Historical Context

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843

Antecedents Philosophies are meant to capture the truth, and so there are likely to be traces of any philosophy at any time throughout history. For example, traces of Existentialism can be found in the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who in the fourth century B.C.E. founded the Cynics, who...

(The entire section contains 5351 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Existentialism study guide. You'll get access to all of the Existentialism content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Themes
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
  • Teaching Guide
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Antecedents
Philosophies are meant to capture the truth, and so there are likely to be traces of any philosophy at any time throughout history. For example, traces of Existentialism can be found in the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who in the fourth century B.C.E. founded the Cynics, who distrusted civilization’s artifice. existential ideas also appear at various times throughout the world’s literature, such as when Job in the Old Testament questioned whether his concept of God was truly relevant to his troubles, or when Shakespeare had Hamlet question the purpose of his own existence by asking, “To be, or not to be?”

The first philosopher to touch upon existential themes was the French writer Blaise Pascal, who, in the seventeenth century, rejected the idea that rational humans could explain God. Like the later existentialists, Pascal accepted life as a series of irrational paradoxes.

As a formal philosophy, Existentialism began to take form in the 1800s, with the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard thought of life as an impossible choice between two conflicting attitudes: the aesthetic, which is based on immediate experience, or existence, and the ethical, which is based on ideals. He presented the ethical life as false, based upon imaginary concepts, but the aesthetic life was not satisfying either. In fact, for Kierkegaard, the aesthetic life led only to despair, because human consciousness is not satisfied with the sheer, raw experience that might be enough to distract an unconscious being. His writings, particularly his book Either/Or, were not essays or treatises. They had a literary style to them, presenting his ideas as character sketches, dialogs, and imaginary correspondences.

Unlike Kierkegaard, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist who believed that religious belief was a sign of weakness, which would leave society vulnerable to destruction by those who held no such illusions. Nietzsche’s completely unsentimental atheism paved the way for the existential view that life is based on nothingness.

The most immediate antecedent to Existentialism was the twentieth-century philosophy of phenomenology, especially as practiced by the German writer Martin Heidegger. Phenomenology raised questions about how humans could ever know the world that they encounter outside of their own consciousness. As with Existentialism, phenomenology relied heavily on examples from literature for understanding, giving the imagined world nearly as much credibility as the experienced world.

French Existentialism
Although earlier philosophers and writers had ideas upon which this philosophy was based, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who gave it the name Existentialism. In school, Sartre studied the works of German philosophers, wrote his exit exam on Nietzsche, and he studied in his postgraduate years under Edward Husserl, who is widely considered a founder of phenomenology, a philosophy similar to Existentialism. In 1928, at the age of 23, he met Simone de Beauvoir. The two fell in love and spent most of the next fifty years living together on and off, although they never married. In 1938, one of the major texts of existentialist literature, Sartre’s novel Nausea, was published, giving the world its first sense of the moral despair of the philosophy and the cold, unsentimental intellect of the fiction.

The year after Nausea was published, Adolph Hitler gave up any pretense of peace by attacking Poland. France went to war against Germany, and was captured in 1940. While France was occupied by Germany, the new existential movement flourished. The principle figures if the movement were acquaintances in Paris, including Sartre, Beauvoir, and Albert Camus (although Camus would come to resent being called an existentialist when hostilities formed between himself and the others). Their ideas were spread by a magazine that Sartre edited, Les Times Moderne (“Modern Times”), and through their plays and novels, which had gained international attention. The war was a perfect backdrop for plays and novels with existential themes, which concerned protagonists who were willing to act politically rather than die passively. The war gave French Existentialism an air of tragic Romanticism, as existential heroes, well aware that nothing they did could change the insanity of the larger social order, still made noble choices, presumably without the false encouragement of sentiment or religion.

After the war ended in 1945, Existentialism became a household word, but the writers who made it famous moved on to other interests. Sartre became increasingly interested in Marxism, and the main circle of French existentialists shunned Camus when he rejected Sartre’s political stance. Although Sartre was to identify himself as an existentialist for the rest of his life, his postwar writings never captured the world’s imagination as had the radical works produced under the Nazis.

In America, Existentialism reached its height of popularity in the 1950. Since the stock market crash of 1929, the country had suffered desperate times, and the cautious conservatism that had characterized the generations of the Depression and the war gave way to a new youth culture. The disaffected Beat generation, lacking any major political struggle, grappled with meaninglessness, and was ripe for Existentialism’s message that the world is absurd and that individuals create their own morality.

