Our choices are based on prior choices that we alone are responsible for: those decisions, and therefore our lives, are the essence of Existentialism. Unfortunately for us, our free will is...

Our choices are based on prior choices that we alone are responsible for: those decisions, and therefore our lives, are the essence of Existentialism.

Unfortunately for us, our free will is subjected to the influence of outside forces beyond our control, not the least of which is an uncaring society and universe that renders life arbitrary and, one could argue, ultimately meaningless with death as the inevitable conclusion.

In Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, how do Calvin's actions and reactions reflect his alienation and individualism?

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caledon | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Calvin and Hobbes is one of the most acclaimed comic strips ever produced, and part of that acclaim stems from Watterson's rejection of many of the cliches typical to the genre. In Watterson's The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, he details many of these struggles, ranging from the "talking heads" stereotype to the pressures of merchandising.

One of the points Watterson continuously returned to was the bureaucratic nature of the newspaper industry and what he perceived as a dumbing-down of content and quality; in essence, the newspapers believed that readers were stupid, and that comics were a matter of wringing as much money as possible out of an empty art. Watterson wrote a Calvin story that ranged over the course of several days, involving a baby raccoon that was hit by a car and eventually dies in their care.

Link: Calvin reflects Existentialist values after the raccoon dies.

Watterson was impressed at the positive reader response to this departure from the "everything must be funny" cliche, and began including more contemplative stories and themes in the series.

Existentialism places emphasis upon the individual and their experiences; it is often considered a "lonely" perspective. It's difficult to argue that this is one of the main themes of Calvin and Hobbes because of the episodic and nonlinear, nonprogressive nature of the series (i.e. Calvin never ages, and characters do not experience noticeable change, etc). It might almost seem schizophrenic for Calvin to go from contemplating death to pretending he's a dinosaur to attempting to sell gutter water as lemonade; not all of these things emphasize existentialism. However there is one core Existentialist element; Hobbes.

Hobbes is a stuffed tiger that becomes a living character in Calvin's imagination (although this is never explicitly stated, but Hobbes only appears as a stuffed animal when anyone else observes him). This is a strong and persistent reflection of Calvin's alienation; his "best friend" is not a real thing, nor is he even human. In fact, Hobbes's animal nature enhances Calvin's alienation by making Calvin into the sole representative of all humankind, at least in regards to their conversations.

Link: Calvin reflects on human nature

These sentiments do not even require Hobbes, sometimes:

Link: Calvin would probably be expelled for this in a modern school

Over the course of the strip we can gather a general idea of Calvin's impressions on humanity:

  • He abhors the destruction of nature brought about by materialism
  • He doesn't really have any human friends
  • He often mocks academia by crafting reductio ad absurdum justifications for misbehavior
  • He never acknowledges that Hobbes is a stuffed animal
  • He is "self-indulgent" and often seeks gratification at any cost

Link: Another "life is meaningless" Existentialist theme

Watterson frequently uses Calvin to point out the absurd or meaningless aspects of our lives that we have somehow come to accept as normal; for example, the concept of "avant-garde" art or the need for snowmen to always have two limbs and one head. This is also expressed in Calvin's frequently destructive, or at least chaotic nature; when he does create, the things that he creates are extreme or distorted. This also ties into another important theme of the strip; imagination. Calvin's imagination often gets him into trouble, either because of his aforementioned "creativity", because it distracts him from reality, or because it leads him to philosophical dead-ends. Ultimately Calvin's imagination is not sufficiently sanitized for it to be considered acceptable, and yet this is the essence of what imagination is; unbridled thought.

Link: Human insignificance

In short, Calvin is alienated because of his excessive capacity for abstract thought (although we should give credit to the fact that Watterson can put whatever adult concepts into Calvin's head that he wishes to) and also because Calvin's social behaviors (or lack of them) perpetuate his lack of human contact. Calvin is nevertheless an individualist because of his strong desire for satisfaction in all things; he rarely accepts compromise or defeat, at least not without muttering about it or sardonically commenting on the circumstances. Additionally, it is possible that Calvin doesn't really hold the position that life is meaningless and death is the inevitable conclusion; this may simply appeal to him because it is a powerful and argumentative position that will shock and inspire a reaction.

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