20 Novels That Defined The 20th Century

The literati might not consider The Day of the Triffids, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or Peyton Place to be masterpieces of the English Language. Likewise, a literary snob might label some of the books on this list as “trash” or insignificant pulp fiction. It’s easy to dismiss fictional works that don’t meet high-brow literary standards of prose and style. However, some novels are able to encapsulate and reflect the mood, mindset, or feel of a decade; current, previous, or future.

From highly detailed examinations of small town American life, to the back-stabbing, pill-popping world of show business, to the materialistic, self-absorbed existence of 1980’s yuppie culture, these books captured the essence of the decades and lifestyles they were exploring. Although some of them were clearly not literary masterpieces and are not necessarily “great” novels, they struck a chord. Arguably, the following 50 novels defined the 20th Century.


  • Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser 1900
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad 1902
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair 1906


  • Howards End by E.M. Forster 1910
  • The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington 1918


  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis 1920
  • Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis 1922
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser 1925
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 1926
  • The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman 1929
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 1929


  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 1932
  • Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell 1933
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck 1937
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler 1939
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 1939


  • Native Son by Richard Wright 1940
  • Black Boy by Richard Wright 1945
  • The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer 1948
  • 1984 by George Orwell 1949


  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 1951
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham 1951
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck 1952
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 1952
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 1953
  • Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin 1953
  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalious 1956
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac 1957


  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 1960
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 1961
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre’ 1963
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann 1966
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo 1969
  • Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth 1969


  • I Know why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou 1970
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach 1970
  • Fear of Flying by Erica Jong 1973
  • Carrie by Stephen King 1974


  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie 1981
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker 1982
  • Ironweed by William Kennedy 1983
  • Money by Martin Amis 1984
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison 1987
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe 1987
  • Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow 1987
  • The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris 1988


  • The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi 1990
  • American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis 1991
  • Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding 1996

* As is the case with any “list,” there is no definitive list of novels or films that is above discussion, disagreement, or alternate viewpoints. This list was formulated from cumulative research and is presented in good faith as a guide to 50 novels that defined the 20th Century.