“The Individual Defines Everything”
by Jennifer Plourde
Existential has been given many different
meanings throughout the history of literature. However, it usually refers to a
particular philosophy that developed in
Existential 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:
· 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
Perhaps, 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 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.
Simone 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 attention 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).
Existentialism 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
Dr. Patterson, Yolanda. Simone de Beauvoir Society. 2007. 16 Nov. 2007 <http://simonedebeauvoir.free.fr/en_accueil.html>
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.
Lawall, N. Sarah. Critics
Un Monde à Lire. Franz Kafka. 2003. 16 Nov. 2007 <http:/www.mondalire.com/kafka.htm>