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Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Existentialism in Twentieth-Century Literature


Despite the significant developments in science during the 19th century, the two devastating wars of the following century dismantled human faith in scientific and rational thinking. This negative outlook on society was first observed in Philosophy by authors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Twentieth-century literature is deeply influenced by existentialism that focuses on the character’s consciousness rather than following the traditional unfolding of the plot. In this way, contemporary literature makes the psychology of the individual its nucleus, yielding to the exploration of topics, such as absurdity, mortality or freedom. Therefore, this 101 series will analyze some of the most important existentialist works of literature from the 20th century to explore how the authors have intertwined their motivations with the widespread pessimism of the time.

This 101 series is divided into the following sections:

  1. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Existentialism in Twentieth-Century Literature

  2. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain as a Journey of Knowledge

  3. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: The Steppenwolf: A Modern Ethical Tale

  4. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Albert Camus and the Alienation of The Stranger

  5. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Carmen Laforet’s Nada and the Emptiness of Experience

  6. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles’s Eastern Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky

Existentialism in Twentieth-Century Literature

In the aftermath of the First World War, artists were looking for new ways to express their feelings and longings. For instance, poet T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) introduces a narrator who experiences a severe personal crisis while Europe is trying to recover from the terrible war. He uses several motifs of death and revival since he cannot understand how a new society can blossom from the war-torn land. In the same way, another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Elegies (1923) aims for a revision of contemporary life and values (Gosetti-Ferencei, 2020). This quest for new literary conventions will continue after the Second World War when writers will try to break free from traditional rules and explore new forms. This article aims to portray the conceptual framework that encouraged writers to delve into philosophical existentialism.

Rilke’s Elegies opens up with a terrifying scene of loneliness and desperation which reflects a world that has lost any kind of balance or stability (Gosetti-Ferencei, 2020). In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), Rilke presents an impoverished aristocratic man who goes to live in Paris where he finds urban life chaotic and disgusting. In other words, he feels disconnected from the outer world and experiences a feeling of alienation. This perfectly captures existentialism’s main concern: determinism. The philosophical movement seeks to answer the main questions that surround human existence: “Why am I here? What does my life mean? Of what significance is death to me? (Whipple & Tucker, 2012, p. 97). According to Wartenberg (2008, p. 5), existentialism refers to “the fundamental dilemmas that human beings face during the course of their lives”. Therefore, existential theory tries to dismantle determinism, i.e., the notion that human action is forced by the individual’s circumstance. Determinism is a safe place for humans since it completely rejects free will and, thus, leaves the human being without responsibility. In contrast, existentialism tries to liberate humans from their circumstances and, in turn, make the person aware of their behavior (Whipple & Tucker, 2012).

Figure 1. Salvator Rosa. Human Fragility. 1656.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the movement’s main figure in France, demanded to question the ontological status of the world, i.e., how the world really is and how it presents itself to humankind. Ontology is a philosophical field that studies the self and its features, such as human responsibility or interaction. For instance, Sartre’s Nausea (1938) is the perfect example of the merge between philosophy and literature since it discusses existentialism as the plot unfolds. The main character is Antoine Roquentin, a single thirty-something-year-old man, who is writing a biography of an 18th-century aristocra tic man. His life in Bouville, an imaginary French town, is quite simple as he makes acquaintance with some of the area’s inhabitants. In the novel, Roquentin finally realizes that all people present themselves according to their self-imposed essence which, in the end, means nothing. For example, one of the town’s most picturesque characters, the self-taught man, known for his humanism, cannot remember the eye color of the people he loves when asked. Even Roquentin himself recognizes that his memories are reconstructions of the past to justify his life (Gosetti-Ferencei, 2020).

