Existentialism in Literature

Existentialism in literature is a literary movement from the twentieth century that emphasizes the person and their relationship with the universe or God.

This label has been attributed to writers, philosophers, visual artists, and film directors; the movement thrived throughout Europe.

A Brief History

Existentialism in literature is a philosophical and literary movement that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice. It began in the mid-to-late nineteenth century but peaked in mid-twentieth century France. It is predicated on the idea that humans establish their own purpose in life and attempt to make rational decisions despite living in an irrational reality. It is concerned with the question of human existence and the sense that there is no purpose or explanation at the heart of life. It contends that, because there is no God or other transcendent force, the only way to combat nothingness (and so find meaning in life) is to embrace existence.

Thus, Existentialism thinks that individuals are completely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves (even if this comes with angst, intense agony, or fear), and emphasizes action, freedom, and decision as necessary in rising above humanity’s basically ludicrous position (which is characterized by suffering and inevitable death).

Albert Camus uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus (who is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again and again) to exemplify the meaninglessness of existence in “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), but shows that Sisyphus eventually finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.

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