Literary Style

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029

Persona
Many existential works employ a persona who is a stand-in for the author, with similar life experiences and views. The word persona is a Latin term meaning “mask.” Authors in fiction tend to hide behind characters like masks, to get their ideas across in the context of their stories, but this is even more common than usual in existential literature. One can draw strong correlations between characters in Sartre’s Nausea, for instance, and the people of his early life, and between most of the protagonists in Simone de Beauvoir’s novels and her own thoughts. Terry Keefe concluded in his essay “Beauvoir’s Memoirs, Diary and Letters” that “in spite of obvious difficulties involved, autobiographical material in Beauvoir’s fiction must sometimes be acknowledged to be as telling, or as ‘accurate,’ as material presented in non-fictional form.” The main reason that so many literary works by existential writers feature thinly masked versions of their authors’ lives is the genre’s strong background in philosophy. Writers like Sartre and Beauvoir are primarily philosophers, accustomed to pondering themselves and the circumstances of their own lives. The nature of philosophy is to consider the human condition, and to find the individual’s place in the world. Existentialism, in particular, rejects the idea that one can understand another person’s thoughts in depth. Existential philosophers who have expended most of their energy understanding themselves as unique individuals are naturally inclined to think of the protagonists of their works as masks for themselves.

Mood
Existential literature is often characterized as being grim, depressing, and hopeless. This reputation clings to the movement in spite of the efforts of writers like Jean-Paul Sartre to show it as an optimistic worldview that offers its readers a chance to take control of their own fates. One reason that existentialism is assumed to be bleak is that it consciously tries to change people’s minds about their traditional avenues of hope. Those who believe that God will justify the hardship of life after death will find their ideas opposed in existential literature, and those who believe in the ability of science to raise human behavior toward perfection meet the same sort of resistance. Lacking the hope that one can look to these external sources for comfort and salvation, existential thought aligns itself with the sometimes frightening prospect of meaninglessness, directly standing up to the blank void that other philosophies try to fill. The titles of books such as Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread by Søren Kierkegaard, whose works formed the basis of the existentialist movement, give some insight into Existentialism’s reputation as a philosophy of despair.

While many works of existential literature do, in fact, tend to emphasize life’s pointlessness, it would be too narrow-minded to say that despair is their only message to the world. The inherent pointlessness of life is almost always followed by an encouraging example about how life can be given meaning by the individual. This is most clearly seen in the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has two waiters discussing the bleak existence of an old man who comes to their cafe every night. Readers who focus only on the meaninglessness of the old man’s life miss the larger point—that he has somewhere to go that gives him comfort. Similarly, Hemingway’s “The Killers” shows a washed-up boxer who waits without hope for two contract killers who are coming to get him, but it is told from the point of view of a young man who is unwilling to sit quietly and accept grim fate.

Structure
Because existential writers do not view their characters as being the results of past events, their works seldom use the linear, chronological plots that most novelists and playwrights use. Ordinary narrative structures are built upon the premise of causality, with one event resulting in the next, following each other in succession to create a cumulative result. While other writers present a psychological web that shows how each character’s personality is constructed, characters in existential works are not bound to such rigorous, straightforward interpretation. As a result, existential works tend to float across a sequence of events that do not always appear to be related.

Existentialism tends to support an absurd view of the world, one that ignores commonly-assumed rules of reality. In Franz Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis, for instance, a man wakes to find himself transformed into a giant bug—the situation is completely improbable, but it helps the author make a point about the unexamined absurdity of common daily life. Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot takes place in an unnamed, barren wilderness, with two people sitting under a tree at a crossroads. The play does not have a plot, just a series of events that happen to occur after one another. The lack of any meaningful causal relationship between the events helps to reinforce the existential idea that life has no inherent meaning or structure.

Humanism
Humanism is the cultural and literary attitude that spread through Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a response to oppressive church doctrine. At the time, the position of clerics was that human beings were weak and immoral. Humanism offered the optimistic view that humanity was rational, and was thus able to understand truth and goodness without the Church’s intervention. To some extent, Existentialism is the ultimate form of Humanism, because it takes all responsibility for human happiness and achievement out of the hands of fate and places it in the hands of humanity.

