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The Human Condition in Literature

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  • 0:03 Definition of the…
  • 0:43 What is Human Nature?
  • 2:17 Complexities of Relationships
  • 3:47 The Individual and Society
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Humans are connected to each other through life, death, and our emotional journeys. Read this lesson to learn about the common characteristics of the human condition theme, such as the concept of human nature, the complexities of human relationships, and society.

Definition of the Human Condition

The human condition is defined as the positive or negative aspects of being human, such as birth, growth, reproduction, love, and death. The word 'condition' makes it sound like a disease that we are all born with, or some curse that is the fate of all humanity, but it seems the human condition is simply based on time - the time we have on this planet and how we as humans live out that time. What we do in between the inevitable birth and death defines us, and there in the middle, we find the making of stories that will be carried on for generations to come.

Let's take a look at some of the common themes in literature and see how they are created by the human condition.

What Is Human Nature?

What makes us human? One could argue many traits, but our emotions stand out when compared to other living things. We're animals that roam the planet looking for purpose, but humans transcend the boundaries of the animal world. Our emotions define us, and it's our emotions that create the idea of the human condition. This aspect of being human - our emotional responses - create conflict, which becomes the foundation of the plot arc of every story ever written.

Emotions such as love and hate define what it means to be human and create a world of conflict for our readers, hence moving the plot arc forward by producing internal struggles and external struggles. The journey each character takes represents our own, which allows the reader to connect to similar experiences. When we feel those connections as readers, we are more apt to keep reading. When we believe a character could be real, we invest in the book, just as we would in the real world, especially if their story connects to our own. Will Victor Frankenstein ever reconcile his existential woes? Will Bella and Edward be together in the end? And will Atticus Finch's actions change the perception of Maycomb County and the real world? The characters are fictional, but the themes of love, prejudice, and power are accessible and real.

It seems the human condition connects us to each other and the universal story we are all telling together. Aristotle said we are social creatures, and literature defends that claim. We read to solve our own conflicts and connect ourselves to others that are attempting to do the same.

Complexities of Relationships

While conflict was discussed in the last section, the nature of relationships builds a level of conflict that, without it, a story would lose value. Yes, there are pieces of writing that follow an individual and their internal struggles, but the nature of relationships, and/or lack thereof, build a foundation of characterization and authenticity that the reader connects with.

We want to know what happens when the boy meets the girl. We want to keep reading when we find out a marriage is tumultuous. We want to know if two girls will ever be friends again after one slept with the other's ex-boyfriend. Why? Human nature. We are curious creatures that are attempting to understand ourselves, and within a novel we find clues and hints as to how we can interact with the real world.

Through character interactions, we also notice patterns that exist in the world. It seems there are social and cultural rules that trigger 'typical' reactions, such as crying after a death or break up, the instinct to lie to protect one's pride, jealousy in the face of a relationship or career threat, and the notion of giving up everything one believes in to fall in love. We see these themes presented in works such as Romeo and Juliet and Othello, but there is a reason Shakespeare's work is still taught today. Human nature and the relationships we form with others have not changed over the years, and while our intelligence grows through education and technology, there's something to be said regarding the primitive emotions that connect back to works that are hundreds and thousands of years old.

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