Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature

Course No. 2539
Professor David Thorburn, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Course No. 2539
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Course Overview

Perhaps this has happened to you: You've picked up a great novel—James Joyce's Ulysses, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, or William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! You launch in, ready to discover treasures in this great work of 20th-century fiction.

But the novel is not what you expected. The style is unfamiliar, the narrative is fragmented, and there isn't a clear plot. It's like nothing you've ever read before. If you finish it, you find yourself unsatisfied. What did it all mean? Or perhaps you don't finish at all, and find yourself putting it off until "someday."

Maybe you've yet to attempt one of these great novels. You've always wondered what you're missing, but you know these works are famously difficult, and you've hesitated to start without a guide to help you find your way through this rich but complex tradition.

You needn't wait any longer. Now you can explore this remarkable literary movement and gain insights into the secrets behind Modernism with Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature. With Professor David Thorburn as your guide, you'll see how Modernist authors created new techniques to reflect an increasingly complex post-Victorian world. This tradition includes some of the greatest authors world has known—Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad, Woolf, Kafka. Their works are some of the most challenging—yet rewarding—you'll ever encounter.

Each lecture is accessible and engaging—even if you're new to these authors. And if you've studied Modernism before, Professor Thorburn's perspectives will make you eager to return. Filled with fascinating facts and insightful readings, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature is more than just an introduction to the great writers of the period. With Professor Thorburn's expert guidance, you'll understand why these authors were great.

Modernism Made Accessible—and Compelling

Choosing short but representative novels and stories, Professor Thorburn offers a compelling overview of Modernism you'll find intriguing—whether or not you have time to read the works along with him. Each work is introduced with a full plot summary to ensure that readers from all backgrounds will easily understand the lectures.

Guided by the tenet "trust ourselves and trust the texts," Professor Thorburn demystifies the world of literary criticism and demonstrates how a thoughtful, careful reader can find exciting and enriching insights in these works. You'll examine these great novels and stories from all angles, through close readings of selected passages and illuminating discussions of structure, form, symbolism, and character.

You'll also get to know the authors as people in fascinating biographical facts and anecdotes. Here's a sample of what you'll learn:

  • Although his writing is often held up as a model of English prose, Joseph Conrad was not a native speaker. English was his third language, after French and his native language, Polish.
  • One of Soviet Russia's most revered authors, Isaac Babel briefly worked for the Soviet secret police as a translator. Later he fell out of favor, and in 1940 he was arrested, tortured, and secretly executed by the Stalinists.
  • Vladmir Nabokov was a trained lepidopterist—an expert on butterflies and moths—and discovered several new species during his academic career.
  • At the time of his death at age 41, Franz Kafka had just finished correcting the proofs of one of his final stories, "A Hunger Artist." The story, which recounts the death by starvation of a performance artist, eerily predicted Kafka's own demise: Sickened by tuberculosis, he was incapable of eating and died of starvation.

A skilled storyteller, Professor Thorburn weaves these and more fascinating details from the authors' lives to show how their personal experiences shaped their literary visions.

Finally, you'll view the works of these great authors through the lens of what went before. Using classic texts from previous centuries—the works of Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and George Eliot—Professor Thorburn provides a striking contrast that underscores the boundaries in thought and expression that were crossed as the 19th century gave way to the modern era.

"On or About December, 1910, Human Nature Changed."

No picture of Modernism is complete without an understanding of the forces that helped bring it about. As Virginia Woolf so famously noted, the modern era represented a new way of thinking about humankind and its place in the world. The Modernists lived during a time of innovative breakthroughs and awareness that affected all realms of life.

It was the world of Einstein and Marx, Freud and Wittgenstein. From the theory of relativity to perceptions on the depths of the human psyche, new discoveries overturned time-honored assumptions about humankind.

You'll see how innovative scientific pronouncements called into question old notions about the nature of existence, and how Freudian psychology focused attention on ordinary people and the mysterious psychological forces that compelled them. Stunning ideas about the way the world works—such as Darwin's theory of evolution and Marx's ideas about economics—created a new image of a hostile world order.

How did these forces affect the great artists of the day? What kind of art could capture the newly fragmented, alienated sense of self of the Modern era?

To begin to answer these questions, Professor Thorburn explores the world of visual arts. Examining contemporary works in Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and German Expressionism, he shows how these striking paintings provide an illuminating visual counterpoint to the literary works you'll be studying.

