Existential Nihilism in Literature: Books & Quotes

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Literature loves to explore the philosophical thought of existential nihilism. From Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' to Chuck Palahniuk's 'Fight Club', the revelation that life is devoid of any purpose pervades these works. Man discovers how insignificant he really is.

Meaning

Does life have meaning? This question has long plagued man, and -- whether through mathematics, philosophical thought, or religious belief -- people continue to come up with many different answers. Some, however, believe that life has no meaning or purpose, and that we are alone and insignificant in the universe. This belief is called existential nihilism.

Two of the more notable philosophers who have expressed their thoughts on existential nihilism are Jean Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. Though existential nihilism doesn't begin with them, it becomes more fully developed in works such as Sartre's nonfiction work Being and Nothingness and Nietzsche's novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The idea that life is devoid of any meaning, and that man has no relevance in the grand scheme of the universe, has been a topic of numerous literary works -- including some that were written long before Sartre and Nietzsche came along.

Early Literary Examples

Perhaps one of the more memorable examples of existential nihilism in literature comes from Macbeth. As Macbeth readies to battle Malcolm, he learns that his wife is dead. He exclaims that ''Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.'' Macbeth looks at life, and he finds it lacking in meaning. It comes and goes, then simply ends. The idea that life is a ''walking shadow'' that ''is heard no more'' speaks to the idea of existential nihilism. One could also consider Hamlet's soliloquy in which he asks ''To be or not to be''. Though Hamlet does come to find some meaning in life, he goes so far as to muse that in death ''we end/The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.''

Another familiar work that is associated with nihilism is Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. While the narrator of the novel does state that ''it is impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything,'' he also says that ''work makes a man good and honest.'' Work, he puts forth, gives man purpose. In terms of existential nihilism, Dostoevsky's work is important because of its influence on other authors who developed this theme in their literary works. One author in particular uses the ideas presented by Dostoevsky to develop his own ideas on the topic; existential nihilism appears fully formed in the work of 20th century French philosopher Albert Camus.

Albert Camus

In a 1942 essay entitled Myth of Sisyphus, Camus recounts the Greek myth in which Sisyphus is condemned to forever push a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down, again and again, ''the whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing.'' He relates the myth to the reality of our lives. Unlike the conclusion drawn by Dostoevsky's underground man, Camus writes that work has no purpose. It is all insignificant. He develops this idea further in his novel The Plague. When Rieux, a doctor, examines an old man, the patient asks ''what does that mean-'plague'? Just life, no more than that.'' Just as with work, the plague demonstrates that there is no purpose or significance to life. It merely is. Rieux comes to realize that while he may help some survive, eventually they all will die, so what's the point?

The realization of man's insignificance is also predominant in Camus' novel The Stranger. In the opening passage, the narrator tells the reader that ''Maman died today…That doesn't mean anything.'' A bit later in the novel, the narrator is with a woman, Marie. She tells him she loves him, but he responds by saying ''it (doesn't) mean anything.'' He later explains that ''Nothing, nothing mattered.'' Later, when the narrator later says that ''Salamano's dog was worth just as much as his wife,'' it shows that no one life has any greater purpose than another. It is all insignificant. All our actions are pointless, since everyone dies.

In many ways, then, existential nihilism is prevalent in the work of Camus. His characters define life as being devoid of any purpose or meaning. The insignificance of life is emphasized in a quote from The Stranger.

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