There has been some debate about whether Existentialism is really a humanistic philosophy. Many existentialists would define themselves as humanists, because of their commitment to human responsibility over reliance on outside influences. Detractors, on the other hand, say that the philosophy’s emphasis on the nothingness and meaninglessness of the world paint too dismal a picture for humanity. They refuse to believe that the existentialist position that action is necessary but pointless can be considered a positive attitude toward humanity. Jean-Paul Sartre addressed this controversy in his early essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.”

Movement Variations

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

Nihilism
Nihilism is the concept of nothingness or nonexistence. It is generally considered a dark, hopeless philosophical stance, one that recognizes no values and sets no goals for life. The word comes from the Latin phrase nihil, meaning “nothing,” and was coined by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev in his 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. The concept is related to the philosophy of the ancient Greek skeptics, who rejected the idea of any philosophical certainty, and it has appeared in one form or another throughout the history of Western civilization.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, nihilism was most closely associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who saw it as more than just despair, but as a force of destruction. In his book The Will To Power, published in 1901, Nietzsche argued that the meaninglessness presented by nihilism would win acceptance over other systems of thought, and that nihilism would eventually lead to society’s collapse.

When Existentialism became popular all over the world in the 1950s and 1960s, Sartre’s idea of life as “nothingness” was seen as a nihilistic position. Leaders of the movement such as Sartre and Camus struggled to show Existentialism as a positive force, but their insistence that true existentialists should embrace life despite its emptiness was not quite convincing. The rejection of external values always led back to the idea that existence must be meaningless. Existentialism became almost synonymous with nihilism; leading to a popular caricature of existentialists as grim, dark, empty individuals. Existentialists, on the other hand, thought of themselves as fighting nihilism by giving life meaning in spite of its natural meaninglessness.

Absurdism
The main philosophers of the French existential movement, including Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, wrote dramas for the stage in addition to novels and essays. It is fitting, then, that one of Existentialism’s lasting legacies has been the Theater of the Absurd. Absurdist dramas followed no direct linear plot line, instead mocking the traditional forms by presenting the unexpected, and by actively defying any attempts to read meaning into the events on stage. There was always a tendency for artists to violate conventions, to make people think by refusing to give them what they are comfortable with, but this tendency increased by leaps and bounds in the early twentieth century, with Dadaism and Surrealism. It was only after Existentialism gained international attention in the 1950s, making the concept of “meaninglessness” a familiar subject among intellectuals, that a school of drama based in absurdity was developed. Samuel Beckett published Waiting for Godot in 1953; The Bald Soprano, by Eugène Ionesco, was performed in 1956; and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story played on Broadway in 1959. These are among the most important and representative works in the Theater of the Absurd.

The term “absurd” was first used to describe literary works by Albert Camus. In 1961, theater critic Martin Esslin’s book Theater of the Absurd named the movement that was already in full swing. Esslin observed how absurdist drama avoided making statements about the human condition by presenting it in its most raw form. This often led to situations that would be incomprehensible within the common view of reality but which were well suited for the stage. Unlike existential fiction, which focused on the internal struggle for beliefs, drama does not present internal thoughts to the audience at all, and so can focus its energies on the strange instability of the external world. Today, Absurdism is a staple of the theater, with constant revivals of the plays from the fifties and sixties and new plays that, while not purely absurd, incorporate absurdist elements.

Phenomenology
Jean-Paul Sartre, who first put the phrase “Existentialism” into use as a branch of philosophy, based his thought on his studies in the philosophy of phenomenology. The two are very closely linked. Phenomenology is a twentieth-century philosophical movement that examines the relationship between experience and consciousness. The founder of this movement was German philosopher Edward Husserl. In his 1913 text Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Husserl studied the structures within consciousness that enabled the human mind to conceive of objects outside of itself. Because the mind is able to think of things that do not exist as well as things that do exist, Husserl focused upon the mind’s activity, leaving aside the overall question of existence. Husserl called actions such as remembering and perception “meanings,” and the act of examining these meanings “phenomenological reduction.”

Although Husserl is credited with generating phenomenology, the name that is most often associated with that movement is that of his colleague Martin Heidegger. Heidegger focused attention squarely on the question of being, presenting the experience of life as “Dasein,” or “being there,” putting emphasis on experience as opposed to abstract concepts. Language was also a strong part of Heidegger’s phenomenology because humans would have no way of contemplating existence without it. As Heidegger phrased it, “Only where there is language is there world.” His philosophical works gave serious consideration to the philosophical value of poetry.

