Existentialism in Literature | Movement in Literature and Philosophy

Existentialism in Literature Movement in Literature and Philosophy

In literature, name “Existentialism” is given to a movement that is based on 19th century philosophical doctrine. Numerous movements in literature started without any school of thought. Same is the case with “Existentialism”. It also does not belong to any school of thought. A group of people presented this philosophy in his work due to which it gained fame. Samuel Beckett is famous dramatist who presented this philosophy in his plays specifically in “Waiting for Godot“. Besides, Jean-Paul Sartre and Philip K. Dick also presented theme of existentialism in their works. Nevertheless, “existentialism” properly emerged in 20th century France. Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two famous philosopher who developed this term. Nowadays, it is a well known term and is widely being discussed in the world.

What is Existentialism?

Term “Existentialism” is much wider but its concept is not hard to understand. Firstly, it should be remembered that existentialism does not believe in God’s existence. Hence, no one is controlling the universe. Secondly, world is meaningless and every person who comes in this world has nothing to do. He has to create a meaningful purpose for his life. Thus, “existentialism” emphasizes that every individual has choice of his own to make his life meaningful. It forces every individual to know following things about himself:

  • Know yourself.
  • Know you identity.
  • Find meaning of your life.
  • Know on your purpose.
  • Realize your role of existence.
  • Know about death
  • Examine afterlife
  • Quest God If he exists (What is his nature?)

Existentialism Vs. Nihilism:

It is necessary to compare existentialism with nihilism for better understanding. “Nihilism” is derived from Latin word “nihil” that means nothing. It deals with pessimism. It is a belief that life is meaningless and a man has no power of his own to give it a meaning. He can do nothing because he can know nothing about himself nor can he find his identity. Furthermore, universe is irrational and life can be spent only with doing nothing. Nihilist does nothing and believes in do nothing. It rejects existence. Existentialism, on the other hand, is the name of accepting existence and a freewill to make life better.

Existentialism in Literature:

Work that deals with theory of existentialism comes in the category of “existentialist literature”. Theater of absurd is remarkable in this regard. Many plays and novels were written on this theory. Writers added existentialism in literature through which they forced people to think on their existence. “Waiting for Godot”, “No Exit” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” are remarkable examples of existentialist plays. In addition, following plays are also fall in this category.

  • Molly’s Shoes
  • Old Times
  • Passing Strange
  • Taledanda
  • Arcadia
  • Dirty Hands
  • Dogfall
  • The Garden Party
  • A Matter of Life and Death
  • Endgame

Role of Existentialism in Literature:

Every individual has freedom of knowing himself. Existentialism emphasizes on the importance of realizing “who am I?”. One should know about himself. Greece literature dealt with the relationship of man and gods. They were of the view that man was puppet in the hands of gods as depicted from “Oedipus Rex” but in modern times literature of existentialism rejected that kinds of beliefs. It shows us that everyone has freewill; man is what he thinks of himself; real world lies in the mind and he should discover himself in order to accept existence.

It is also one of the essentials of literature of existentialism to show humans their identity in this world. Writers find answers of questions like:

  • Why am I in this universe?
  • What purpose am I serving?
  • What is my contribution? and
  • If death is certain then why not end life right now?

Literature of existentialism compels everyone to think twice on his identity. Everyone is playing his specific role in this world. If life is meaningless then everyone should play his part in giving meaning to his life. Literature that deals with existentialism, in this way, helps everyone to know his identity in this world. It shows that humans have created duties and they are performing them to accept existence.

Indeed, life is meaningless. We are going to die one day and our contribution in making this world better will serve no purpose at all. Literature of existentialism gives us hope in this regard. Although pessimism is common depicted theme yet we cannot ignore that literature gives us hope especially the literature that deals with existentialism. Life is meaningless that does not mean we end our lives. We should find a meaning. We have choice and we can make this life meaningful.

If a person has no purpose in life then his life may become miserable. It is necessary for everyone to set a purpose. For instance, in “Waiting for Godot” two main characters of the play knows that their life has no value; still they wait for Godot. They have created a purpose for them that helps them to stay alive. Hence, literature of existentialism emphasizes us to set a purpose in life while accepting existence in this absurd world.

It is also necessary to remember death. It is certain. However, it cannot remove identity of a person entirely. People like Aristotle died many years ago. However, they still has identity in this world. Literature of existentialism gives us hope in this way too.

One cannot forget that world is absurd and irrational. There is no escape from miseries of life. Pains are part of life and the only solution is that we embrace existence and perform our role in making everyone’s life better.

Literature of existentialism gives freewill to every individual. In fact, it is the main factor of existentialism. Everyone has responsibility of his actions. If one’s life is miserable then it is not fault of nature or anyone else. One can change his life if he struggles. “Endgame” or “Waiting for Godot” can be referred here. Estragon and Vladimir from “Waiting for Godot” has choices. They can move if they want to but they do nothing to change their condition. Of course, they can do something and make their lives better but they don’t bother to take any step. Hence, they and only they are responsible for their miserable lives.

Art is imitation of life and life is sorrowful. If we think that life is nothing then it is nothing but if we give it a meaning then it becomes meaningful. Everyone has choice, freewill and ability to survive. In short and concise words, literature of existentialism, compels us to accept our existence in this world.