SparkNotes Blog

Every Literary Movement in History, Summed Up in a Single Sentence

The problem with literature is that there’s so much of it. Books go back a long time (like at least ten or fifteen years, I’m thinking), and if you’re a student taking an English class, you’re supposed to be familiar with basically all of them.

But that’s impossible. Allow us, then, to suggest an alternate strategy: you fake it. The following literary movements and periods span whole centuries, numerous cultural milestones, and multiple historical turning points, but we have taken the liberty of reducing them all to a single sentence. This should be more than sufficient to convince your teacher you actually did the reading. So, without further ado…

Old English: Everyone’s speaking in alliterative verse, and the Vikings are coming.

Middle English: None of us is free from sin; the only good and righteous thing is ale.

Elizabethan: To thine own self be true—unless you are the common man, in which case do better.

Jacobean: Someone has done you a great personal wrong, and for this they must die.

Late Renaissance: ’Tis all but a metaphor for individualism!

Age of Enlightenment: We’ve figured out everything, more or less.

Sturm und Drang: They’ve figured out nothing.

Romanticism: In this world of ours nothing is rational—least of all feelings, of which I am experiencing many.

Gothic fiction: You’re surveying a derelict mansion, or you’re lurking on a misty moor; either way, a storm is surely coming.

Victorian: Everyone has a public face, a private face, and a tuberculosis face.

Transcendentalism: People are okay, I guess, but trees are even better.

The Literature of the Absurd: Everything is ridiculous and nothing matters in the chaos of an unknowable void.

Realism: Machines will be the death of us, although we sure do have a lot of corn these days.

The Lost Generation: We’re poor in money, but rich in disillusionment with the American Dream.

Postcolonial literature: You stole our land, now kindly GTFO.

The Harlem Renaissance: Let’s talk about institutional racism, social integration, and emerging black pride—and also what’s up with Prohibition, are we still doing that?

Surrealism: Here is a jumble of words that make sense separately but not together, please enjoy.

The Beat Generation: I wrote this poem while I was languishing in a desert, high on peyote.

Magical realism: All the banalities of daily life, but it’s raining flowers and someone married a tiger.

Modernism: Out with the old, in with the ironic.

Post-modernism: Marriage is a social construct and so are clocks.