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I am a writer in Central Florida with strong interests in the ways in which religion and philosophy intersect in popular culture. I especially enjoy examining how this is expressed in film, literature, music, and art.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Self-Imposed Exile in Existentialist Literature

07 December 2008
*(MLA style has been altered to facilitate online posting.)

Humans have always formed their sense of self in relation to the society they live in. For centuries, literature expressed a belief of mankind as part of the greater community. However, as the 19th century drew to an end many writers increasingly expressed an opposite view. Literature became a medium through which some individuals could express their growing anxiety with the world and their own sense of alienation. Often, this perceived estrangement from society was actually precipitated by the individual. This assumption can easily be seen in the characters created by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus. Together, they introduced the notion of man as alone in the universe, an exile within his own community. Most of their characters are alienated from their community precisely due to their own choice to exclude themselves. The sense of isolation the characters feel paved the way for what has been termed existentialist literature. The main characters in Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Kafka’s The Metamorphoses, and Camus’ The Guest all share this theme of self-imposed exile.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is perhaps one of literature’s least likeable characters. He seems to want to feel as if he belongs, but persists in pushing others away. His treatment of Liza is especially poignant, as it entrenches him in a self-hatred, yet his heart has grown so cold that he continues to hurt her. One can almost picture Liza’s tears as Underground Man strips any sense of worth she holds for herself. He mocks her and says, "Well you should know that I was laughing at you then... (Dostoevsky, 1374). He displaces his feelings of shame onto her. The dinner scene is also indicative of his need for social connection, and at the same time illustrates how he is able to alternate between this need and the drive to punish others for what he thinks is a rejection of him. "Either they'll all fall on their knees, embracing me, beg for my friendship, or ...or else, I'll give Zverkov a slap in the face” (Dostoyevsky, 1351). His reaction here is nearly infantile. What is most tragic is the fact that Underground Man is lonely, but it is only himself holding others at bay. “He is 'subdued by his antithesis', that is, enslaved by an abstract concept of his own making” (Hall, 6). His pessimism alienates everyone because for him, mankind is the lowest form of life. “The definition of man is this: a creature who walks around of two legs and is ungrateful” (Dostoyevsky, 1322). Underground Man’s disdain for people makes him quite disagreeable and condemns him to a life of solitude, lacking in companionship or love. Towards the end of the story, he seems to grasp the fact that he has not really been living life, but rather than take the blame alone, he once again displaces it onto all humans. At the end of Part II in Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man says that “we are oppressed at being humans, humans with our own real bodies and blood; we are ashamed of it” (351). The fact is that he has never let himself be human, with all the faults that would entail, and cannot handle acknowledging the truth.

Kafka’s main character in The Metamorphoses, Gregor Samsa, also alienates himself from others. Rather than doing so because of a dislike of people, he separated himself from society in order to protect and care for his family. “It is their world, their stake in the commercial scheme to which he is committed…Kafka caught deeply and accurately the connection between home and office, the thwarting of independence in both realms, the depletion of the spirit, and, in consequence, the reduction of urban man to bestial immaturity” (Spilka, 15).He lived to work and hoped for nothing selfish. This disassociation from the common things a man hopes for, along with the way his family treated him as their work horse, slowly turned him into something inhuman. By this time, his family had no actual sense of gratitude or love for him, since they had taken him for granted for so long. Their main concern became their need “to get rid of it" (Kafka, 2026). He lost his humanity and was exiled from his own family due to their lack of love. Still, this treatment was one which he encouraged through his mindless sense of duty and self-sacrifice. His parents felt that they "could not endure useless, much less dirty refuse" (Kafka, 2023) precisely because he had accustomed them to comfort and material prosperity. He went from being human to being nothing more than garbage in his family’s eyes. If only he had been more selfish of his own needs, he may never have been in that predicament.

Perhaps the most memorable and eloquent of these stories is Camus’ tale of the schoolteacher Daru, who separates himself from an entire town due to his differences in politics. “It is against the willing and unreasoning manufacture of violence that Daru's exile is a mute protest. He is irrevocably opposed to the brute immorality of men and to the processes of dehumanization which that immorality activates” (Grobe, 4). He chooses to live alone on the plateau precisely because "everywhere else, he felt exiled” (Camus, 2575). The description of the setting as isolated from others by a mountain and a desert, coupled with the references to numbing cold weather and famine, give the story a tone of profound desolation. "For days, still, the unchanging sky would shed its dry light on the solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man” (Camus, 2576). Daru chooses his fate and condemns himself to loneliness. “No one in this desert, neither he nor his guest, mattered” (Camus, 2578). The horrors of war and colonization have scarred Daru’s soul and filled him with dread. With such an obvious disregard for himself and for others, Daru could never have felt happy in the company of others.

The literature which emerged as the 20th century approached was rife with anxiety and allowed the reader to grow aware of the vast separation between the individual and society. There arose a new hero in these stories, who grappled with feelings of loneliness and estrangement and who at times seemed on the verge of a psychological break down. Dostoyevsky is hailed by some as the patriarch of this trend, since Notes from the Underground is an intense psychological portrait of precisely such an individual. Franz Kafka is also an example of this type of writing because in The Metamorphoses he destroys the notion of safety within the family structure and thereby completely isolates Samsa, ripping all vestiges of humanity from him. In The Guest, Camus isolates Daru in a similar manner. He pits Daru against his society and the end result is that Daru is left without a foundation on which he can rely. Indeed, his very life is threatened. The hero’s complete isolation is the common theme in these stories and has led to their being lumped together under the category of existentialist literature. In all these individuals, this estrangement is partly their own fault. In many ways, these stories lead the reader to examine their own life, and thus examined, their lives reveal the same truth: every man is an island.


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground, the Double, and
Other Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

Grobe, Edwin P. The Psychological Structure of Camus's "L'Hôte".
The French Review, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Dec., 1966). American Association of Teachers of French

Hall, J.R. Abstraction in Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the
Underground". The Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Jan. 1981). Modern Humanities Research Association

Lowell,Sarah;Ed. Anthology of World Literature, Volume E-F. New
York: Norton, 1999.

Spilka, Mark. Kafka's Sources for the Metamorphosis.
Comparative Literature, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Autumn, 1959), pp. 289-307 Published by: University of Oregon

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