possess him; she had rejected his proposal that they live together as close friends but leading independent lives. In any case, it was too late for that now, since Marjorie was pregnant. Her whining jealousy toward his latest infatuation, Lucy Tantamount, pricked Walter’s conscience, and he was angry with himself for making Marjorie unhappy by going to a party at Tantamount House without her.

THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway
Jake Barnes, like nearly every other Hemingway hero, suffers from a terrible wound. His wound–he has suffered emasculation as a combatant in World War I–is emblematic of the sterility and impotence of modern man. Modern woman fares little better, as Hemingway shows in Brett Ashley, whose sexual excess is merely another form of sterility. These characters and their joyless friends live in a moral and cultural Waste Land, and indeed critics have discovered in this novel a prose analogue to T.S. Eliot’s poem of that title.

THE SECRET AGENT by Joseph Conard
Mr. Verloc was on his way to a certain foreign embassy, summoned there, to his astonishment and unease, at the unseemly hour of eleven in the morning. Ambling down the street, bulky and stolid, Mr. Verloc did not look very much like the agent provocateur that he was supposed to be. He kept an obscure and ill-patronized little shop, behind which were quarters for his family. There he often entertained a group of London anarchists from whom he had carefully kept the secret that he was an embassy agent. He grumbled inwardly as he approached the embassy, thinking how awkward it would be if any of his anarchist friends were to detect him in the act of entering such a place.

NOSTROMO by Joseph Conrad
Nostromo is a study in the politics of wealth in an underdeveloped country. The central force in the novel is the silver of the San Tomé mine—a potential of wealth so immense that a humane and cultured civilization can be built upon it. At least this is the view of the idealist Charles Gould, the owner and developer of the mine. There are other views. From the start, Gould is ready to maintain his power by force if necessary. He remembers how the mine destroyed his father. The mine attracts politicians and armed revolutionaries from the interior, but Gould is willing to blow up his treasure and half of Sulaco, the central city, in order to defeat the revolution. He succeeds, but Conrad intends for the reader to regard his success as partial at best. His obsession with the mine separates him from his wife. As with Conrad’s other heroes, the demands of public action distort and cancel out his capacity for private affection.

THE RAINBOW by D. H. Lawrence
D.H. Lawrence’s quest within The Rainbow for values and for the appropriate form is as important to the experience of reading the novel as his polemic. Lawrence wanted to write about the passions of men and women in a new way. He also wanted to re-create himself and to urge his readers to re-create themselves. Lawrence felt that the novel form is particularly suited in its spaciousness for proposing, testing, and

discarding formulations as its author seeks truth. The Rainbow’s unfolding process presents a history of his struggle for fulfillment. The Rainbow dramatizes Lawrence’s quest for the kind of fiction that is appropriate both for passionate sexual relationships between men and women and for the struggle within each man between, to use his terms, mind-consciousness and blood-consciousness.

WOMEN IN LOVE by D. H. Lawrence
Women in Love is generally considered to be D.H. Lawrence’s masterpiece. It is an apocalyptic work that embodies the spirit of a civilization in decline. It covers a wider canvas than his earlier works, reflecting the social mobility that came about in England through education. The Brangwen girls Ursula and Gudrun connect different worlds ranging from Hermione’s elegant country house to bohemian London, and finally

they move beyond England to Europe. Lawrence’s earlier novel on the Brangwens, The Rainbow (1915), was first conceived of as The Sisters, and material left over from it was developed into Women in Love. The Rainbow, which traces chronologically the history of three generations of the Brangwen family, ends with the emergence of Ursula Brangwen as an independent young woman confronting the

modern world and believing that in it she will find fulfilment. Though Ursula’s story links the two novels, Women in Love differs from The Rainbow in both the vision of the world that it presents and the way in which it is constructed. What had profoundly altered Lawrence’s vision of the world was the the trauma of World War I.

TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller
Miller’s first published work, Tropic of Cancer, was published in Paris and was immediately banned by United States customs. In 1961 the first American edition became a best seller. The book is a history of Miller’s life in Paris during the early thirties. Penniless and starving, he underwent complete physical and spiritual degradation.






PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov


LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulner


ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac


THE MALTESE FALCOM by Dashiell Hammett


PARADE’S END by Ford Madox Ford




ZULEIKA DOBSON by Max Beerbohm


THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy










A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess


OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham


HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad


MAIN STREET by Sinclair Lewis


THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton




A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes




THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by Nathanael West


A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway


SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh






KIM by Rudyard Kipling.


A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E.M. Forster






ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner




THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen


LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad


RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow


THE OLD WIVES’ TALE by Arnold Bennett




LOVING by Henry Green




TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell


IRONWEED by William Kennedy


THE MAGUS by John Fowles




UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch


SOPHIE’S CHOICE by William Styron






THE GINGER MAN by J.P. Donleavy




One thought on “The 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century

  1. There are some real classics in this list, though of course it is all very subjective. There are several titles not included which I would have liked to have seen there.

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