Seeing the World through Modern Eyes

In this context the great literature of the Modernist era will come alive. You'll explore the techniques these great artists employed—stream-of-consciousness narration, fragmented plots, unreliable narrators—that helped capture their sense of uncertainty in a world unmoored from traditional beliefs. And you'll explore the dominant themes of the age—the sense of alienation and nostalgia for an irretrievable past, and the commitment to capturing the experience of ordinary people.

Each author brings unique insights and innovative techniques to bear on this new understanding of the human condition. You'll encounter experimental forms of narrative and you'll see how these authors contend with the fallen idols of an earlier age. From the echoes of Greek mythology in James Joyce's wandering hero of Ulysses to Joseph Conrad's indictment of the European mission to "civilize" the peoples of developing nations in Heart of Darkness, these authors remade tradition to reflect a new, fragmented world order.

You'll also sample the rich variety the tradition holds. For some authors, Modernism represents a bleak vision of human existence, as in "The Metamorphosis," Kafka's dark story of a man transformed into a repulsive insect. But other authors find hope—or at least consolation—within the new order, as in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

You'll meet indelible characters—Conrad's megalomaniac explorer Kurtz and Vladmir Nabokov's mad academic, Kinbote, among others—and you'll travel around the world, from James Joyce's Dublin to Rudyard Kipling's Afghanistan to the crumbling aristocratic estates of the American South.

