Existential literature often focuses on the personal journey towards existential awareness. Common themes in existential works, such as alienation and confrontation with death, often lead the "anti-hero" towards a climactic choice that defines whether they have reached true understanding. The themes within existential literature are reflected from the world at large, and the works themselves are a metaphor for a grander shift in Western philosophy.
Intellectualism in post-war Europe had a sort of existential realization of its own, paralleling the experiences of its literary figures. The philosophy of existentialism had its roots in late nineteenth century philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (Crowell), but wasn't popularized until after World War II, and Sartre (Gaarder 455). After two world wars and countless civil disruptions throughout Europe, the populace was disillusioned with the senseless violence. Recent developments in science had cast religion into doubt, but even if there was a God, according to Sartre "the question... is irrelevant" (Crowell). Widespread revolutions in Europe had spread mistrust in government and any sort of rational social order. The only place left for people to turn was within themselves. Existentialism was a practical philosophy for the modern age and for the masses, who for the first time in history had the leisure and public education to become interested in a fuller existence. All of the importance was placed on the individual and the importance of individual choice. It was the only way to cope with the increasing absurdity of the world.
Existential heroes in literature are alienated from everything surrounding them (Bi...
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... and created philosophies for the new era.
Works Cited and Consulted
Bigelow, Gordon E. "A Primer of Existentialism." College English. December, 196: 171-178.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988.
Crowell, Thomas. "Existentialism" Reader's Encyclopedia. Ed. Wm. Rose Benet. 1969.
Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie's World. New York: Berkley Books, 1994.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Dell Publishing Co. 1955.
Hemingway, Ernest. "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." The Art of Modern Fiction. Ray B. West, ed. New York: Rholt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962.
Porfirio, Robert. "No Way Out: Existential Motifs." Film Noir Reader. ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. "The Wall." The Art of Modern Fiction. Ray B. West, ed. New York: Rhold, Rinehart & Winston, 1962.
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