The names of literary periods are thrown around as if they’re self-explanatory, but they’re often quite complex! In our ongoing series Name That Literary Period, we want to really explore each literary period in order to better understand the historical context of our favorite books.
This week, we tackle a big one: existentialism. It’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s depressing—and none of it even matters, anyway, because each of us is all alone, forever, and that’s all we ever will be, and everything we do is meaningless…right? Maybe. But just in case it does matter, let’s make sure we understand it.
Time Period: ~1850s–1950s
Existentialism began as a philosophical movement, born from the works of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche (and others) in the 19th century. Kierkegaard was a Christian existentialist, exploring how people can hold onto faith in the face of loss and fear. Nietzche, on the other hand, famously claimed God is dead, and that people have to establish their own identities without the guidance of some higher power.
Simply put, existentialism is about individuals striving to find their own meaning in life, despite the realization that there is no divine plan for the universe. It’s about making rational decisions in an irrational world.
This reality-altering perspective gained traction during the First Industrial Revolution, but it really took hold culturally during the World Wars, when the traumatic trenches of WWI were follwed by the devastation of the atomic bomb and the Holocaust. It was increasingly difficult for people to reconcile religion and rationality with the destructive power and technological advancement of humanity. This is when existential literature really exploded.
Let’s look at 7 must-read existential books that made the complicated philosophical theory accessible and even appealing to everyday people:
1.) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
Crime and Punishment falls into many literary movements, but it’s one of the earliest popular novels to capture existential thought. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, sees himself as a powerful individual and convinces himself that he is justified in committing murder. When it becomes clear that society’s values do not match his own, Raskolnikov becomes powerless. This novel shows that while it’s possible for individuals to define their own experiences, we still exist in a society with established norms and values.
2.) The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)
Kafka’s famous novella tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a man who has lost all joy in life, having become caught up in endless and meaningless bureaucracies. One morning, he wakes up transformed into a human-sized bug. This satirical turn of events reveals a belief in the absurdity of life—Gregor’s only escape from the mundanity of society was to become unable to participate in society at all.
3.) Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)
In Winesburg, Ohio Anderson pieces together a picture of a fictional American town through stories about each of its residents. The stories don’t describe a cohesive community, however. Nearly everyone in the town is dealing with their own search for meaning, their own feelings of betrayal or loss. Though existentialism wasn’t yet a popular notion in the United States, Anderson perfectly captured the feeling of existential confusion in this connected collection of stories.
4.) Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938)
Though Sartre wrote mostly existential philosophical theory, he won—and declined—a Nobel Prize in Literature for this novel. It follows an academic who fully realizes his own individuality, leading to a feeling of complete freedom and complete isolation. Sartre saw this realization as a positive opportunity for action and social change.
5.) The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
The Stranger is perhaps the most famous existential novel, though Camus himself rejected the categorization. In this book, Meursault commits murder, yet is unable to summon any feelings of regret. Instead, all he can think about, even as he sits in his jail cell, is the absurdity and isolation of the human experience.
6.) Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953)
This classic absurdist play follows a pair of men waiting on a road for another man, named Godot. The pair are destitute and in pain from traveling, and while they wait for Godot, they discuss their miseries. As the days pass, they receive word that Godot is almost there, but he never arrives. This play exemplifies Beckett’s style of subverting stage norms, focusing on purposeless characters and refusing to present a clear message or meaning.
7.) The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir (1954)
Also the author of famous works of theory like The Second Sex, de Beauvoir is perhaps most famous for The Mandarins, whicih won the Goncourt Prize in 1954. It’s partly autobiographical, and it explores the celebration in France after the German occupation of WWII ended, followed by the ambiguity they experienced in the new peacetime. Through her protagonist, Anne, de Beauvoir presents a woman’s perspective on the existential dilemmas that had been outlined mostly by men.
Existential thought continues to influence writers and artists today, and it has paved the way for the literary periods to come. Stay tuned for our next installments in this series to learn more!