(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Either/Or: A Fragment of Life Søren Kierkegaard

The following entry presents criticism of Kierkegaard's Enten/Eller (1843; Either/Or: A Fragment of Life). See also Søren Kierkegaard Criticism

One of Kierkegaard's most acclaimed works, Either/Or (1843; Either/Or: A Fragment of Life) has variously been categorized as a philosophical treatise, a collection of essays, and a novel. The two-volume text was written under the pseudonym Victor Eremita, who purportedly found two manuscripts in an antique secretary and decided to publish them. The title refers to the choice individuals must make between living within the aesthetic sphere or the ethical sphere.

Biographical Information

Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen shortly after the marriage of his parents in 1813. His father Michael, a widower with six children, was a wealthy retired merchant, and his mother had been a domestic servant to Michael Kierkegaard's first wife. Kierkegaard was a frail child, slightly disfigured, but with great intellectual promise. He spent most of his childhood indoors, in a solitary environment dominated by his deeply religious father who believed in a stern method of education. Five of his siblings died in childhood, adding to the general solemnity of the boy's life. Kierkegaard attended a local school, graduating with honors in 1830, and enrolled in the University of Copenhagen Theological Seminary with plans to become a Lutheran minister. In 1834, his mother died and Kierkegaard spent a period of about six months in frivolity and neglect of his studies. Four years later, his father died, leaving Kierkegaard an inheritance on which he lived for the remainder of his life. In 1840, Kierkegaard passed his theological examination with distinction, but decided against entering the ministry. That same year he became engaged to Regine Olsen, but shortly after his dissertation defense in 1841, he broke his engagement and traveled to Berlin, where he began writing. He published Either/Or in 1843, followed by several other important works including Gjentagelsen (1843; Repetition), Frygt og Baeven (1843; Fear and Trembling), and Stadier paa Livets Vej (1845; Stages on Life's Way). Kierkegaard gained a reputation as an eccentric which was fueled by an ongoing dispute with the editors of the satirical journal Corsair, and by public reaction to a series of pamphlets he produced attacking the hypocrisy of Christians. In 1855, Kierkegaard suffered a paralyzing stroke and died several weeks later.

Plot and Major Characters

Either/Or begins with an elaborate foreword by the pseudonymous author, Victor Eremita, who explains that he found two manuscripts, each in a different hand, in an antique secretary he had purchased. The first, “Either,” was written, or rather edited, by “A” who is never identified; the second, “Or,” written by “B” who is also known as Judge William or Judge Wilhelm. A is characterized as an aesthete and a philanderer, while the Judge is a happily married man who fulfills his responsibilities willingly.

Volume one begins with “Diapsalmata,” a set of pessimistic aphorisms on life's meaninglessness, followed by a collection of essays on a variety of subjects. These include critical essays on Mozart's Don Giovanni, on Eugène Scribe's The First Love, and on ancient tragedy. These appear to be aesthetic papers delivered before the membership of a men's club to which A belongs. Another essay involves A's prescription for avoiding boredom, called “Rotation,” in which the author applies the principles of agricultural crop rotation to intellectual pursuits. The final, and perhaps the most famous, essay in the first volume is “The Diary of a Seducer,” written by A's alter ego, Johannes, who reminisces on his various seductions of a number of young women, most particularly one named Cordelia, whom he delights in ruining.

Volume two consists of a series of didactic letters written by Judge William indirectly in answer to the material written by his friend A in volume one. His first letter is actually an essay on the “Aesthetic Validity of Marriage,” in which he expounds on the satisfactions of marriage, commitment, and duty, warning A of the danger of lapsing into melancholy and despair if he continues a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. The second essay is entitled “Equilibrium Between the Aesthetical and the Ethical in the Composition of Personality.” A character firmly grounded in an ethical life, the Judge lectures his friend on the importance of choice in the formation of human character, and on the importance of self-appraisal in determining that choice. Finally, volume two ends with a section entitled “Ultimatum,” consisting not of an ethical ultimatum, but rather of a sermon preached by a country parson on the fall of Jerusalem and on the possibility of belief in a moral order.