But the real journey is into the modern sensibility as it was transformed and expressed by some of the world's greatest literary artists. With Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, you'll discover a new appreciation for this rich literary tradition and witness the birth of ideas about life and art that still resonate today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    Road Map—Modernism and Moral Ambiguity
    In addition to providing an overview of the course, the opening lecture introduces a method of literary interpretation called Formalism, which allows readers to appreciate fiction regardless of their literary background. You'll explore some major themes of Modernism through a reading of John Crowe Ransom's poem "Captain Carpenter." x
  • 2
    How to Read Fiction—Joyce's "An Encounter"
    Using a story from James Joyce's Dub­liners, Professor Thorburn demonstrates how close attention to the text can produce an insightful and valid interpretation. He contrasts this kind of reading to the over-ingenious and grandiose interpretations of some scholars who rely too heavily on evidence external to the text under discussion. x
  • 3
    Defining Modernism—Monet's Cathedral
    Revolutionary new ideas—the theories of Darwin and Einstein; the psychological insights from Freud and James; the philosophies of Marx, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche—provide a powerful intellectual context for Modernism. But perhaps the most central precursor of literary Modernism is the Impressionist art of Claude Monet. x
  • 4
    Defining Modernism—Beyond Impressionism
    If Impressionism anticipates literary Modernism, Postimpressionism exemplifies a break with previous artistic modes. Artists such as Picasso and Beckmann create a new visual vocabulary to commu­ni­cate a profound sense of modern alienation. x
  • 5
    The Man Who Would Be King—Imperial Fools
    Rudyard Kipling serves as a transitional figure between 19th-century certitudes and the Modernist disillusionment. Though many of his most popular works betray a deep-seated racism and faith in the British Empire, his anti-imperial fable The Man Who Would Be King deconstructs the myth of the white man’s burden. x
  • 6
    Heart of Darkness—Europe's Kurtz
    A Polish expatriate, sailor, and English novelist, Joseph Conrad's life exemplifies the Modernist themes of isolation and alien­a­tion. In his masterpiece, Heart of Dark­­ness, Conrad created the character Kurtz, the embodiment of Western civilization, its highest aspirations, profoundest myths, and most depraved violence. x
  • 7
    Heart of Darkness—The Drama of the Telling
    Central to Modernist literature is the idea that each story narrates the difficulties of its own telling. More than just a simple travel story, Conrad's Heart of Dark­­nessexemplifies this obsession with the problems inherent in storytelling. x
  • 8
    The Shadow-Line—Unheroic Heroes
    Conrad's late work, The Shadow-Line, tells of a young sea captain whose failed first voyage is a journey into adulthood. The story serves as an example of many of Conrad's favorite literary devices and themes, including the use of doppelgangers and the antihero. x
  • 9
    The Good Soldier—The Limits of Irony
    Though less renowned than some of his contemporaries, Ford Madox Ford was a prolific writer, an influential editor, and a discoverer of literary talent. In The Good Soldier, he crafted a fable of infidelity that pushed to its furthest extreme a hallmark of Modernism: the unreliable narrator. x
  • 10
    The Good Soldier—Killed by Kindness
    This lecture takes a closer look at Ford's masterpiece of irony and examines how the author uses language and structure to enact the narrator's "drama of the telling." x
  • 11
    Lawrence (and Joyce)—Sex in Modern Fiction
    A striking feature of Modernism is its willingness to confront the nature of sexuality. Through his controversial works, D.?H. Lawrence presents an unblinking view of the complexity of sexual passion, as seen in Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Women in Love. x
  • 12
    "Horse Dealer's Daughter"—A Shimmer Within
    Please note: Parts of Lecture 11 contain some explicit discussion of sexual matters and may be unsuitable for children. x
  • 13
    The Metamorphosis—Uneasy Dreams
    Lawrence's short story "The Horse Deal­er's Daughter" illustrates the continuities between Modernism and Romanticism, both of which celebrate the exhilarating, mysterious, and sometimes dangerous workings of passion and selfhood. x
  • 14
    Dubliners—The Music of the Ordinary
    Through the stories of his native city, Joyce explored the failures and revelations that mark the lives of ordinary men and women. His most accessible work, Dubliners, introduces some of the themes and techniques he would later use in his masterpiece, Ulysses. x
  • 15
    Ulysses—Joyce's Homer
    Joyce's masterwork represents a new kind of fiction that pushes the limits of language. Joyce's retelling of the foundational text of Western literature, Homer's Odyssey, is both an act of respect and of rebellion, an illustration of how we are "modern" and how we are not. x
  • 16
    Ulysses—The Incongruity Principle
    In Ulysses, meaning is constructed by jux­taposing incongruous situations, perspectives, and themes. Through this "incongruity principle," Joyce aimed to dramatize the complicated, often contradictory experience of life in its actual fullness. He attempted to duplicate the way the world registers almost moment by moment in our consciousness. x
  • 17
    To the Lighthouse—Life Stand Still Here
    A prolific writer, perceptive literary critic, and member of the famous literary circle, the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf is now one of the most widely read authors of the Modernist movement. This lecture explores how she sought to capture the experience of life through her art. x
  • 18
    To the Lighthouse—That Horrid Skull Again
    This lecture returns to Woolf's classic novel to take a closer look at its structure and narrative style. Through the story of Mrs. Ramsay and her family, Woolf dramatizes the self as fluid and celebrates the ability to stem the tide of mortality and flux—even if only momentarily—through art and community. x
  • 19
    Isaac Babel—Jew and Cossack
    Ironic, ambivalent, often violent, the stories of Isaac Babel reflect his experience of the brutal anti-Semitism of prerevolutionary Russia. In ironic fables and Red Cavalry stories, he reveals another face of Modernism: affectless, numbed, and precise. x
  • 20
    Isaac Babel—Odessa's Homer
    In his tales of Odessa, Babel teases the reader with the idea of autobiography, but his accounts of the brutal pogroms of his childhood in Russia is more ironic and morally ambiguous than mere self-confession. In his mock-heroic stories about Benya Krik, the Russian-Jewish gangster, he sings, like an ancient poet, of a lost world. x
  • 21
    Faulkner's World—Our Frantic Steeplechase
    William Faulkner's difficult, multivoiced novels demand active collaboration from readers. This lecture describes Faulkner's rich portrait of a fictional Mississippi county. x
  • 22
    Absalom, Absalom!—The Fragile Thread
    Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! synthesizes a variety of genres—adventure, family melodrama, detective novel, gothic novel—and mythological allusions to create a complex "drama of the telling" that is simultaneously a deeply American fable of race, gender, and ambition. x
  • 23
    Pale Fire—Modern or Postmodern?
    In Pale Fire, Vladmir Nabokov creates a complicated parody of scholarship in his portrayal of the mad editor, Kinbote, and a verbally dazzling meditation on the nature of art and creativity. x
  • 24
    The Moral Vision of Modern Fiction
    The course concludes with an overview of Modernist themes, emphasizing the respect for the past these authors shared. A key to their modernity, Professor Thorburn says, is their mission to dramatize the nearly irretrievable complexity of life. x

