Existentialism in Literature: Examining the Absurdity of Human Existence

Existentialism, an intellectual movement that flourished in the 20th century, is a profound critique of the human condition. Through examining the absurdity of human existence, existentialism challenges the foundations upon which our societal structures and beliefs rest. In this article, we shall delve into the realm of literature, exploring how existentialist authors have harnessed their craft to expose the fundamental absurdities of our lives. By engaging critically with conventional wisdom and drawing upon historical references, we will embark on an unapologetic pursuit of intellectual rigour to shed light on literature's profound insights into our understanding of the human condition.

The Absurdity of Existence:

Existentialism posits that human existence is inherently absurd, lacking inherent meaning or purpose. This worldview arises from rejecting metaphysical or religious explanations for human existence and places the burden of meaning squarely upon individuals. When confronted with the inherent absurdity of existence, existentialist authors skillfully expose the contradictions, paradoxes, and existential crises that permeate our lives.

Albert Camus, one of the foremost existentialist writers, presented his philosophical ideas through influential literary works such as "The Stranger" and "The Myth of Sisyphus." Camus depicts the absurdity of human existence by highlighting the universe's indifference toward human struggles. In "The Stranger," the protagonist Meursault's detached and indifferent demeanour mirrors the absurdity of reality as he navigates through a world devoid of inherent meaning.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom:

Existentialist literature relentlessly challenges conventional wisdom, exposing the hypocrisies and limitations of societal norms and expectations. Doing so invites readers to question the validity of established beliefs and explore the freedom of individual choice.

In Fyodor Dostoevsky's seminal work "Notes from Underground," the unnamed narrator wages a scathing critique against the notion of rational self-interest, which underpins the emerging capitalist society of his time. Dostoevsky's protagonist unveils the inherent contradictions of the Enlightenment's pursuit of rationality, arguing that human nature is plagued by irrationality, self-destructiveness, and a longing for freedom that transcends conventional wisdom. By challenging the foundations of rationality, Dostoevsky urges readers to confront the complexities and contradictions within themselves.

Drawing upon Historical References:

To fully comprehend the significance of existentialism in literature, it is crucial to examine its historical context and the events that shaped its emergence. The existentialist movement emerged after two world wars, during profound disillusionment and existential angst.

Jean-Paul Sartre, a key figure in the existentialist movement, exemplified this historical context in his play "No Exit." Set in a Hell-like room, the characters are condemned to an eternity of torturous interactions devoid of escape or respite. Sartre's portrayal of the characters trapped in a room empty of meaning reflects the collective trauma and despair experienced during wartime. By drawing upon historical references, Sartre highlights the profound impact of external circumstances on human existence.

The Role of Literature in Confronting Absurdity:

Literature is an invaluable medium through which existentialist authors engage with the absurdity of human existence. By illuminating the struggles and triumphs of individuals grappling with the meaninglessness of life, literature offers a lens through which readers can contemplate their existence.

In Samuel Beckett's iconic play "Waiting for Godot," Vladimir and Estragon find themselves waiting indefinitely for someone who never arrives. Through repetitive and seemingly purposeless dialogues, Beckett forces readers to confront the futility and absurdity of human endeavours. The play's open-mindedness reflects the ambiguity and uncertainty that characterizes human existence, prompting the audience to question the nature of their waiting and the purpose they assign to their lives.


Existentialism in literature is a powerful vehicle for challenging the conventional wisdom that permeates our lives. By exposing the absurdity of human existence and engaging critically with societal norms, existentialist authors invite readers to confront the fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. Drawing upon historical references, existentialist literature offers profound insights into the complexities of the human condition.

In an era where the consumption of ideas is often reduced to mere entertainment, we must embrace the intellectual rigour and critical engagement that existentialism in literature demands. By exploring the absurdity of existence, we may find the courage to question the unquestioned, challenge the unchallenged, and embark on a path of self-discovery, unearthing the truths hidden beneath the surface of our everyday lives. Only through such relentless pursuit of intellectual rigour can we truly redefine what it means to consume philosophy and ultimately change our way of being in the world.

Plato Re-Imagined

This course includes 32 lectures covering most of Plato's dialogues and allowing the student to return to something divine. Divinity should resonate with secular and religious leaders alike. I present a compatible approach in my lecture on Consilience.

Also included with this course is a free book. If you pay for the course, you will get a physical copy of the book for free, mailed to your chosen address — anywhere on the planet!

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