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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Existentialism:

A philosophical, religious, and literary term, emerging from World War II, for a group of attitudes surrounding the pivotal notion that existence precedes essence. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, "man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." Because there is no human nature or essence, a person is an ontological emptiness or nothingness to be filled or defined by the sum of his or her acts. Anguish arises from the fact that in choosing for oneself, one is performing an exemplary act and thereby choosing for all humankind. Anguish, then, is the very condition of action, for action precludes other possibilities, and by choosing one course of action, an agent is bestowing value upon it. Forlornness arises from the death of God and the concomitant death of universal values, of any source of ultimate or a priori standards. There is no authority to whom an individual may appeal, and this is the burden of radical freedom: There are neither excuses nor justifications. Despair arises from the fact that an individual can reckon only with what depends on his or her will, and the sphere of that will is severely limited. An individual's causal efficacy is infinitesimal; the number of things on which he or she can have an impact is pathetically small. Nevertheless, the individual is to be held totally responsible for his or her actions; "There's no reality except in action."

Existential literature manifests an awareness of the absurdity of the universe and is preoccupied with the single ethical choice that determines the meaning of a person's whole existence. A drama of situations rather than a drama based on psychological motivation or character, it is antideterministic in the extreme and rejects the idea that heredity and environment shape and determine human motivation and behavior.


© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997