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Your professor

David Thorburn

About Your Professor

David Thorburn, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. David Thorburn is Professor of Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT Communications Forum. He earned his A.B. degree from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. Professor Thorburn previously taught in the English Department at Yale University for 10 years. Professor Thorburn is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including Fulbright,...
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Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 52.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A masterful teacher at work This was by far the most exciting course (out of 50+) I've taken from The Great Courses. Especially at the beginning of the courses, the professor took the role of teaching, rather than imparting his synthesis of information and interpretation. As much as this is possible in a lecture setting, he was geared toward the student discovering something - in this case the joys of 20th century literature - rather than simply gaining knowledge. In those early lectures, he was trying to teach us how to read. He believes that the value of literature is the direct experience of reading, not scholarship or received wisdom about authors and books. His discussion of modernist painting, also early in the course, was a brilliant way to introduce general 20th century perspectives on art, consciousness and reality. After he moved on to specific authors, the best section was on Virginia Woolf. He inspired me to order a new biography of her and to reread her novels. The professor had some interesting thoughts about which of the novels in the course might and which might not survive in the literary canon, and why. I was a bit disappointed in the course conclusion by how much time he spent on James Joyce again, rather than drawing together threads about what made all the fiction in the course distinctive and great. However, all in all this was a superb learning experience, and highly recommended to those who appreciate Western high culture.
Date published: 2020-11-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great overall presentations. Working with granddaughter on her appreciation and interpretations of modernism in Literature. She is a senior in HS and we are honing her skill for university.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Pay No Attention to This Review I realized about halfway through the course (I did finish it) that the subject was not my cup of tea. I have only read a couple of the books discussed (Dubliners and To the Lighthouse, both of which I loved) and greatly appreciated our professor's treatments of them. But listening to his quite well-done presentations of the other works, I felt that I was getting far less out of them than I would have if I were already familiar with the texts. Of course this is not Professor Thorburn's fault. I enjoyed, for the most part, his highly spirited, off-the-cuff speaking style, which sounds like he is making it up as he goes along, searching for the next word in the midst of a plethora (one of my favorite sound-as-if-you-are-highly-literate words) of um's, uh's, and digressions, as if at a cocktail party after a couple of drinks. He clearly loves his subject, and knows it deeply. I wish I did. None of his descriptions of the modernist novels with which I am not familiar, or of modernism itself, attracted me. The ideas that you have to work to figure out what the author is talking about, and that a novel cannot or should not provide an omniscient narrator with an ability to describe clearly and coherently, seem silly and off-putting to me. To emphasize the obvious, this is an extremely subjective response, as can readily be seen from the many positive reviews. (For what it's worth, my favorite work of literature is Moby-Dick.) If you do enjoy the novels covered, or have an interest in learning more about them and modernist literature in general, I think you will find this course very worthwhile. Enjoy.
Date published: 2020-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The best literature course I have purchased. I can't say enough good things about this course. It is one of a handful of courses on thin site that genuinely changed the way I thought about the subject. The professor's technique models the way good readers interact with a text, instead of simply summarizing the analysis of a great fiction.
Date published: 2019-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly Recommended Although I have read several of the works in this course, Prof. Thorburn has provided fresh insights into the fiction of this period and has inspired me to read more. His occasionally halting delivery is like a real person talking, instead of reading from a script, and I did not find it distracting.
Date published: 2018-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Inspiring Over 30 years ago I had the honor of taking Prof. Thorburn's extraordinary class on American television at MIT and I've talked about that course ever since. It's one of the few classes from that time whose content and professor I can remember distinctly. Even though he only gave me a B on my term paper :-( I jumped at the chance to hear him again. This is a wonderful introduction not only to 20th century literature but to the larger role of literature in a cultured life. It inspired me to read new fiction for the first time in many years. I went through most of the books of Joseph Conrad after listening to his in-depth discussion of the "drama of the telling." (And, as a side benefit, it explained to me why a bar in my town is called "Marlow's Tavern," displayed in an old typewriter font.) I'm sure his presentation isn't for everyone. Unlike most of the Great Courses professors, Prof. Thorburn speaks off-the-cuff, drawing from his vast knowledge and teaching experience. He needs no written script. But he is capable of inspiring a listener to become a practicing writer/reader, which is an amazing gift.
Date published: 2018-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Brilliant introduction to Modern Storytelling. I couldn't recommend this course more wholeheartly.
Date published: 2018-03-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very smart teacher, his poor delivery made me seas Dr. Thorburn is brilliant! And, unlike so many teachers in this series, he does not read the teleprompter or his notes, which can put you to sleep. Yes, he is speaking from the heart! His delivery, unfortunately, is the worst I've ever heard on the teaching company, and I have listened to over 100 courses. I became ill trying to listen to him. Seasick. Tense. Anxious. This is the first course I have ever bought here that I am returning, because I cannot bear to listen past Lecture 7. And how I wish I could; the material is fascinating, his theories are penetrating and fresh.
Date published: 2018-02-22
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