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How literature gave birth to existentialism


How literature gave birth to existentialism


Nasrin Parvin

Department of English

University of Calcutta

Howrah, West Bengal, India




Seemingly, coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (in mid 1940’s), the term existentialism has its influence on philosophy, literature and art.  Existentialism is primarily, a reaction to and a voice of protest against all the rationalistic and speculative philosophies, particularly Hegel’s philosophy of  Pure thought, which consider human beings as a puppet in the hands of God and his ‘immanent will’. Philosophically Existentialism may be “characterized as a reawakening of man’s interest in himself (Kneller, 1958,). Existentialism came into existence as a consequence of industrialisation, urbanization and the world wars specially Second World War. Such events leave people in complete disillusioned condition and they start pondering over the thought of their purpose in this world. Existentialism focuses on the condition of human existence, and an individual’s emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts, or the meaning or purpose of life. Existential philosophers often focus more on what is subjective, such as beliefs and religion, or human states, feelings, and emotions, such as freedom, pain, guilt, and regret, as opposed to analyzing objective knowledge, language, or science. In literature existentialism is specially promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty etc.


Keywords: Existentialism, Absurd, Authenticity, Meaninglessness, Philosophy, Literature


Philosophical theories help to shape our worldview, give us moral lessons, and contribute to the development of knowledge, culture, and society as a whole. These theories are framed after observing human predicament and when literary works explore those theories they become popular. Though existentialism originated as a philosophical theory, its influence extends to the realm of literature, making it relevant to both fields. It’s important to note that existentialist literature often serves as a means of exploring and illustrating existentialist philosophy. Existentialism emerges from the notion of nihilism and crisis of modernity. By introducing his notion of “the mass man”, Ortegay Gasset tries to create a society where everybody will feel just like everybody else. In their conceptions of “the public” (Kierkegaard), “the herd” (Nietzsche), and “the They” (Heidegger), existentialists strongly criticizes the routinized ways of being that characterize mass society. And the novels and short stories of Dostoevsky, Camus, and Kafka capture the void and monotony of the ministerial class and the paranoia and disbelief that arises s when life is regulated and controlled by faceless bureaucrats. The loss of faith in traditional belief makes people hopeless. Of all the existentialists, Nietzsche is the most influential and prophetic in recognising and conceptualizing the crisis. With the death of God and the loss of moral absolutes, we are exposed to existence “in its most terrible form … without meaning or aim” (Nietzsche). The existentialists have always stressed upon being authentic and have a subjective view of the world. To be authentic takes immense courage and power according to Nietzsche, not everyone has the inborn power to rebel against tradition. He says, “Only a very few people can be free,”. Heidegger  is not interested in a systematic explanation of what we are, as a phenomenologist, he is concerned with how we are, his theory Dasein refers to “the subject’s way of being” that embodies a tacit understanding of how to be in that world. Rejecting Heidegger’s principal of the ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence”, Sartre says, “existence precedes essence”. According to Nietzsche we don’t have any pre -given essence, our choices and actions provides essence to our existence and thus our identity is created. Existentialists reveal how we internalize worldly aspects, which shapes the way we live. In her path breaking work The Second Sex, Beauvoir describes this point by showing how a woman tends to internalize the dominant andocentric worldview, resulting in a projection of herself as weak, subordinate and inferior.


Existentialist themes and ideas can be found in literature prior to the formal emergence of existentialism as a philosophical theory in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Notes from Underground” (1864) is Dostoevsky’s novella that explores the psychological struggles of the nameless protagonist, who grapples with nihilism, alienation and the torment of self-awareness. These themes resonate with existentialist thoughts. Soren Kierkegaard was a philosopher, but his philosophical writings are mostly literary pieces. His pseudonymous works, such as “Fear and Trembling” (1843) and “The Sickness unto Death” (1849), talks about the inner conflicts of individuals in their endeavour of faith and authenticity, themes that are later embraced by existentialists.


Friedrich Nietzsche, another philosopher with great literary qualities, analysed themes related to individuality, nihilism, and the will to power. Works like “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (1883-1885) and “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886) contain elements that resembles with existentialist ideas. Franz Kafka’s works, including “The Metamorphosis” (1915) and “The Trial” (1925), are often regarded as early examples of existentialist literature. His writing focuses on themes of absurdity, alienation, and the individual’s struggle against incomprehensible systems. The Portuguese poet and writer Fernando Pessoa explored existential themes in his poetry. His works touch upon the nature of identity, existence, and subjectivity. Leo Tolstoy in his "The death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886), portrays the existential crisis of the titular character as he confronts his own mortality. The novella raises questions about the meaning of life and the pursuit of authenticity. Hermann Hesse in his “Steppenwolf” (1927), explores the alienation and inner turmoil of the protagonist, Harry Haller. The novel delves into themes of duality, the conflict between societal norms and individuality, and the search for self-understanding.


There are also literary works published after the emergence of existentialism in philosophy. These works can be viewed as the practical representation of the given theory. Through the bleak narratives they present before us characters which help us to explore the theory more precisely as examples always help to understand a definition better. Jean-Paul Sartre writes “No Exit” in 1944, an existentialist play originally published in French as Huis Clos (meaning “In Camera” or “behind closed doors”) which is includes the popular quote, “Hell is other people.”


Existentialist themes are shown in the Theatre of the Absurd, notably in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which two men divert themselves while they wait for someone (or something) named Godot who never comes. They claim to be associated with Godot but in fact hardly know him, admitting they would not identify him if they saw him. The play draws an attitude toward man’s experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be brought together in mind and art of the absurdist. The play also examines questions such as death, the meaning of human existence and the place of God in human existence. Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (which introduces his theory of the absurd) shows Sisyphus’s endless and meaningless toil as a metaphor for modern lives spent working at futile jobs in factories and offices. Sisyphus represents an absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death and is condemned to a pointless task. According to Camus absurdity is the result of our desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither, which he expressed in works like “The Stranger” and “The Plague”, which often pointedly resonate as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition.”The Stranger” tells the story of Meursault, an emotionally detached Algerian who commits a senseless murder and grapples with the meaninglessness of life and “The Plague” explores the outbreak of a deadly plague in the town of Oran and the existential struggle of its inhabitants in the face of suffering and death. Critic Martin Esslin in the book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene lonesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existentialist belief that we are absurd beings lost in a universe empty of real meaning. Lastly “The Outsider” by Colin Wilson is a novel that follows the life of its protagonist, who experiences moments of intense alienation and existential crisis.


Literature served as a powerful medium for existentialist thinkers to convey their philosophical ideas and for readers to engage with existentialist themes on a personal and emotional level. It provided a platform for the exploration of existential questions about individuality, freedom, alienation, and the search for meaning in the face of life’s inherent absurdity. So from this angle it can be said that literature gave birth to existentialism but to say so will not be justified totally. It is a well known fact that Freud has named his thesis Oedipus complex under the shed of Sophocles’s tragic hero Oedipus but still it cannot be said that Sophocles is the founder of Oedipus complex. Similarly it is true that literary works owned the characteristics of existentialism before and after the establishment of the theory still it cannot be regarded as the birth giver of existentialism. To conclude it can be said that though philosophy is the father of existentialism literature is the domain that has nurtured it throughout the century. Without literature it wouldn’t have proliferated. But would have remained in the domain of Philosophy or Sociology.



Works Cited


Wartenberg, Thomas E. Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide, One world Publication, 2008.


Crowell, Steven. The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, Cambridge University Press, 2012.


Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Other Press (US), 2016.


Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, Meridian Books, 1956.