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The authors whose names have become adjectives

Dickensian, Byronic, Orwellian and Kafkaesque. The authors whose names have become adjectives

Wednesday 09 February 2022

Literature, however you define that term, consists of some of the most impactful writings across human history. It leaks vividly from the pens of the most talented cultural thinkers of our time - crossing the borders between societies and their people, while undermining their assumed rigidity.

There are some authors whose unique socio-historic influence takes on an even greater presence in our wider cultural history, whereby they become the signal of a specific technique or style.

Be it the dark, mysterious and handsome “Byronic” heroes, “Orwellian” futures, a “Dickensian” cityscape, or a nightmarish “Kafkaesque” story, the cultural footprint of these authors now defines the literature which follows them.

But what was the Lighting that these authors captured in their proverbial bottles, and why are we still talking about it today?


Charles Dickens wrote several of the most impactful works of British fiction, where his novels became synonymous with the essence of Victorian city life. The dirge and squalor inflicted on the impoverished were a key storytelling device, where humorously unpleasant characters reflected the misery in which they lived.

The overwhelming success of Dickens’ career has been exemplified by the term we now dedicate to him. Dickensian is a difficult term to define outside of Dickens himself, but its purpose is to illustrate a familiarity with his depictions of dereliction, or morally derelict characters.


George Orwell’s 1984 offers a fascinating insight into totalitarianism. It asks what actions are required to sustain absolute power, when its groundless, unjustifiable infringements on freedom are carried out to their logical (or illogical) conclusions.

The term “Orwellian” now highlights ways in which truth is manipulable, if pressure is applied in the right places. It also rears its head whenever we consider the idea of “Big Brother”, as 24-hour surveillance becomes more and more common in our society.

We see this term frequently applied to totalitarian governments, both fictional and not. It also features in discussions about businesses who constantly monitor their employees, and powerful individuals who seem to be able to cultivate the truth out of thin air, despite what hard-evidence might suggest.

In a world where political insight seems more clouded and divisive than ever, the term Orwellian will be here to stay. One only hopes its own truth is not tarnished.


The stories of Franz Kafka are regular in only two respects. Their strangeness, and their ability to make your skin crawl. The artificiality of their unusual events, the strange dialogues and relationships, and a general sense of a slowly dragging dread, all combine for a unique reading experience. It is out of this experience that the term Kafkaesque manifested.

The Metamorphosis, perhaps Kafka’s most widely read work, is the disturbing story of a man who transforms into an insect. This is denoted by the famous opening line:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.”

Its passages bizarrely juxtapose domestic life with his otherworldly transformation but restrains itself. Consequently, we are trapped in a single dirty room, languishing with the insect until its inevitable death.

The term “Kafkaesque” considers the oppressive strangeness of a Kafka story, but also implies this aforementioned entrapment. It is as though once a world has been altered to the surreal, there is nothing with which to make it wholly ordinary again.


The “Byronic” hero has become a cultural staple of some genuinely mysterious (typically male) characters, and the male leads in many more overwritten, melodramatic romances.

Nonetheless, the stereotypical “tall, dark and handsome” hero embodies the perceived heroism of the Romantic period, during which Byron rose to incredible popularity.

A close friend of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron was a part of a cultural movement which objected to outright forms of power. The Romantic poets are viewed now as a voice for individual empowerment, while they believed that aesthetic beauty was to be appreciated, especially in nature.

“Byronic” heroes are therefore the embodiment of this activity. They are beautiful, daring, dashing and strong proponents of individual liberty; flavoured with a pinch of inspiration, a grain of wisdom of and a tablespoon of arrogance.


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