Alienation has long been a popular theme in literature, but its rise to prominence came most sharply during the 20th century, as humans moved farther away from the world of nature and closer to that of machine.
This alienation is mirrored in the novels of that time. From Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run to Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the novels of the 20th century have exposed the longing and heartache so common to the human condition.
Part of the alienation expressed in the 20th century is a reaction to the changes in society as industrialization marginalized the average man. The alienation portrayed in the novels of the time reflect the impact of war (the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam), the transitional hardships faced by new immigrants, a society more mobile (and, therefore, less connected by the ties of human relationships), and a society whose supreme values center on money and power.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren shows the rise and fall of the “man of the people.” Power corrupts, and alienation is felt at all levels of society. Whether it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald writing about the upper classes and their sorrows or Truman Capote and Normal Mailer documenting the lives of criminals, a central theme in all these literary works is isolation and alienation.
From Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (the Civil War) to A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (World War I) to Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (World War II) to Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien (Vietnam War), these powerful 20th century novels of war focus on the feeling of alienation as expressed by those experiencing a state of disillusionment, fear, and anxiety. This powerful fare shows man at those moments most embodying alienation, surrounded by the life and death issues of the battlefield.
Yet many of the most powerful stories of alienation in the 20th century are told within everyday settings. Whether it’s Holden Caufield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Helen Bober in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, it is the stories of individuals simply trying to make their way in the world, coping with loneliness, seeking merely a little love and security, who seem to most vividly display what alienation in the 20th century is all about.
As society continues to emphasize the achievements of the individual over society as a whole, stories of alienation, captured in novels like Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities will continue to resonate with readers for years to come.