Existentialism is a philosophy dealing with man's aloneness in the universe. Either there is no God or else God stands apart from man, leaving him free will to make his own choices. From this basic idea of man being alone in an uncertain and purposeless world, many related ideas have developed. One great worry of existentialist writers is that life is becoming too complicated and too impersonal. People become more and more involved with their work, which is taking them away from their friends, family, and culture. However, these provide the only "meaning" that life could possibly have. One author prominently known for his work with existential ideas was Franz Kafka. Kafka, who wrote from the mid-1910's until the early 1920's, took the ideas of existentialism and interwove them so well into his novels and short stories that they became a trademark of his writing. Two of his stories are good examples of this philosophy: The Metamorphosis and "The Hunger Artist."
In The Metamorphosis, Gregor, the protagonist, works as a salesman. He doesn't like his job but works very hard, making his job his life. When he wakes up one morning having turned into a dung beetle (or perhaps a cockroach?) during the night, he thinks only about how he is going to get to work, not how it happened or what he can do about it. The hunger artist is also completely dedicated to his job, which is fasting. To him it is an art, one which he works at day and night. All of his thoughts focus on how he can improve himself. At the end of forty days (which was the fasting limit set by his manager), he always asks himself, "Why stop now when [I am] in [my] best fasting for...
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In both stories, Kafka deals with existentialist ideas. He touches on the view that society is becoming too complicated, too impersonal, and suggests that in our compulsion for work we are getting out of touch with each other. When we start treating humans as inanimate objects instead of people, the results are disastrous. Although Kafka makes these dismal observations, he also provides for a brighter future. Although humans as a group are becoming less and less personal, he seems to say, an optimistic future is possible if individuals will only stop and examine themselves and their relationships with other people.
Kafka, Franz. "The Hunger Artist." In The Collected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Ed. Nahum Glatzer. London: Penguin, 1983.
---. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Stanley Corngold. New York: Bantam, 1972.
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