In the end, Roquetin is aware that his existence is meaningless which produces a feeling of distortion and alienation. This is what Sartre calls nausea, i.e., the feeling of isolation and fear of the uncertainty of existence. This feeling only pales in comparison to jazz music in the case of Roquetin (Córdova, 2019). The existential theory places the human being in an absurd world and blames humankind for justifying the miseries of society (Ordones, 2017). The idea is to strip the person of his or her mistaken justifications or preconceived ideas to meet their fears, desires and real identity (López, 2017).

Figure 2. Edvuard Munch. The Scream. 1910.

However, as Thomas R. Flynn (2012, p. 249) points out “existentialism is a philosophical movement with literary applications rather than a literary movement with philosophical pretensions.” (Baert, 2011, p. 631). This does not mean that philosophical novels should be underestimated; on the contrary, Sartre’s Nausea or Albert Camus’ The Stranger or The Plague were highly acclaimed and received the Nobel Prize for literature. However, even Sartre and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir discussed the relationship between philosophy and art, notably literature. The two had different opinions on the role of literature as a vehicle for philosophy, but, in the end, existentialism claimed openness and tolerance toward different outlooks on the world which opened the door to literature (Flynn, 2012).

In addition, the catastrophe of the First World War made it impossible to write without addressing the conflict. In this new political climate, intellectuals were going to be able to choose between three ideological currents: Marxism, progressive Catholicism and existentialism. All the currents were characterized by the strong political profile with which they endowed their respective works since the authors were aware of the moral and ethical importance of their works after the war (Baert, 2011). This intense intellectual fallout was one of the most important driving forces of existentialism. The pessimism that permeates twentieth-century literature was mainly due to war and existential theory only made intellectuals aware of human responsibility. In other words, for existential philosophers the tragedy was not caused by a political problem among countries but rather provoked by humanity as a whole which connects to the existential idea of human responsibility (Dean, 2014). The moral responsibility of existentialism did not allow for the separation of literature and politics since all artists felt an ethical duty to discuss the war’s consequences. Not only that, but any kind of attempt to neutralize literature was disregarded and looked upon suspiciously: “impartiality and objectivity were no longer seen as plausible aims.” (Baert, 2011, p. 631).

Figure 3. Michelangelo. Dream of Life. 1550.

In conclusion, the world wars of the twentieth century left their mark on several generations of writers who found themselves under a moral obligation to combine politics and literature. The sense of catastrophe and emptiness that came over them as a result of the war made them attracted to existentialism, which restored a sense of responsibility to human beings. People regained control of their actions, which were now presented as completely voluntary and not determined by circumstance.

Bibliographical References

Córdova, C. (2019). Writing, experience, and literary experience in Montaigne’s Essays and Sartre’s Nausea. Estudos de Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea, 57.

Dean, W. (2014). "The Intellectual Fallout from World War I". Faculty Scholarship – History. 19.

Gosetti-Ferencei, J. A. (2020). 'Existentialism as Literature: The Twentieth Century'. In J.A. Gosetti-Ferenci (ed.), On Being and Becoming: An Existentialist Approach to Life (pp. 88-106).

Flynn, T. R. (2012). Existentialism. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 26(2), 247–267.

López., R (2017). La metáfora especular: ecos del existencialismo schopenhaueriano en “Los espejos” de Jorge Luis Borges. ¿Literatura y Filosofía hoy? Logos (La Serena, Chile), 27(1), 123–138.

Ordones, D. (2017). Existencialismo y surrealismo en Rayuela (1963) de cortázar. Confluencia, 33(1), 39-50. doi:

Wartenberg, T. E. (2008).Existentialism: A beginner’s guide. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.

Whipple, J. & Tucker, C. (2012). Using Cinema and Literature to Explore Existentialism. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 7(1), 95–106.

Visual Sources

Figure 1. Rosa, S (1656). Human Fragility. [Painting]. Retrieved from

Figure 2. Munch, E (1970). The Scream. [Painting]. Retrieved from

Figure 3. Michelangelo. (1550). Dream of Life. [Painting]. Retrieved from

Author Photo

Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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