The latter is defined as having no meaning, and therefore, events and actions are not tied to logical chains of events. Absurdist fiction is a genre of literature that came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s. Like other modernist movements, it was inspired by disillusionment with war and how things “were.”
Definition of the Absurd
The word “absurd” refers to a literary genre and style of writing that focuses on the meaninglessness of the universe and humanity’s attempts to make sense of it. The best examples of the genre show the main characters’ struggle to find any meaning in life. Rather than come to some revelation about their purpose, they remain adrift, knowing that the universe is nothing but chaos. The stories often lack a traditional plot structure, mimicking the lack of structure the characters’ worlds have. In many cases, a character spends the narrative making decisions that are baseless and suffering consequences that they disregard.
The word “absurd” comes from the Latin meaning “deaf” and “stupid.”
History of Absurdism
Absurdist literature has its roots in Romanticism, Existentialism, and a broader disregard for old societal norms and religious traditions. Absurdism focuses on the pointlessness of life, just like existentialism does. The “absurd” occurs when a human being tries to make sense of a life that is senseless. It’s a study of human behavior. The writers who are most often tied to absurdism are:
- Franz Kafka
- Jean-Paul Sarte
- Albert Camus
- Samuel Beckett
- Donald Barthelme
- Eugène Ionesco
These authors were influenced by the works of writers like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Characteristics of Absurdism
- Nontraditional plot structure
- Humorous or irrational events
- Purposeless actions
- Questioning of the meaning of life
- Explores subjective feelings about existence
Examples of the Absurd
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Trial is a chilling novel written by Franz Kafka between 1914 and 1915. It tells the story of a man who is arrested for a crime that’s never revealed to him. No matter how much he pleads with the few mysterious people he encounters, no one ever tells him what he’s being prosecuted for. Unfortunately, the novel went unfinished and came to an abrupt end. Here is a famous quote:
‘But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.” “That is true” said the priest “but that is how the guilty speak.’
Here, the priest turns K’s words against him. There’s nothing the man can say to convince those around him that he didn’t do anything wrong.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis is one of the best-known examples of absurdist fiction. The novel follows Gregor Samsa, who, after waking up on what seems like a normal morning, finds himself transformed into a giant insect. Samsa doesn’t spend too much time worrying about what happened. Instead, he attempts to get out of bed, get his work materials together and head out on his next business trip. He has his family to take care of, and his inconvenience can’t get in the way of that. Of course, things are so simple, and he is confined to his room by the family he’s taken care of all his life. They neglect and abuse him, eventually bringing about his death. Here’s a quote from The Metamorphosis:
If they were shocked, then Gregor had no further responsibility and could be calm. But if they took everything calmly, he he, too, had no reason to get excited and could, if he hurried, actually be at the station by eight o’clock.
These lines demonstrate how quickly Gregor’s thoughts move from his new body to the duty he has to his family and his job. Throughout the novel, Kafka does not supply readers with an explanation as to why Samsa woke up in this form or what it all means. It’s just something that happened and that the involved characters have to deal with.
“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett
“Waiting for Godot” is Samuel Beckett’s most famous play. It was written in the 1950s and focused on Vladimir and Estragon as they wait for Godot to arrive. The latter never turns up, and during their endless wait, they engage in discussions about a wide variety of topics. Today, the play is considered to be one of the most important of the 20th century. Here is a well-known quote:
We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. …In an instant, all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness.
These lines are spoken by Vladimir and are a great example of the meaninglessness of their task and how it represents life more broadly.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger is Albert Camus’ most commonly read literary work. It’s a novel that has fascinated readers for generations. It tells the story of Meursault, an unusual man living in Algiers who floats from one part of his life to the next without conviction or too much emotion. He believes that life is meaningless, a central tenant of absurdism. He doesn’t express sorrow when his mother dies, carries on from one task to the next without commitment or consideration, and when invited to go somewhere, agrees without much caring what happens to him there.
The climax of the book occurs when Meursault shoots a man on the beach. He does not contemplate the action, nor does he worry about it after it’s over. The following lines appear at the end of the novel, specifically from the version translated by Matthew Ward:
And I felt ready to live it all again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself-so like a brother, really-! felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
In these lines, Meursault is finding peace in the fact that nothing in his life matters. The “gentle indifference” of the universe is not something to be feared or worried over. It affects him just as it affects others, and in accepting it, he “was happy again.”
In literature, it refers to a style of writing in which authors focus on the meaninglessness of the universe and human life. Illogical events happen, and the characters make senseless choices.
It is a form of drama that uses absurdism to tell a story about life. It focuses on confusing plot points, events, and choices. Characters might do things on stage that the audience was not expecting. It often leaves audiences with more questions than answers.
It is used to explore the meaning of life and whether the actions human beings take have consequences. Often, characters run into absurd situations and are faced with strange, seemingly pointless events in their lives that change everything.
Irrational events and actions, unstructured plots, surprising choices on behalf of the writer and characters, exploration of philosophical topics.
The theatre of the absurd is the designation used for absurdist drama after World War II. Important productions include “The Room,” “Waiting for Godot,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Homecoming.”
Related Literary Terms
- Drama: a mode of storytelling that uses dialogue and performance. It’s one of several important literary genres that authors engage with.
- Aside: a dramatic device that is used within plays to help characters express their inner thoughts
- Dramatic Monologue: a conversation a speaker has with themselves, or which is directed at a listen or reader who does not respond.
- Melodrama: a work of literature or a theatrical performance that uses exaggerated events and characters.
- Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Watch: Life is Absurd. How to Live it?
- Listen: Is Life Meaningless?
- Listen: A Guide to Absurdism