Either/Or Introduction
by Søren Kierkegaard

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,626 words.)