In college, Sartre studied phenomenology, and his theories about Existentialism grew out of Heidegger’s ideas. The relationship between the two philosophies can even be seen in the title of Sartre’s major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, which mirrors the title of Heidegger’s own 1927 masterwork Being and Time. Sartre’s Existentialism adapted Heidegger’s phenomenology, combining his emphasis on language and experience with Husserl’s idea that consciousness is always directed away from itself at objects, and not at the nothingness of the subjective self. Since the 1940s the two philosophies have been so closely related that they are often referred to by the combined term “existential phenomenology.”

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

Sources
Barnes, Hazel E., Existential Ethics, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967, p. 121.

—, The Literature of Possibility, University of Nebraska Press, 1959, p. 9.

Carruth, Hayden, Introduction, in Nausea, New Directions, 1964, p. x.

Collins, James, Preface, in The Existentialists: A Critical Study, Henry Regnery Co., 1952, p. xiii.

Glicksberg, Charles I., “Literary Existentialism,” in Existentialist Literature and Aesthetics, edited by William L. McBride, Garland Publinshing, 1997, pp. 2–39.

Keefe, Terry, “Beauvoir’s Memoirs, Diary and Letters,” in Autobiography and the Existential Self, edited by Terry Keefe and Edmund Smyth, St. Martin’s Press, 1995, p. 78.

Further Reading
Baker, Richard E., The Dynamics of the Absurd in the Existentialist Novel, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1993. By its nature, absurdity avoids rational understanding. In this study, Baker uses examples from key existentialist novels to illustrate the philosophical basis for the absurdist attitude.

Beauvoir, Simone de, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, Pantheon Books, 1984. Beauvoir gives her impressions of the last ten years of Sartre’s life (1970–1980), followed by a lengthy transcript of a conversation that went on between them in 1974.

Bielmeier, Michael G., Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and Existential Tragedy, Edward Mellen Press, 2000. Starting with the references that Kierkegaard made to Shakespeare’s plays, Bielmeier offers a full existential reading of the tragedies.

Borowitz, Eugene, A Layman’s Introduction to Religious Existentialism, Westminster Press, 1965. The passionate atheism of the French existentialists is often noted, but there is a powerful school that combines existential thought and religious experience. Borowitz’s overview introduces many philosophers and writers who are usually not mentioned in general discussions of the philosophy.

Husserl, Edmund, “The Paris Lectures,” in Phenomenology and Existentialism, edited by Robert C. Solomon, Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1980, pp. 43-57. Sartre attended these lectures, given at the Sorbonne in 1929, and they greatly influenced his development of a philosophy of Existentialism that was separate from the Phenomenology of Husserl and Husserl’s successor, Heidegger.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, “An Explication of The Stranger,” in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 108–21. Originally published in 1955, Sartre’s explication has frequent references to Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, finding the novel to be one of the greatest of French literature.

Solomon, Robert C., Introducing the Existentialists, Hackett Publishing Company, 1981. Solomon brings the subject of Existentialism to life for readers by presenting imagined interviews with Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus. The result is more focused and less abstract than actual interviews with these authors, serving well as an introduction to their thoughts.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

1930s–1940s: The world falls into its second global conflict in thirty years, and it looks like international war will be the nature of the modern world.

Today: Conflicts tend to be small, regional affairs. One side might be able to assemble a coalition or a mission of United Nations forces from around the world, but it has never been met with a similar international force.

1930s–1940s: News about events in other countries travels by radio broadcasts, leaving much about other nations to the imagination. After World War II, broadcasters and consumers begin investing heavily in television: from 1945 to 1948 the number of U.S. homes with TVs rises from 5000 to a million, and by 1950, 8 million sets have been sold.

Today: News about world events travels faster on the Internet than news organizations can prepare it for broadcast.

1940s: World War II ends when America uses atomic bombs, for the first time unleashing a force that could destroy the planet in hours. The postwar years are characterized as “The Atomic Age,” as people try to understand this potential for instant destruction.

Today: The potential for nuclear annihilation has existed for three generations. In all of that time, nuclear arms have not been used in battle.

1940s: Soldiers returning from World War II start a population boom, which leads to a new youth culture. Existentialism’s emphasis on the “now” appeals to the youth culture’s break with the past.

