The Purpose: To tell (and retell) stories using the arguments and assumptions posited by philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Existence precedes essence.
Although he was not the first to address existentialism as a philosophical concept, Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the school of thought’s best known figure. Arguing in this book that “existence precedes essence” (i.e. we encounter the world as-it-is before the world formulates a meaning for what we see) , many of the concepts that he would deal with in No Exit, Nausea and several other of his fictional works would portray the circumstances of living in such a world.
The picaresque novel will usually include over-the-top characters and low comedy, but Bardamu, Celine’s jack-of-all-trades narrator, suffers through the torments of poverty, disease and insanity without much comic relief. Existentialism is often associated with bleakness, but Journey to the End of the Night focuses more on the consequences of free will than the circumstances that place Bardamu at the center of all misery.
Albert Camus infamous opening lines are some of the most memorable in all of literature:
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”
Meursault is yet another unforgettable patient of the existentialist condition, recognizing that his own free will is the sole determinant of how his emotional faculties. After after killing a man on a beach in cold blood must he face the consequences of his actions, and even then it is only because the judicial system seeks to sentence him to death. Camus’ world is one driven by chance, though he also recognizes that his characters must ultimately take responsibility for one’s actions.
One of the more lighthearted existentialist classics, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a comical retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of two of it peripheral characters. Unable to understand the rhyme or reason of what exactly is occurring to them, they spend their time “offstage” musing about the luck, identity and their purpose as Hamlet’s friend. Hilarious but profoundly thoughtful, this play “performs” many of the more complex themes of existentialism without intimidating its audience.