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In its simplest form, existentialism is the exploration of the nature of existence with emphasis on the experiences of humanity.

The “living human individual” is at the heart of existentialism, not just the “thinking subject.”It focuses on the existence of humankind and the ways one deals with the hostile universe. It is a principle that’s applied to a variety of texts. It is found in stories of struggles, tormented main characters, inescapable situations, and feelings of alienation. 

Existentialism pronunciation: ek-suh-sten-shuh-li-zm

Existentialism definition and literary examples


Definition of Existentialism 

The word “existentialism” comes from the Latin meaning “to stand out.” Existentialism is based on the idea that human beings try to make rational decisions in an irrational universe. They choose their own ways through life and are therefore liberated from moral values and religion.


History of Existentialism 

The philosophical line of thought is usually associated with thinkers from 19th and 20th century Europe such as Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. They might have had differences, but they all believed in the importance of the human subject and many considered transitional philosophies are too abstract to truly speak on the nature of existence. Kierkegaard is usually named the first existentialist philosopher. He is remembered for proposing that individuals are responsible for giving meaning to life, not religion, or society. Humans must, in his view, live life “authentically” and passionately. 

Existentialism was popularized in the post-WWII years mostly due to Sartre whose writings were incredibly influential. Importantly for Camus, Sartre believed that “existence preceded essence”. This means that the individual should be concerned with their own individuality rather than with labels or roles they’re supposed to play. These categories are the “essence” part of the equation.  It is the life one leads that’s important and their “true essence” not the arbitrary essence that society gives to them. 


Examples of Existentialism in Literature 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut 

Slaughterhouse-Five is commonly considered to be Vonnegut’s most famous novel and his masterpiece. It’s secondary title is: The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. It was published in 1969 and fuses science fiction with an anti-war message. The book follows Billy Pilgrim as he comes “unstuck in time” and starts to experience his life out of order. Consider this famous quote from the novel as an example of existentialist thinking: 

Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

This quote is found in Chapter Four of the novel when Billy is trapped with the Tralfamadorians as a pet in their zoo. This is the answer he receives when he’s asked why they chose him. 


The Stranger by Albert Camus

Along with the following example, The Stranger is one of the most famous existentialist works of fiction. This is despite the fact that Camus did not consider himself an existentialist. He believed that essence precedes existence meaning the roles or labels that we are born into are at the center of our lives rather than any individual desire. This is in contrast to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre who say the world the other way around, with “existence” preceding “essence.” Here is an excerpt from The Stranger that demonstrates the type of thinking that’s made the book so famous: 

It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

This is an incredibly famous quote that comes at the end of the novel when the main character, Meursault is facing his execution for a senseless murder. Camus saw absurdity as essential to the human relationship with the world, in contrast to Sartre and another existentialist who saw it as a property, but not a fundamental one. Camus built his entire philosophical worldview with absurdity at the center. He believed one could not make sense of the world through reason.

Read more about Albert Camus’ best books, stories, and essays.


The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka 

The Metamorphosis is another incredibly famous existentialist novel. It details a horrifying, pointless transformation that Gregor Samsa undergoes. He wakes up one morning as he always does to discover that he’s been transformed into a giant bug, usually depicted as a cockroach. Never does Kafka give a reason for this transformation. Gregor tries to make the best of his situation, thinking rationally in an irrational world but ends up suffering. Here are a few lines from The Metamorphosis: 

I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.

Gregor dies at the end of the novel, his family has played a part in his death and cast him aside as an inconvenience. This, despite the fact that he’d spent his entire life caring for them. 

Read more about Franz Kafka’s best books and stories. 


Why is Existentialism Important? 

Aside from its historical and philosophical importance, existentialism gives the audience a chance to pause and think about the nature of existence. It presents readers with a variety of situations that are seemingly without reason. Whether that’s Gregor’s horrible predicament in The Metamorphosis or the murder Meursault commits in The Stranger. Things happen, existentialism says, and human beings have to make their way through all the irrational events. Existentialism allows one to navigate the world without the bounds of morality, ethics, or religion. 


Related Literary Terms

  • Fable: a short and concise story that provides the reader with a moral lesson at the end.
  • Myth: genre of folklore that usually includes a hero and sometimes fanatical elements.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
  • Anecdote: short stories used in everyday conversation in order to inspire, amuse, caution, and more.


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