Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1608
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986)
Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, and lived there most of her life. She was educated at the Sorbonne, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre in 1929. They began a personal and intellectual relationship that continued the next fifty years. Mostly known for her 1949 book The Second Sex, a twovolume examination of the roles of women throughout history, Beauvoir was also a prolific writer of fiction. Her novels, mostly based on events of her own life, provide readers with fictionalized versions of the vibrant intellectual scene in Paris throughout the forties and fifties. They include She Came to Stay (1949), based on the romantic complication between herself and Sartre and a young student who lived with them; The Blood of Others (1946), about a young man’s struggle to remain uninvolved in the political situation around him; and The Mandarins (1954), about the dissolution of the Parisian intellectual community after the war. The Mandarins won the prestigious Goncourt Prize. Beauvoir also wrote plays and philosophical texts. Her death on April 14, 1986, marked the end of the original generation of existentialists.
Albert Camus (1913–1960)
Albert Camus was one of the most influential figures in the existentialist movement that emerged in Paris in the years before and during the Second World War, although he himself refused to accept the label “existentialist.” He was born November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria, a country in northern Africa that at the time was a colony of France. Soon after France entered in World War I, Camus’s father was drafted into the army, and he never returned. Albert Camus and his brother were raised by his mother and grandmother in poverty, in a three-room apartment in the working class section of the city of Algiers.
Camus studied philosophy at University of Algiers. Graduating in 1936, he was unable to work as a teacher because he had tuberculosis. He became affiliated with a leftist theater group and wrote for a newspaper, and moved to Paris just before the start of World War II. In 1942, he published one of the most important and influential novels of his career, The Stranger, about a man who, acting out of complex circumstances, kills a man who he does not know. The situation explored in the book, and the protagonist’s detached, curious attitude about his own behavior, captured the basic mood of Existentialism, and made Camus an international success. His second most significant novel, The Plague, was published in 1947. The novel’s depiction of a plague that sweeps across a country was seen as an allegory for the wartime occupation of Nazi forces, and of the struggle of the individual against political oppression.
As his fame grew, Camus distanced himself from the existentialist movement in Paris, rejecting their Marxist political stance in favor of political action free of any party. The intellectual rift between him and Jean-Paul Sartre became well known in France. Camus’s literary reputation suffered, as his opponents painted him as a populist who was afraid of offending the bourgeoisie because his main interest was selling books. He stayed active in the theater, writing plays and sometimes directing, and in 1957, at age forty-three, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in an automobile accident near Paris on January 4, 1960.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)
Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist whose works examined human existence as a tragedy in which the struggle for rationality was constantly undermined by the universe’s inherent senselessness. Born October 30, 1821, in Moscow, he was the son of a surgeon—a cruel and strict man who was murdered by one of his serfs when Dostoevsky was seventeen. In college Dostoevsky studied to be a military engineer, a career path he abandoned after graduation in order to be a writer. His early novels were well received, but they did not anticipate the intellectual achievements he was to later reach. In his twenties, Dostoevsky began associating with a group of radical socialists, for which he was arrested and sentenced to death. The death sentence was commuted, but the feeling of impending death affected him for the rest of his life. He served for four years of hard labor, followed by four years of military service.
In 1864, he published Notes From the Underground, a short novel that presented the view that humans valued freedom over all things, even happiness. This emphasis on freedom is what identifies Dostoevsky as an antecedent of the existentialist movement. His next novel, Crime and Punishment, remains his most popular work, and it presents the existential situation of a man who killed another man while robbing him, and learns to cope with the moral ramifications of his action. His novels The Possessed and The Idiot each address the issue of moral behavior in a world where the actions of humanity are not controlled by God. His final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was completed just months before Dostoevsky’s death from emphysema complications on January 28, 1881. Its plot concerns four sons who each bear some guilt in the death of their father, mirroring the guilt Dostoevsky himself felt after his father’s murder.
Franz Kafka (1883–1924)
Kafka was a uniquely talented writer of short stories and novels. His works often provided a surreal look at the world, touching upon themes of modern life such as alienation, absurdity and the deeply felt dread that often appear in existential literature.
Born in Prague, Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), on July 3, 1883, Kafka spent his childhood in Prague’s Jewish ghetto. He was educated as a lawyer and spent some time in a government job, working on workman’s compensation claims. He published several important short stories in his lifetime, including The Hunger Artist and The Metamorphosis. In spite of his request that the manuscripts of his novels be destroyed after his death, his literary executor saved them and published them. They include The Trial, about a man who finds himself accused of a crime, although no one will tell him the charge against him; and The Castle, about a similarly indecipherable bureaucracy that keeps the main character from entering the building of the title.
Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, at the age 41. He thought that his literary career had been a failure, when in fact his insights into the fear and confusion caused by modern social life were to make him one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)
Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father rose from poverty to amass a considerable fortune, retiring early to devote his time to Christian philosophy. At eighteen, Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology. On his twenty-second birthday, Kierkegaard’s life changed when he found out that his father’s Christianity was flawed: the older man had once cursed God, and had years earlier impregnated a servant. This drove Kierkegaard from religious studies to a life of hedonistic excess. Another significant event in his life happened when, at twenty-seven, he became engaged to a beautiful heiress, but called the engagement off two days later. The woman went on to marry and lead a happy life, but Kierkegaard continued to obsess over her throughout his writing career.
Kierkegaard’s writings are a mixture of fiction, philosophy, letters, journal entries, aphorisms, and parables. He rejected formal philosophical systems of knowledge, maintaining that no one system could ever offer a complete understanding of the world. His first work, Either/Or, was an assemblage of short unrelated sketches aimed at convincing readers that life was a series of choices. He went on to produce over twenty books. The most significant of these, such as Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread, explore the terrible aspects of human freedom. The other significant aspect of his philosophy was that it was fervently Christian in nature but strongly opposed to the organized church. Kierkegaard died in Copenhagen on November 11, 1855. During his lifetime he was mocked in newspapers and vilified in churches, and his writing was not read outside of Denmark until well into the twentieth century. Today his ideas are recognized as the groundwork of existential thought.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)
Sartre was the single most important figure of French Existentialism. Born June 21, 1905, in Paris, France, and raised by middle-class Protestants, Sartre made the decision at an early age to be a writer, and to expose the hypocrisy of the comfortable life offered to him by his parents and grandparents. In college he studied philosophy, particularly the branch known as Phenomenology, which concerned itself with the fact that life could be experienced but not really known. Throughout the 1930s, he wrote both fiction and philosophy with equal sincerity, leading, in 1938, to the autobiographical novel Nausea, which helped define the uneasy position humanity finds itself in the modern world. A short story collection followed. His reputation as a literary writer established, Sartre distinguished himself as one of the century’s most important philosophers with the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness, in which he examined the human situation as the awkward position of existing but being aware of nonexistence.
In the years after World War II, when Existentialism reached the height of its popularity, Sartre remained in the international spotlight as a philosopher, writer, and political activist. He wrote several plays that are still performed today, including Dirty Hands, No Exit, and The Flies, all demonstrating the existentialist motto, coined by Sartre, “To be is to do.” In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but did not accept it because he did not think that such an establishment should define a writer’s achievement. Sartre was a familiar face around Paris and was continuously in the news until his death on April 15, 1980, from a lung ailment.
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