The Theme of Loneliness in 20th Century American Literature

Alfred Kazin (1942)  found «… the greatest single fact about our modern American writing is our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it.»

Firstly, it is important to mention that political, social and economic situation in America came across difficulties in the twentieth century. World War I broke down an approved belief that people should die for native country. Theme of «American dream», which was so specific for American literature changed drastically («Foreign Literature. 20th Century.», n.d.). People started losing their faith in the light future due to their uncertainty about the coming events. Along with the changes of surrounding world, the literature also changed. And it happened with appearing of modernism, when writers started feeling unpredictable and frightening atmosphere in the country.

New stream of writers realized that human features had more sophisticated structure than they had thought before. Hence, they came to conclusion that new aspect of writing should be developed in order to catch another side of human soul.

One such aspect suggested investigation of dependency between consciousness and unconsciousness and, in turn, their influence on human inner world. Trying to imbue their stories with important elements of self-knowledge authors were making efforts towards closing from surrounding world thanks to reading and self-absorption.

Also, the modernists rejected traditional notions of plot and time. The nineteenth century saw time as comprising three distinct stages – past, present and future – through which an orderly progression of events evolves. Such a view of time produced a literature that focused on the major events in the life of a character and showed a rational relationship between those events and the character’s development. By contradicting these traditional assumptions, modern authors produced an entirely different type of literature. Authors considered that time is not a series of logically sequential or separate stages. Rather, they thought time is a continuous, uninterruptible stream with past, present and future simultaneously present («An Introduction to Modernism», n.d.).

In this way they were trying to confuse people at the first step of reading, bur then stories helped to understand people’s own inwardness in the end.

Modernists wholeheartedly believed that this rejection from traditional notion of time and plot could reflect reality in right way, rather than narrative structure based on beginning, middle and the end. Authors did not want to concentrate on major events happening in the stories. Conversely – they made attempts to interfere minds’ secrets with help of alienated characters as they were unreservedly convinced that solitude and reading as a union would bring thoughts harvest.

Consequently, changes in the style of modern literature also affected the reader. The reader’s task was to perceive the story with understanding of why the author chose the particular organization of events evolved.  This kind of task was created to make people find the idiosyncratic connection between external world and spend projection to deeper examination of their own human nature. That is why novels, poems, and plays became self-referential and closed system.

So, why is loneliness considered to be the major theme in 20th century American literature?

Because due to political, religious and social changes in the country the main idea of authors’ writings also altered – it was aimed at invasion of human inner world, revealing of hearts’ secrets and extracting life’s contradictions. Extracting the most important features of life becomes wise verdict built on knowledge of reality («Foreign Literature. 20th Century.», n.d.). Events which had place that time influenced authors, who after catching this atmosphere just wanted to give a push to new writing with describing the condition, which appeared to be the superior one in people’s minds – loneliness.

Having a space for your emotional freedom and independence of thoughts you hold a value in your hands – being in private with yourself. People often look for loneliness to understand they are part of a nature, and when they come face to face with loneliness it is not the isolation any more – it is privacy. The time spent with yourself is the most fruitful, helps us to maintain our internal life. Only in a state of solitude the soul delivers ideas to our imagination and then we sort them out and decide which to adopt and use. Loneliness does not mean that person misses something – it means that he has found himself.

According to Douglas Coupland (n.d.), «Remember:  the time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself. Life’s cruelest irony.»  Alienation leads to an awareness about one’s inner life. While reading modernism stories human thoughts are mixing and trying to close from surrounding in order to think about something important. This closed mind leads to loneliness and isolation and readers appear to be captured in their thoughts, which in turn are considered to be the link of finding your own truth. That was exactly the aim of modernist writers – to pay readers’ attention to their own inwardness and personal significance. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to dive in unknown and blurred space of self-examination and that is why these stories could be understood only by people with flexible mind and ability to accept changes.


Alfred Kazin (1942).  On Native Grounds. Retrieved from
An introduction to modernism. Retrieved from
Douglas Coupland Quotes. Retrieved from
Foreign Literature. 20th Century. Retrieved from

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