Major Themes

In Either/Or Kierkegaard identifies three categories or modes of living: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious; the text concentrates on an illumination of the first two with a fleeting glimpse of the third. The aesthetic is associated with the constant search for novelty and pleasure, while the ethical is associated with marriage and responsibility. Either/Or, as the title implies, is obviously about choice, but it is also about the possibility of change, not only from the aesthetic to the ethical, but also about change that aims at achieving the equilibrium necessary for moving on to the religious sphere.

Critical Reception

According to George Pattison, the text was well received by Kierkegaard's contemporaries. Some readers were apparently overwhelmed by the complexity of the work and many focused on the more titillating sections such as “Diary of a Seducer.” Nonetheless, Pattison contends that a number of reviews reflected thoughtful, intelligent appraisals of the work as a whole, and that “Kierkegaard himself could well be accused of doing as much as anyone to encourage the discussion of the more trivial aspects of Either/Or in articles he himself published on it.” Many scholars have suggested that the aesthetic and the ethical represent two progressive stages on the individual's journey to becoming a Christian. John D. Mullen, however, disagrees with that canonical reading of the text insisting that it “depicts the most general features of the two life views predominant (in Kierkegaard's mind) in nineteenth-century Europe, and thus the two modes of life from which one would be likely to enter the religious mode.” Mullen further claims that “there is no ranking of the two modes; and in particular, that the ethical is not a stage through which a former aesthete must, will, or even is likely to pass, before realizing the religious.” Critics have also disagreed on the extent to which Judge William acts as a spokesperson for Kierkegaard's own views. Mullen believes that the Judge's criticisms of A are based on Hegelian philosophy which would be at odds with Kierkegaard's own beliefs. Edward F. Mooney also contends that the Judge and the author have their differences, claiming that “although the Judge is an examplar for the esthete, this rather stuffy and conventional bureaucrat falls short of Kierkegaard's later articulations of a fully moral-religious self.” Mooney wonders whether the country parson's sermon at the end of volume two was perhaps directed at the Judge himself rather than at A, in order “to take the Judge, whose own ‘sermons’ have filled far too many pages, down a peg or two.”

Either/Or has recently come under the critical scrutiny of feminist scholars, among them Wanda Warren Berry, who examines Cordelia's letters in “The Seducer's Diary,” and the various characters in “Silhouettes.” These characterizations of women, according to Berry, are “images of women's experience as created by men and filtered through several screens constituted by the imaginations of men. Wittingly or not, Kierkegaard has constructed an essay that represents the problematics of women's studies within patriarchal history and culture; those who seek to know women's experience often have available only the ‘shadowgraphs’ formed by both light (ways of knowing) and screens (particular minds) that may well be alien to the lives that are pictured.” Scholar Céline Léon points out paradoxes in the approach Judge William takes to women's issues. On the one hand, according to Léon, he “praises women and declares himself against altering them for self-enjoyment or self-aggrandizement.” On the other hand, however, Judge William's praise of women changes little with regard to gender stereotypes. “Even when ethically inscribed,” states Léon, “masculine praise continues to enfold woman within representation. By reiterating cultural myths that negate her autonomy and deprive her of intellect, it sustains and remakes patriarchy which, retroactively, satisfies itself that it did not err in the choice of predicates it initially attributed to her.” Léon cautions against assuming complete congruence between Kierkegaard's own beliefs and those of the Judge, although she points out that the author “definitely appears to be in agreement with his Judge both on the antagonism manifested toward women's liberation and on the assumption of the existence of essential differences between the sexes.” Clayton Koelb maintains that neither of Kierkegaard's narrators in Either/Or represent the author himself. Rather, Koelb claims, the text is based on “ironic deception,” in its treatment of Eugène Scribe's The First Love: “The inappropriateness of both ‘A's and ‘B's approaches to The First Love serves as the thread by which the deception of Either/Or unravels. … Scribe's play becomes a kind of measuring stick against which to test the theories of the judge and the aesthete.” Marc Katz also believes that the text's “embrace of the mid-century bourgeois literary idiom is actually a deception from start to finish,” whereby Kierkegaard sought to disavow the views of both narrators. According to Katz, “Each of the book's purported authors tries writing his way out of his epigonism, first by personifying, then by second-guessing, or upstaging, his creative powers. A. tires of his pseudonyms. Judge Wilhelm damns A., and Kierkegaard implicitly mocks the effort as a whole.”