How Do I define "the human condition" (hc) as it relates to contemporary literature and existentialism?  I am writing a final contemporary literature paper. I really don't know where to start...

How Do I define "the human condition" (hc) as it relates to contemporary literature and existentialism?


I am writing a final contemporary literature paper. I really don't know where to start with my opening statement. STRESSED

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In general "the human condition" entails all that humans experience. With regard to contemporary literature and existentialism, the focus is upon the condition of the individual and his or her particular existence and the self-defining choices that one must make in dealing with the conditions of existence.

For your paper, you may wish to do some research to find which aspects of Existentialism relate to the author(s) and work(s) under considerations in your paper and then apply these in your discussion.  Contemporary literature entails the Modernist movement, as well, so this movement may be researched and applied in a similar fashion if the author falls into this category.  Moderism is a movement characterized by stream-of-consciousness and allusiveness.  Modernist writers attempted to come to terms with where humanity stood after Darwin, Marx, and Freud; they sought to create a new society out of their feelings of isolation and alienation; there was a struggle for one's place in the world and the need to establish order.  Some key features of modernism are as follows:

  • stream of consciousness characterized by association rather than logic
  • things seem to be falling apart
  • subjective time
  • pessimism and alinenation/loneliness

At times, it is fitting to define whichever elements the movement apply to the author/work of literature and then move into the discussion of the work, demonstrating how these elements apply to a particular work and author.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would suggest that one element of the human condition present in the modern realm of literature and existentialism is the notion of individual freedom.  In both realms, there is a strong idea that the role of freedom is of vital importance in helping to define individual identity.  Sartre once wrote, "Man's agony is the agony of choice," in attempting to articulate what it means to be human.  Part of this implication is the idea that freedom is a challenging, but inevitable component of consciousness.  There is no transcendent force that can operate to eliminate the painful and agonizing predicament of having to make choices between good and bad, good and good, and bad and bad.  These help to define who individuals are and what consciousness is.

kc4u | Student

This is just by way of addition. The theoretical angle should cover existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. The basic positions are---

1. Existence precedes essence.

2. We are thrown into this world. Our birth and death are both beyond control and arbitrary.

3. The link between the human subjectivity and the external world is absurd.

4. Life is an endless task which is impossible like that of Sisyphus, who knows that his stone will never reach the hill-top but he has to go on. He has to try. One has to imagine Sysiphus happy.

5. It is not always pessimistic. It holds within itself a rather destinationless courage for the human subject.

In literature, Sartre's novels and plays, the so-called Theatre of the Absurd in the form of Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Genet and Albee, Kafka and Camus's novels, the novels of Saul Bellow etc were all influenced by the existentialist philosophy sometimes in metaphysical and sometimes in political terms.

coopdejur | Student

There is no exact answer for "What is the human condition."  That is completely up to your interpretation.  More importantly, it should be defined by the author you are reading.

I disagree with the assessment by mwestwood that contemporary literature is related to modernism.  Most of the contemporary literature is postmodern, a reaction to the ideals of "high art" in the modernist movement (defining postmodernism is also a lengthy task, so I would avoid this angle). 

akannan did a nice job of defining man's role in the world according to the existential world view.  Existentialists saw man as being absorbed in the mundane motions of life.  In looking at the human condition in a work of literature, you would have to ask

  • Has the character taken control of his/her life?
  • Does the character seem more pathetic or heroic?
  • On what subjects/themes does the character seem to focus?

The human condition is the state in which man lives.  Most people strive to make a mark on the world.  They want things, but often don't make the effort to go after them.  They want to experience great emotion and significance, but seldom take the opportunity.

I hope this in conjunction with the other replies will help you.