Existentialism Themes

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Existentialism Themes

(Literary Movements for Students)

Existentialism seems to necessarily require that one abandon any belief in God, because the concept of God contradicts the idea of personal responsibility that is at the center of the movement. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most prolific existentialist writer, was a fervent atheist, as were Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. The characters in their novels can be seen as people coping with the loss of the concept of God by trying to determine the proper behavior in His absence.

There is, however, a strong subcategory of existential writers who combine religious feelings with Existentialism. One was Søren Kierkegaard, who solved the question of how to reconcile a belief in God with responsibility of one’s own actions in his philosophical works such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and The Concept of Dread. For Kierkegaard, there was no contradiction between freedom and God. In fact, the basis of religious belief was the ability to choose freely to believe. Another religious existentialist was Martin Buber, whose 1923 philosophical work I and Thou brought together Jewish, Christian, and humanist beliefs. The book uses personal relationships, such as the ones one forms with other humans (“Thou”), to explain the human relationship to God, who is seen as the ultimate “Thou.”

Existentialism proceeds from the principle that human behavior is based on nothing except free choice. It rejects those theories that try to find other factors that control behavior, such as economic, social, or psychological systems that exist in order to explain what people do. Existential writers do sometimes recognize such comprehensive worldviews, but they do not accept them as being acceptable explanations or excuses for behavior. Sartre, for instance, was a lifelong supporter of the Marxist theory of class struggle, but he would not accept Marx’s theory that certain behaviors were necessary for certain classes. Instead, he would ical rules, people must be responsible for their own actions. This is the price of freedom—with no rules from God or psychological traumas to excuse what one does, the responsibility for each action falls on the individual. Hemingway’s characters offer a good example of this. They follow rules of behavior that they establish for themselves, often referred to as the “Hemingway code.” While other writers might present characters that are victims of fate, the characters in Hemingway’s books and other existential literature are responsible for their own fate. Other examples of this are Sartre’s play Dirty Hands, which shows its protagonist accepting guilt for murdering an obviously dangerous opponent during wartime, and Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others, in which a student who is shaken by the inadvertent death of a colleague decides that he must still participate in violent radical political activity. The presumption of innocence that comes from absolute freedom is inverted in the works of Franz explain why members of one class might behave similarly as a choice made by people who were unaware of their freedom to choose.

This sense of freedom sometimes leads the protagonists in existential works to commit actions that are commonly considered “evil,” as if to assert to themselves that no universal system of justice will bring punishment down on their heads. Thus, Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger, and Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son each commit murders with no remorse. In each of these books, the transgression is not punished by divine justice, such as the ways that other writers might have the criminals fall victim to illness or bad luck, but they are prosecuted by the legal system.

Guilt and Innocence
One of the central concerns of existential thought is that, in the absence of divine or biolog- ical rules, people must be responsible for their own actions. This is the price of freedom—with no rules from God or psychological traumas to excuse...

(The entire section is 1,426 words.)