Existential Literature

The Individual Defines Everything”

by Jennifer Plourde

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/89/Kierkegaard.jpg/200px-Kierkegaard.jpgExistential has been given many different meanings throughout the history of literature. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3a/Nietzsche.later.years.jpg/200px-Nietzsche.later.years.jpgHowever, it usually refers to a particular philosophy that developed in France, throughout the 1940’s, which can be traced back to philosophers Heidegger and Husserl (Lawall). In existentialism, the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement were Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.  Although it was only noticed later on and only became popular in the mid-20th century, existential literature has been present since the first publication of the Bible in the sense that Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job could be considered existential because they are respectively a reflection on the meaning of life and the best way of life and an attempts to reconcile the co-existence of evil and God.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/18/FKV.jpgExistential literature results in a genre that is known for its emphasis on choice that normally has to be made by the protagonist of the story. Also, existential literature attempts to define human liberty in a world that lacks values (Lawall). In this genre, the characters are responsible for what they make of themselves, even if they are not conscious of their choices at the beginning. With this responsibility comes a profound angst for these characters, as seen in “Metamorphosis” by Kafka or in “The Guest” by Camus. The main themes discussed in existential literature are: loss, dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, and nothingness. For example, in metamorphosis, Kafka illustrates the loss of identity by using the experience of a plunge into the world of insects. The insect symbolizes the degradation and deprivation of self and, ultimately, loss of self (Goth 54). Furthermore, Sartre often exploits the experience of the loss of “I” as an estrangement from the human body, where the protagonist finds himself deprived of his uniqueness (Goth 55).  Also, in existential literature, some of the most underlying concepts are:        

·        http://www1.uol.com.br/bienal/23bienal/especial/images/eemu1.jpgMankind has free will.

·        Life is a series of choices, creating stress.

·        Few decisions are without any negative consequences.

·        Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation.

·        If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through. (Braungardt)


Influential Existentialist Authors


Jean-Paul SartrePerhaps, one of the most famous existential literature writers was Jean-Paul Sartre. He created his own version of existentialism with the influence of Husserl and Heidegger. His most important piece of existential literature has said to be Being and Nothingness (1943).

Albert Camus

Albert Camus was also part of the existential literature movement and was in fact a friend of Sartre. However, he refused to be labelled as an existentialist. Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature with his essay called Réflexions sur la Guillotine, in 1957.


http://image.evene.fr/img/agenda/evt/p/19576.jpgSimone de Beauvoir also participated in the movement by introducing a feminist’s point of view, which was unheard of at the time.  She was, however, sometimes overlooked, due to her relationship with Sartre. She wrote about feminist and existential ethics in her work, including The Second Sex (1949), which is one of the best known works of French existential literature.


Franz Kafka was also considered an influential existentialist writer. His writing attracted very little http://www.mondalire.com/Images/Ressources/kafka_chateau.jpgattention during his time, but thanks to Max Brod, a friend of Kafka, literature was blessed when he decided to publish Kafka’s work after his demise, against his wishes. Kafka had asked him to burn all his works. Kafka often wrote about isolated and alienated individuals caught in a hostile world in a surreal style, especially in his novella The Metamorphosis (1915).

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/5/59/American-beauty-mov-poster.jpg/200px-American-beauty-mov-poster.jpgExistentialism might be a cultural movement that belongs to the past (Crowell). However, the great thing about all literature is that the written form is forever preserved, permitting us to discover genres that were written some time ago. Nevertheless, many thinkers, philosophers and writers are exploring themes that derive from existentialism, keeping it alive in different mediums.




Braungardt, Jurgen. Philosophical Explorations of the Human Mind. 2004. 16 Nov. 2007 <http://www.braungardt.com/Home.htm.>

Crowell, Steven. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Existentialism. 2004, 16 Nov. 2007

< http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism>

Dr. Patterson, Yolanda. Simone de Beauvoir Society. 2007. 16 Nov. 2007 <http://simonedebeauvoir.free.fr/en_accueil.html>

Goth, J. Maja. Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium. Existentialism and Franz Kafka: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Their Relationship to Kafka. Ed. Wolodymyr T. Zyla. Texas: The Texas Tech Press, 1971.

Lawall, N. Sarah. Critics of Consciousness. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Un Monde à Lire. Franz Kafka. 2003. 16 Nov. 2007 <http:/www.mondalire.com/kafka.htm>