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The Age of Extremes: Twentieth-Century British & Irish Literature - ENG00104I

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Bryan Radley
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

This module celebrates an era of extraordinary creativity in these islands, which paradoxically occurs during one of the most troubled centuries in history. We will examine a diverse range of literature in multiple genres, produced from the First World War to the dawn of the new millennium. You will have the opportunity to read in depth some of the most enjoyable, influential, and revolutionary texts of recent times. You will explore artistic responses to an era in which ‘human character changed’, as Virginia Woolf famously put it.

You will encounter literature from across the twentieth century on this module, gaining a deeper understanding of the cultural, historical, and socio-political contexts of twentieth-century British and Irish writing. We will read an exciting selection of material that encompasses texts as different, for example, as T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. We will also track the cultural impact of historical events such as the traumas of The Great War and the 1916 Rising, through to the possibilities of the Good Friday Agreement and the opening of the Scottish Parliament. After all, the period was christened The Age of Extremes by the historian Eric Hobsbawm and is marked by intense political and military conflict, as well as rapid social and technological change.

Following on from an introductory lecture that sets the scene on early twentieth-century life and literature, the first three weeks explore the literary innovations of some of the giants of modernist poetry and fiction. In Ezra Pound’s resonant phrase, we will witness writers’ attempts to ‘make it new’. The following two weeks investigate the formal experiments of mid-century drama and the postmodern novel, while the module ends with a week each on influential recent plays, novels, and poems. In summary, you will explore literature’s responses to the fraught political, social, and technological landscapes of the twentieth century, tracing literary movements from modernism to postmodernism and beyond.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

This module aims to help you to identify and contextualise a number of key developments and innovations in the literatures of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland during the twentieth century. We will do so via discussion of a series of representative texts, with in-depth close reading and careful historico-political and theoretical framing.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an informed understanding of and engagement with a range of texts published in Britain and Ireland during the twentieth century.

  2. Demonstrate an informed understanding of and engagement with wider cultural and political developments, including issues of ideological conflict, national identity, and technological change, as well as in relation to class, gender, and race.

  3. Examine key debates and critical contexts, including modernism and postmodernism.

  4. Develop oral and written arguments which demonstrate a proficiency in critical thinking and research skills.


Task Length % of module mark
2500 word essay
N/A 70
Recorded Presentation
N/A 30

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
2500 word essay
N/A 70
Recorded Presentation
N/A 30

Module feedback

  • You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours.
  • For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment.

Indicative reading

Key Texts for this module may include:

  • Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
  • W. B. Yeats poems from The Tower and The Winding Stair
  • Samuel Beckett: Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape
  • J. G. Ballard: Concrete Island
  • Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • Caryl Churchill: Cloud 9
  • Tom Stoppard: Travesties
  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
  • Zadie Smith: White Teeth

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.