Literature Word of the Week – Zeitgeist

26 Weeks to a Better Understanding of Literature

I’m aiming to improve my knowledge around all things English literature, and to help me do this I thought I’d start by learning a new literary word every week,  A-Z.  Although knowing me it might not be in any alphabetic order.  I might treat this more like a list on random shuffle.

So, I find a word that relates to literature and research the following on it:

  • How does it sound?
  • What does it mean?
  • Who invented it (if known)
  • When did the word come about?
  • Example to be used in a sentence (preferable in spoken form).


Week 12:


It’s actually impossible to say this word out loud without a German accent.  It’s such a great word and one I had no idea behind the meaning.

German. Zeit time and Geist spirit) n. the spirit of a time; the prevailing mentality of a particular period of time, especially as expressed in art, literature, philosophy, etc. – Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy

There is slight disambiguation as to who actually invented the word.  Some say it wasn’t the great German philosopher Georg Hegel which would mean the word started being used from the late 17th C on wards, but to other philosophers like Johann Herder or Voltaire, in which case the word could be early 17th C.

However Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History, would be the closest explanation to the word:

he uses the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit (the spirit of his time)—for example, “no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.”

Source – Wikipedia

Now while I understand the concept behind the word trying to actually find examples in literature without sounding far out is proving to be difficult.  I mean, I can see art as influenced by the period it was created quite clearly, and I understand the prevailing philosophy around culture and art being intricately linked by time and the advantages or disadvantages the artists received but novels?

Surely the best example of Victorian England was Dickens?  And Austen, Bronte and Twain equally portrayed life in their own social settings, as major examples?  Is the word really as easy as that to understand or have I completely mistaken my understanding for it?

If the word zeitgeist refers to popular thinking at a given time or an iconic moment then surely every banned novel or it’s time would win the zeitgeist award by being both popular and unobtainable to the masses due to it’s content which is believed by the power gatekeepers to be too controversial for mass consumption.  In particular I’m thinking of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess with it’s modern slang that all the younger generation would be using in a not too distant future.  While the story was set in the future the descriptions and settings were distinctly 60’s England and a very clear view on how Burgess interpreted England after the War and how society was responding to a modern world.

I’ll leave the word there but it’s harder to full appreciate a word like zeitgeist even if I have to say it several times over because it rolls over the tongue so well.

What would be your interpretation of this word?

Help me out here – would you say you’ve read any novels with Zeitgeist embedded within it?  If so let me know in the comments below. 


3 responses to “Literature Word of the Week – Zeitgeist

  1. In novels and art, maybe it’s something more easily seen in retrospect. We can look back and say ‘this embodied the spirit of the age’ but the present hasn’t solidified enough for us to describe it neatly. As for Clockwork Orange, it so wormed its way into my brain thatI still find myself fixing eggiwegs for breakfast from time to time.

  2. Pingback: Learning German in 6 Weeks | The Forget-me-Not Cultivation Blog·

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