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The Element of Absurdity in The Trial and Nausea

One of Sartre and Kafka's most effective tools in presenting their philosophies through a work of fiction is the implementation of events and characters with overwhelmingly absurd natures. This technique allows the author to state a very definite point by using a situation that is so obviously exaggerated compared to actual life that the reader is much more apt to understand the author's intentions than if the events presented were more realistic.

In Nausea, Sartre develops a character whose only vocation is the quest to read every book in the library, alphabetically by author, regardless of subject matter. Everything that "the Self Taught Man" knows, he learned in a book. He does not feel that any thought that runs through his mind is valid unless it has already been confirmed by someone else, and written down in a book. In one instance, the Self Taught Man comes to this revelation: "'No longer do people believe what the eighteenth-century held to be true. Why should we still take pleasure in works because they thought them beautiful?'" (109). He then proceeds to ask the novel's protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, whether or not he had ever read such a statement anywhere before. When Roquentin replies in the negative, the Self Taught Man concludes that it must not be true, because "'if it were true, someone would already have thought of it'" (109).

Similarly, Kafka presents Bertold, who is openly allowed to molest a nameless female character, referred to as "the woman." Bertold is a student of the court at which the protagonist is on trial. He is able to take such liberties with the woman because the officials of the court are fond of him. The woman's husband holds a low position in the court, and he is sent away to run menial errands so as to give Bertold sufficient time to do his business.

In Nausea, disturbingly unimportant events are given titanic significance. The central focus of the novel, Roquentin's bouts with "Nausea," is first introduced when Roquentin spots a scrap of paper on the ground. The paper is damp and crumpled into a ball. He reaches down to pick it up, when he is struck with an all-consuming feeling of sickness. He is unable to move, because he has realized the manner in which people use things for a single purpose, without regard to that object's individual existence, and proceed to discard that object without any further thought of it.

In The Trial, Joseph K. is preparing to leave the bank where he works when he hears sighs from behind a lumber-room door. The two warders who were at K.'s house when he was arrested for the "crime" around which the novel is centered are in the lumber room with another man appropriately named "The Whipper." The warders, Franz and Willem, are being beaten because K. made a complaint against them at his first interrogation. It is interesting that K.'s case isn't important enough that he be told what he is charged with, but his complaint brings the warders a whipping. Also, that the warders have served the court well in the past and are good people is disregarded because a complaint was made against them.

Absurdity is an important element in both novels. It is an aid in explaining the relative meaninglessness of life's events. It is key in supporting the Existentialist ideas which are manifested in the novels.


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