Definition of Existentialism

Existentialism is a philosophy that focuses on the existence of mankind.  It deals with their efforts of finding a way in this hostile universe. The writers apply existentialist philosophy in their texts to underpin the efforts of dejected, tormented and alienated humans, how they find themselves facing certain choices in the world. It is based on the concept that humans should choose their paths of life independently, and, try to make rational decisions in the irrational universe. In this sense, it liberates them from the clutches of moral values, social norms, and religious beliefs. Several literary pieces of the modern age demonstrate this philosophy in one or the other way. Etymologically, the word existence is derived from the Latin word “existere” which means “to stand out.”

Existentialism Examples from Literature

Example #1

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.”

(Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Chapter 4)

This quote is taken from chapter four of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy is trapped by the strange creatures, Tralfamadorians and, is kept in a zoo at their planet, Tralfamadore. When Billy asks them why did they choose him, he does not get a satisfactory answer. As a Tralfamadorian state, there is no reason why Billy is chosen. There is no meaning and philosophy behind it. It is his fate that has dragged him into this situation. Billy’s curiosity shows that humans beings, as a whole, tend to find greater meaning if anything happens. However, most of the times things happen in life without any reason. This quote proves existentialism as Billy is trying to figure out the purpose of his existence in an unknown planet.

Example #2

“Vladimir: Let’s wait and see what he says.
Estragon: Who?
Vladimir: Godot.
Estragon: Good idea.
Vladimir: Let’s wait till we know exactly how we stand.
Estragon: On the other hand, it might be bettering to strike the iron before it freezes.”

(Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket, Act I)

These lines occur in a play, Waiting for Godot written by Samuel Becket. Two Characters, Estragon and Vladimir, are waiting for Godot. Here Vladimir seems to be spiritual and religious about the arrival of Godot to come and direct them. However, Estragon suggests that they should not wait and move on. The writer uses the metaphor of “freezing,” implying human beings do not have time to wait for their spiritual guidance to come and enlighten their souls. Instead, they should avail the chance in hand and make decisions without depending upon someone. Thus, the philosophy of existentialism shines in the suggestion of Estragon who is of the view that they should take their own path before it is too late.

Example #3

 She said, “If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.” She was right. There was no way out.”

(Albert Camus, The Stranger)

A character, the nurse, speaks these words when addressing Meursault during the funeral procession. The nurse puts Meursault in a serious dilemma. Meursault’s words that there is really no way out points to the frustration he is going through. He realizes that he is forced or condemned to choose one or the other options and that there is no escape. This is entirely an absurd situation that points to the existential situation.

Example #4

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

(Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis)

These are the opening lines of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. The protagonist, Gregor wakes up in the morning and finds himself transformed into a gigantic bug. The quote suggests that the transformation of Gregor was just an ordinary event, implying that the world around Gregor was inheritably purposeless, rather than rational so these type of incidents are considered normal. These lines exemplify the idea of existentialism that Gregor is living in an irrational, chaotic and meaningless world, where his miserable plight drags him into an existentialist crisis.

Existentialism Meaning and Functions

Existentialist philosophy serves as a pause for the audience. It gives them a chance to think and ponder upon the nature of their existence. It also gives them a chance to see things from a different perspective. Although it seems illogical to the people belonging to different schools of thoughts, it offers them a new dimension to magnify their existence to see its significance. However, by liberating humans from the chains of religion and moral belief system, it empowers them to make their own choices. Also, it proves a moment of action for the characters.