A Guide to Existentialism in Literature

Manuel Campos


Existentialism is a movement in philosophy and literature that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice.

It began in the mid-to-late 19th Century but reached its peak in mid-20th Century France.

It is based on the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence.

It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness is by embracing existence.

Characteristics of Existentialism

  • The primary virtue of existentialism is authenticity.
  • A central proposition of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals rather than labels, roles, stereotypes, or definitions.
  • Absurdism  is the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond the meaning we give it
  • Existential philosophers often focused more on what is subjective, such as beliefs and religion.
  • Existential philosophers focus on human states, feelings, and emotions, such as freedom, pain, guilt, and regret, as opposed to analyzing objective knowledge, language, or science.

Types of Existentialism

There are several different branches or types of existentialism, each with its own emphasis and interpretation of these themes.

Some notable types of existentialism include:

  • Christian Existentialism: This approach incorporates Christian theology and existentialist philosophy. Prominent figures in this tradition include Søren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel. They examine questions of faith, doubt, and the human condition within a Christian context.
  • Atheistic Existentialism: Existentialism is often associated with atheism and secular humanism. Existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus focused on human existence and meaning in a world devoid of inherent purpose or divine guidance.

Existentialism vs Absurdism

Existentialism and Absurdism share some philosophical connections and themes, but they also have distinct differences.

To highlight the differences between the two:

  • Existentialism is a philosophical movement that explores the individual’s search for meaning and identity in an inherently meaningless or absurd universe. Existentialists often emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, choice, and authenticity in creating meaning in one’s life.
  • Absurdism while related to existentialism, specifically focuses on the inherent absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. Absurdists assert that the search for rational meaning in an irrational world is futile and, therefore, human existence is characterized by a fundamental, irreconcilable conflict between our desire for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe.

Authors and Writers of Existentialist Literature

Some of the most famous existentialist writers and thinkers include:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Often considered the father of existentialism, Sartre wrote extensively on topics such as freedom, responsibility, and the nature of existence. His notable works include “Being and Nothingness” and “Existentialism is a Humanism.”
  • Albert Camus was a French philosopher, author, and journalist. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism.
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a German philosopher, cultural critic, poet, philologist, and Latin and Greek scholar whose work has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern intellectual history.
  • Franz Kafka was a German-language novelist and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature

More about Literary Movements

Existentialism is one of more than 10 literary movements, consider learning more about the rest of them:

  1. Literary Periods and Movements
  2. A Beginner’s Guide to Comedy and Tragedy
  3. A Guide to Postmodernism in Literature
  4. A Guide to Modernism in Literature
  5. A Guide to the Beat Generation in Literature
  6. The Beginner’s Guide to Realism in Literature
  7. A Guide to Naturalism in Literature
  8. A Guide to the Bloomsbury Group in Literature
  9. A Guide to Existentialism in Literature
  10. A Guide to Transcendentalism in Literature
Manuel Campos, Docente de Inglés

About manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of EnglishPost.org, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English

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