It comes from the Latin “anguish” but was introduced into English from the German and Norwegian/Dutch/Danish words “Angst” and “angst.” Today, its origins are usually attributed to Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher. It can also be found in the works of Sigmund Freud.
Angst is a feeling of inner turmoil. One could experience it in regards to anything, but it was traditionally defined as anxiety over one’s infinite choices in life, or freedom’s possibility. There is no set series of choices one should make, stemming from an understanding that the universe is meaningless, and this becomes a heavyweight on one’s life.
Today, the word is used in a variety of contexts, including within literature. A writer might choose to create an “angsty” character or include angst as part of a young character’s development. Often, the term is seen related to teenagers who are fighting against the strictures of their worlds.
For example, a young boy who becomes a teenager and starts going through an angsty phase during which he pushes back against his parents, his teachers, and what is generally best for him. This is all in order to take control of his life or attempt to. A character might act like this in order to show their disdain for their life as well.
Angst and Philosophy
As noted above, the term “angst” is attributed to Søren Kierkegaard. He was a Danish philosopher, born in 1813 and died in 1855. He included it in his The Concept of Anxiety (which is also sometimes known as The Concept of Dread). He used the word “angst” to describe a deep feeling, one that is far less fleeting than how the term is used today. Human beings have a range of choices in their lives, Kierkegaard wrote. This is in contrast to animals who live based on instinct alone. Humans enjoy their freedom, but it’s also overwhelming and can become terrifying. Angst is the anxiety of knowing that one has endless possibilities in front of them and must use their own devision-making powers to choose a good life for themselves.
When trying to describe the differences between anxiety and angst, Kierkegaard wrote in The Concept of Anxiety:
One almost never sees the concept dread dealt with in psychology, and I must therefore call attention to the fact that it is different from fear and similar concepts which refer to something definite, whereas dread is freedom’s reality as possibility for possibility.
He emphasizes that angst is in relation to some, as of yet to occur, experience hanging out in the future. It clouds one’s mind in a way that makes decisions more complicated. It’s a heavy weight on one’s life, more similar to depression than it is to passing moments of anxiety.
Examples of Angst in Literature
Holden Caulfield is perhaps one of the best-known angsty characters in contemporary fiction. Holden spends the majority of the novel pushing back against his life, the rules it forces on him, his teachers, parents, and any adult figure. In fact, he repetitively emphasizes the fact that he hates adults and the way they handle their lives. He strives for a different life for himself without truly acknowledging the angst or concern he feels about the future. He continually attempts to run away from it. Here is a quote from The Catcher in the Rye that demonstrates Holden’s angst. He’s speaking about lawyers in the following quote:
All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddam trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is you wouldn’t.
He ends by using the word “phone,” something that appears throughout the novel. He feels that the adult world, as he’s laid it out in the quote is fake and not something he wants to be a part of.
Throughout this novel, readers are going to encounter multiple characters that express angst. The boys at the heart of the novel are growing up and the main character, Ponyboy Curtis, is dealing with his feelings of alienation. He feels like an outsider in all parts of his life. Here is a quote from The Outsiders:
That’s stupid, I thought swiftly, they’ve both come here to fight and they’re both supposed to be smarter than that. What difference does the side make?
Why is Angst Important in Literature?
Angst is an important attribute for many characters in the literary world. Some, like Holden Caulfield might be defined by their angst while others may go through angst periods, ones that help them develop into well-rounded human beings. Readers are likely to relate to these periods and perhaps remember when they acted in a similar way.
He described the term as a feeling of anxiety that came about from concern over one’s future, lack of direction, or purpose in a world where one has endless choices to make. Specifically, it was used existentially in regard to one’s understanding of the universe and the lack of meaning within it.
Angst is a specific type of anxiety that was traditionally experienced because one felt the lack of meaning in the universe. One can have anxiety about other things, like work and relationships.
The term is attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. He used it, as described above, to indicate dread or anxiety that arose from feeling directionless in a world full of possibilities.
Related Literary Terms
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Diatribe: angry, long pieces of writing that appear in literature and rhetoric.
- Listen: Teen Angst – is it normal?
- Read: Analysis of The Catcher in the Rye
- Read: The Catcher in the Rye Plot Summary