Existentialism in Literature Analysis

Existence and Essence

The existentialist insists that, for human beings, existence precedes essence. The essence of an object is its function. For example, the essence of a chair is that it supports a seated person. As a chair is manufactured to fulfill this function, its essence precedes its existence: The manufacturer determines the function of the chair before the chair is brought into existence by being manufactured. Humans come into existence without a predetermined function, or essence, which is to say there is no manufacturer of humans. Each individual human self, or subject, must recognize that he or she exists and then determine his or her essence. Commitment to one’s essence constitutes authenticity. One’s essence may be whatever one chooses, within one’s capacities: medical practice, criminality, aspiration to sovereignty, plumbing, teaching, meditation, aspiration to spiritual fulfillment, or whatever one may wish as a basis for meaning in life. To choose religion, as Søren Kierkegaard did, is to want something beyond existence and to commit one’s self to the quest for faith in that something, faith amounting to a subjective experience of that something, which may be called God. The religious existentialist begins with existence and then posits God as, not pre-existential, but extra- or supraexistential. The atheistic existentialist seeks only to make the best of existence and to posit nothing beyond existence.

The atheistic and the religious existentialist accept responsibility for existing. Neither blames God or parents or social conditions for her or his situation. The existentialist accepts the datum that he or she has been thrown into existence. Martin Heidegger calls this having-been-thrown-into-existence Geworfenheit (thrownness). The existentialist is not concerned with the thrower or the whence-thrown, only with the thrownness. As an atheist, one seeks to direct one’s thrownness, for which one is responsible, since it is one’s own, toward one’s choice of action, to which one attaches responsibility. As a religious existentialist, one responsibly directs one’s thrownness “toward God” (Kierkegaard’s ad deum), with the understanding that God is the end, not the agent, of the direction.


The criteria of authenticity are: that what one does is what one chooses to do, and not what another has chosen for one, that it is a true manifestation of one’s self as one’s own-most (Heidegger’s eigenst) thing, and that one is alone responsible for it. For Heidegger authenticity is the own-ly (the eigentlich); for Jean-Paul Sartre it is l’authentique, a word which even etymologically appears to mean “guilty-self” or “responsible self.”

Literary Existentialism

Heidegger’s preoccupation with being as the reality of existence led him to find subjective reality in poetry, in illustration of which he produced a masterly critique of the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. In fiction and drama, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus present characters as exemplars of authenticity or inauthenticity. In one short story, “Le Mur” (1939; “The Wall,” 1948), Sartre depicts a Spanish Loyalist whose death sentence will be revoked if he betrays a friend. At the last minute he jokingly discloses what he supposes to be the false whereabouts of his friend, and his life is spared as his fellow Loyalist is actually found there and killed. Against a reader’s conventional pleasure at the character’s release stands the inauthenticity of a failure either to maintain a commitment to nonbetrayal by saying absolutely nothing or to have committed the self to the betrayal. De Beauvoir has a short story in which a patently inauthentic woman blames everyone but herself for the misfortunes she has brought upon herself. Camus’ L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) is a novel about an inauthentic man who becomes authentic by learning to exercise conscious choice, although he is left only with the choice of his own execution. Outside France, writers such as Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, Franz Kafka, and Pär Lagerkvist wrote fiction involving the authentic and inauthentic reaction to the ineradicable and unsatisfiable need for religious faith.

Existentialist literature in the United States found its most practicable vehicle in the film noir screenplays produced between 1940 and 1958. These offered a realistic reappraisal of modern life and a very somber view of human motivations as materialistic and inauthentically centered in self, as opposed to being authentically self-determinative. Characters were developed in the context of irresponsible selfishness, like the conspiratorial Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson in Raymond Chandler’s screenplay Double Indemnity (1944). The film noir world is godless and psychologically existential. In the Anthony Veiller/John Huston screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” Ole Andreson is...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Barrett, William. What Is Existentialism? New York: Grove Press, 1964. Outlines the debt of existentialist thought to Heidegger.

Friedman, Maurice, ed. The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader. New York: Random House, 1964. Existentialist thought from classical antiquity to the mid-twentieth century.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Seven important essays by Heidegger on aesthetics.

Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevski to Sartre. Rev. ed. New York: World, 1975. Readings illustrating existentialism as “not a philosophy but a label for several different revolts against traditional philosophy.”

Keefe, Terry. French Existentialist Fiction: Changing Moral Perspectives. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986. Essays on the fiction of Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus.

Santoni, Ronald E. Bad Faith, Good Faith, and Authenticity in Sartre’s Early Philosophy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. Helps to clarify the idea of existentialist authenticity; includes a comparison of Sartre and Heidegger on the concept.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. What Is Literature? Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Four essays on the need for commitment in literature.

Solomon, Robert C., ed. Existentialism. New York: Random House, 1974. Useful survey of European existentialists, with selections from four North Americans: Mailer, Bellow, Barth, and Miller.

West, Theodora L., ed. The Continental Short Story: An Existential Approach. New York: Odyssey Press, 1969. Analyzes the existentialist content and direction of numerous short stories by European authors, beginning with Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevski.