Absurdity in Literature: Definition & Concept

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  • 0:02 Definition of Absurdity
  • 1:07 Examples of Absurdity
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
Explore absurdity, or those experimental characteristics of literature that depict meaninglessness, through a comprehensive definition and a lesson with examples. Then, challenge your growing knowledge about the topic with a quiz.

Definition of Absurdity

In Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice experiences a world that is primarily nonsensical, meaning it is incongruous, absurd, or invites ridicule. Gardeners who paint white roses red, strange food that makes one shrink or expand to giant size, and caterpillars who ask perplexing philosophical questions are only a small sampling of the absurd that Alice encounters.

Ahead of his time, Carroll delved into avant-garde (experimental and provocative new techniques in a field) themes that would characterize several writers in the mid-twentieth century. The use of absurdity in literature is a vehicle for writers to explore those elements in the world that do not make sense. It examines questions of meaning and life, and writers often use absurd themes, characters, or situations to question whether meaning or structure exists at all. Let's dig a little more deeply into what exactly is absurd in literature and then discuss the seeming paradox of using structure to suggest there is not structure.

Examples of Absurdity

When we think of absurdity in literature, historical context plays a hugely significant role. In the 1950's, people faced the devastation of two world wars, a disillusionment with modernism and rationalism, as well as a more liberal approach to what was traditional faith. Without the framework of a stable social structure or grounding beliefs in religious realities, as well as being faced with questions about the reliability of the human psyche, thinkers of the day turned to such ideologies as existentialism, which goes very comfortably hand-in-hand with absurdity.

Existentialism places a human being at the starting point of thought and emphasizes the bewilderment such an individual feels in the face of a meaningless and lonely world. Separate from other individuals and alienated from the world itself, a human being is left to wander alone and is much more susceptible to mass manipulation and government control.

Writers who used these existential ideologies as an impetus for writing include Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others. These writers went against conventional literary structure that said there had to be strong correlative relationships between setting, character, plot, etc. In other words, the writers did not only introduce ideas of meaninglessness into the content, but also wove meaninglessness into the very structure of the story by breaking down these conventional relationships. Let's look at Kafka's short story 'Metamorphosis' as an example.

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