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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).