Today: Advertisers have long realized the purchasing power of youths, and much of popular culture is aimed at consumers between ages ten and twenty.

1940s–1950s: Europe is the respected focus of Western culture, the center of progressive thinking. In the 1950s, while most of the European countries are struggling to rebuild after World War II destroyed their manufacturing ability, America rises to be an economic superpower.

Today: America’s continuing economic might has given American ideas the kind of worldwide attention that European thinkers once enjoyed.

Representative Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1534

The Brothers Karamazov
Most of Dostoevsky’s works concerned the existentialist struggle between freedom and responsibility, but it was handled with significant grace in his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, first published in 1880. In this book, a son kills his father, while his two brothers, each for his own reasons, feel a sense of guilt over having let the event occur. One chapter in particular, “The Grand Inquisitor,” is instrumental in promoting existential themes long before the term “Existentialism” even came into usage. This section, a dream sequence, concerns a debate between an inquisitor who represents the devil, and Christ himself, regarding the question of whether humans are or should be free. This book has long been considered Dostoevsky’s most brilliant work, the most thought-provoking novel by one of Russian literature’s most philosophical writers.

The Immoralist
André Gide was a great influence on the French existentialists, particularly his 1902 novel The Immoralist. It concerns a scholar from Paris who falls ill while traveling with his new bride in Tunis. He survives, but his illness leaves him with a taste for life that he was lacking before, so that he quits his intellectual work, leaves Paris to live on a farm, and eventually ends up traveling away from civilization, further and further south on the African continent. The quest for authenticity, for escaping the familiar and conventional, is one that the existentialist writers would return to again and again, as their characters came to recognize what they thought to be true was really false. Unlike the protagonists of existentialist books like Camus’s The Stranger, however, Gide’s Michael is constantly thinking over his situation, not just reacting, making him a well-rounded character while other existential heroes come off as being hollow.

The Little Prince
The Little Prince, written and illustrated by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is often categorized with children’s books, perhaps because it has cartoon illustrations or because it rejects the arbitrary rules that adults put on life. It is this last element, however, that qualifies it as a work of existential literature. The story is a fantasy about an airplane pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert, where a little prince who lives on an asteroid with a single flower approaches him. He explains his travels to different asteroids and the people that he has met on each. The book offers a satire of serious adults, including a judge and businessman. Its affirmation of childlike innocence has made it a perennial favorite since it was first published in 1943, but the issues that it raises about the superficiality of social structure and the purity of freedom make it one of the more uplifting examples of existential thought.

The Mandarins
Readers interested in the postwar existentialist movement in Paris find two benefits from Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins. First, it is a book true to the existentialist ethos, with characters that struggle to follow their philosophical beliefs while giving in to the basic romantic entanglements that complicate ideological purity. Just as compelling is that it is a thinly veiled autobiography, recording Beauvoir’s own affairs and affiliations during the late forties and early fifties, when the world’s greatest thinkers sought out the apartment she kept with Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir brings a feminist sensibility to her characters that the male existentialists show no interest in. This book was the winner of France’s highest literary award, the Priz Goncourt. Though it is not one of the most frequently read works of existential literature today, it is considered Beauvoir’s finest novel.

Nausea
Nausea was Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel, published in 1938. It is a fictionalized account of the author as a young man, and is generally considered to be one of the most influential books in the French existential movement. The book, written in the form of diary entries, presents the life of a writer, Antoine Roquentin, who finds himself feeling sick about no particular complaint, but rather about life itself. Because of its unique style and theme, Nausea excited the passions of some literary critics and philosophers when it was first published, while others found it to be too obscure and self-important. Today, readers are interested in it as much for the movement that it created as for the ideas that were made familiar by later writers in the movement.

No Exit
Jean-Paul Sartre’s surreal stage play gave the world the phrase “Hell is other people.” The setting is minimal: three characters are confined to one room together, none remembering how they got there, carrying on with social interaction until they realize that their small-talk and amenities are the whole point of being there, that they have been damned to each other’s company for eternity. Though the catchphrase already mentioned has become the thing that readers and viewers focus upon, the more important point is why these characters have been condemned to hell: they have all lived with “bad faith,” which was Sartre’s concept of a life lived insincerely, fearing instead of embracing the universe’s lack of meaning. This play was instrumental in bringing the concept of Existentialism to America in the late 1940s, and Sartre’s storytelling and language are powerful enough to keep the play interesting for modern audiences, so that it is still produced frequently today.

