How would you analyze Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia in relation to Existentialism?  

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Existentialist ideas of "bad faith" and "existence precedes essence" can provide levels of analysis for Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia.

Existentialism suggests that when people define themselves through the belief in transcendent notions of the good (ideas that form what is "right" but violate personal choice by determining adherence), they act in "bad faith."  Existentialism suggests that actions of "bad faith" are embraced to escape the painful condition of freedom, or the painful condition of choice-making.

Gilbert succumbs to this concept of "bad faith" in the narrative's exposition. Her "addiction" to David is one example of her "bad faith," her adherence to a transcendent idea of "right" that violates freedom and choice.  Linking her identity to her failed marriage is another demonstration of "bad faith."  In both instances, Gilbert evades the painful condition of freedom, the painful condition of personal choice.  She associates herself with a supposedly transcendent notion of the good, a transcendent idea of "right" that violates freedom and choice.  The Existentialist would suggest that her depression is a manifestation of bad faith, of clinging to a supposedly transcendent notion of the good.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it mauvaise foi ('bad faith'), the habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice. (Neel Burton M.D., "Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith")

This changes in Gilbert's journeys.  She embraces the struggle of personal freedom through personal choice. Gilbert embraces this when she essentially gives up all of the attachments that tether her and goes out to carve her own identity. For example, in Italy, she acknowledges the condition of her freedom by affirming that something she wants to do is what she will do.  In this affirmation, there is no bad faith.  

Gilbert embodies the existential concept of how existence precedes essence. Gilbert comes to the understanding that she is the agent of her own being, representing a significant aspect of Existentialism in the process.  Even in India, representing the "Pray" section of the narrative, she does not cling to an external and transcendent construction of good. Gilbert does not pray to an established and traditional notion of the divine.  Instead, she focuses on her own sense of self.  

The Existentialist analysis would suggest her prayer underscores how freedom and self-essence precede all other structures.  Gilbert makes the conscious choice of who she is and defines herself on her own terms, elements that are intrinsic to the Existentialist frame of reference.