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20th century literature: texts and debates

This module takes you right to the heart of twentieth-century literature – the excitement it has caused, the provocative critical debates it has generated, the political and historical influences it has developed from. Alongside close critical study of works by the century’s major literary lions (Brecht, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Chekhov and others), you will place them in the contexts in which they were written and read, examine the debates and arguments of influential critics, and analyse alternative interpretations. The module is divided into four blocks: the function of literature; different modernisms; notions of popularity; and questions of evaluation.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
3 10 6
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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This was my last module to complete my BA(Hons)Lit(Open)and of all the modules I've undertaken, this was the most challenging...
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What you will study

In this module, you’ll study a selection of twentieth-century novels, poetry and drama, and participate in some of the major debates that have animated twentieth-century literature and criticism. In addition to the focus on ‘texts and debates’, the module examines in detail the variety of historical contexts in which the literary texts and the critical debates have arisen. The module is organised in four blocks, with each block focusing on a particular literary debate, and four texts of different genres. For each text, you’ll undertake a close analysis of its literary language; examine its historical context(s); discuss competing critical and theoretical interpretations; and relate the particular text and its critical reception to the general debates covered in the block. You are encouraged to develop your own readings of the texts by combining close critical analysis and historical contextualisation, and by organising your views in relation to the relevant critical and theoretical perspectives.

The four blocks are: What is literature for?; Competing modernisms; Varieties of the popular; and Judging literature, and the module follows a loosely chronological approach. Each block lasts for eight weeks, with the debates outlined at the start, and then developed in the discussion of the four texts. Discussion is also linked between blocks.

Book 1, Aestheticism and Modernism contains the teaching material for the first two blocks. The introduction to Block 1 sets out the variety of ways in which the question ‘What is literature for?’ has been answered, and the next four chapters focus on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, and Robin Skelton’s selection of 1930’s British poetry.

Block 2 introduces the issues and debates concerned with the competing forms of modernist writing, and then moves on to chapters on T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Betrolt Brecht’s Galileo, and Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths with Path of Thunder.

Book 2 The Popular and the Canonical contains the teaching material for the second two blocks.

Block 3 introduces the debates over the relation between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ literary forms, and these debates are taken up and focused in the chapters on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the 1950s U.S. poetry of Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Block 4 introduces both general debates over how literature should be judged, and particular debates over judging literature in the context of literary prizes. Discussion of the Nobel Prize for Literature frames the analysis of the first two texts, which are by Nobel winners: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems, 1966-1987. Discussion of the Booker Prize frames the analysis of the final two texts – Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise (a Booker finalist) and Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (a Booker winner).

The third module book is Debating Twentieth-century Literature: A Reader, and it contains indispensable primary and secondary material to accompany the study of the texts and debates featured in the module. Students will need to purchase this book along with the other set texts for the module.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer group tutorials or day-schools that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where your tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking the module. 

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper. The end-of-module assessment (EMA) may be submitted on paper or online.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015. We expect it to be available once a year.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


A300 is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

It will be to your advantage to read as many of the set literary texts as possible before the module begins. The obvious place to start is with the texts in the first two blocks, but another useful route might be to start with the eight novels in the module, as they will take longer to read.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £2700.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2016.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 29/07/2015.

What's included

Module books, other printed materials, DVD and audio CDs, website.

You will need

A DVD and CD player.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Gurnah, A. Paradise Bloomsbury £8.99 - ISBN 9780747573999 This book is Print on Demand, please allow at least 7 weeks for receipt following order.
  • Puig, M. Kiss of the Spider Woman Vintage £8.99 - ISBN 9780099342007
  • Ginsberg, A. Howl and Other Poems City Lights Books £5.99 - ISBN 9780872860179
  • Brecht, B.: Willett, J. (trans.) Life of Galileo Methuen £9.99 - ISBN 9780413577801
  • Beckett, S. Waiting for Godot Samuel French £9.50 - ISBN 9780573040085
  • Heaney, S. New Selected Poems, 1966-1987 Faber and Faber £14.99 - ISBN 9780571143726
  • Woolf, V. Orlando: A Biography Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199650736 Students can also use the previous edition of this book - ISBN 9780199536597.
  • Gupta, S. & Johnson, D. (eds) A Twentieth-Century Literature Reader: Texts and Debates Routledge £24.99 - ISBN 9780415351713
  • Skelton, R. (ed) Poetry of the Thirties Penguin £9.99 - ISBN 9780141184579
  • Chekov, A. Five Plays: Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199536696
  • Eliot, T.S. Prufrock and Other Observations Faber and Faber £6.99 - ISBN 9780571207206
  • Du Maurier, D. Rebecca Virago Press £8.99 - ISBN 9781844080380
  • Mansfield, K. Selected Stories Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199537358
  • Gibbon, L.G. Sunset Song Canongate Books £8.99 - ISBN 9781841957562
  • Barker, P. The Ghost Road Penguin £8.99 - ISBN 9780141030951
  • Dick, P.K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? SF Masterworks £8.99 - ISBN 9780575094185

If you have a disability

The printed study materials are available in the DAISY Digital Talking Book format. The books are available in a comb-bound format. Written transcripts are available for the audio-visual material.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.