The Stranger Albert Camus’s 1946 novel The Stranger is one of the most widely-read books of the twentieth century. Its plot concerns a young Algerian man, Meursault, who kills a man for no good reason after a minor scuffle, and the court trial that ensues. During The Trial, the emphasis is not on whether or not Meursault committed the murder, nor even what his motive might have been, but rather on the type of person he is. The prosecution focuses on external matters, such as how the defendant treated his mother and his girlfriend, making it clear that it is his existence, not just his action, that is on trial.

Meursault represents the quintessential existential hero—aloof and cool. He does not think his actions matter much, and is not afraid to accept the responsibility for anything he has done. Some critics have written this novel off as dated—a clear look at a worldview that has passed like any fad. Others believe that the sense of alienation and absurdity Camus has captured will never pass from style.

The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway is often considered to have looked at the world with an existential point of view, and that is most obvious in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Published in 1926, the story concerns a man who has been injured in World War I, who is trying to find meaning to his life by traveling from one destination in Europe to another, always seeking excitement and distraction. Hemingway’s distinctive style does not let readers in on the thoughts of his protagonist, Jake Barnes, but his precise descriptions of actions and tightly focused dialog make the feelings of the character known. While later Hemingway novels were to have more tightly structured plots, the disillusionment and freedom in The Sun Also Rises made it an ideal vehicle for existential ideals.

The Trial
When Franz Kafka died in 1924, his novel The Trial was not finished, but his literary executor put the pieces together to publish it the following year. The story concerns Joseph K., a government bureaucrat who is awakened in his bed one morning and taken off to jail. He is released soon after but is told to report back to court regularly. Throughout the whole experience, no one—not the officers who arrest him, the judge, nor his own lawyer— tells Joseph what crime he is accused of. As with all of Kafka’s works, this absurd situation is used to explore deeper philosophical truths about the nature of society and of the individual, showing how the political system can isolate a person from the basic truths that he once took for granted. The book was written long before the French philosophers coined the term “existentialist” in the 1940s, but its themes and style are the same as the ones they were to use. Though Kafka died in obscurity, he is now considered one of the most talented literary figures of the twentieth century.

Waiting for Godot> Written by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and first produced in Paris in 1953, Waiting for Godot has become a mainstay of modern theater. Its absurdist plot concerns two tramps, Vldimir and Estragon, who wait near a barren tree on an empty stretch of road for someone named “Godot,” who clearly represents their pointless hopes. The fact that nothing significant happens during the play’s two acts helps to make the existential point of the play—the lack of meaning when life is not actively pursued. Beckett’s artful use of language makes it easy for readers and viewers to experience the play without becoming bored. Even when the dialog seems to make no sense, and when the characters seem to be bickering with each other pointlessly, there is a deeper meaning to Beckett’s structure that offers a running commentary on the state of modern existence.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are featured in the 1979 documentary film Sartre by Himself. Released as a motion picture in America in 1983, it is now available from Citidal Video. Urizen Books published a book of the interviews from the film in 1978.

William Hurt, Raul Julia, and Robert Duvall starred in a 1994 film of The Plague by Albert Camus. The cassette is available from LIVE Home Video.

Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Karina, and Georges Wilson starred in the 1968 film version of The Stranger, Camus’s most famous novel. The film is in French with English subtitles, and is available on cassette from Paramount Pictures.

The life of Jean-Paul Sartre is the subject of Existence is Absurd, a video presentation that was part of the Maryland Public Television series From Socrates to Sartre, narrated by Thelma Z. Lavine and available from Insight Media.

Kafka’s The Trial was adapted as a film by playwright Harold Pinter in 1993.

A six-videocassette course teaching the basics of Existentialism, entitled No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, is available from The Teaching Company, of Springfield Virginia. Dr. Robert Solomon conducts the twenty-four lectures in this 2000 series.

An audiocassette recording of Sartre’s play No Exit was released in 1973 by the Edwards/ Everett Company of Deland, Florida.

A British Broadcasting Corporation program, Daughters of Beauvoir, is available on a 1989 videocassette from Filmmakers Library of New York.

An audio cassette adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague was recorded at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on May 11, 1973, with Alec McCowan narrating. Featuring music by the National Symphony Orchestra, it was released in 1975 by Decca.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Existentialism Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Critical Essays

Next

Teaching Guide