Existentialist Works of Literature analyzed for worthiness.
One often poses the question, “What does it all mean? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life?” This question has kept many a soul up late at night. One such soul was Chaim Potok, who in his novel The Chosen, decided to answer the question with the following: “‘I learned a long time ago… a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant… A man mush fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life… A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest.’” The meaning of this quote is that if a human being can make their life mean something to them and to others around them, then that life is not wasted and therefore is deserving of rest. In literature, many characters do things in their literary life, but whether they are worthy of rest is a question that must be raised. In “The Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka, “The Wall,” by Jean-Paul Sartre, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot, there is a main character who’s life must be evaluated and the worthiness of rest must be decided, not unlike the Egyptian Pharaohs, who were evaluated by their gods.
In “The Wall,” by Jean-Paul Sartre, the main character is Pablo Ibbieta, a member of the resistance forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In the very beginning of the story Pablo has been captured by the military police and has been sentenced to death. Throughout the story, we see how Pablo deals with this information. First, he is very scared, but he attempts to hide his fear under a hard, icy exterior when he yells at the doctor who was supposed to stay with them all night. However, his fear shows through the mask when, on page 288 of World Literature by various authors, he realizes that he had been sweating profusely the entire night and his body had turned a sickly gray. However, after the night ends and the military police bring him to another room to interrogate him, he loses his fear and finally comes to terms with his death by playing a practical joke on the entire army by giving them a false location of where one of the major members of the resistance are located. He finds this funny, but when they actually find the member in the location Pablo described, Pablo finds that even funnier because he gets to live even though he didn’t mean to. Pablo Ibbieta is worthy of rest because, even though his story was short and we didn’t get a good look into his entire life, the few hours we do get to see are full of meaning. He fears and then comes to terms with his own death. That is a very difficult thing to do because humans have an inherent fear of death. He also reflects on things he’s done in the past, which shows that his life had meaning for him. He also found enjoyment in the little things of life. These all prove that Pablo is worthy of rest.
In “The Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka, the main character is Gregor Samsa—a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find that he has transformed into a giant insect. Gregor believes that he is the only reason why his family is surviving because they owe a large amount of money to his boss, and so this physical metamorphosis is severely detrimental to his cause. He then proceeds to ask for help, but since he is a bug, no one in his family can understand him. Once he gets free from his room, he goes to see what everyone is doing, but no one understands and they become afraid of him. Even when his sister Grete comes in to give him food, she can’t stand the sight of him. When Grete and her mother decide to move some of his furniture around, Gregor comes out to try and stop them. The sight of him makes his mother faint. Trying to help, Gregor follows his sister out, but gets locked out of his room. In all the confusion, Gregor’s father comes home and, in a fit of rage, bombards Gregor with apples, which fracture his carapace and get lodged inside, causing great pain to Gregor. Since Gregor is no longer providing income for the family, they have to go out and find jobs to get money. They take in some tenants to help pay the rent. At this time, Gregor has become a recluse, but when he hears his sister play her violin, he feels he must come listen. When the tenants see him, they decide they shall leave without paying rent the following morning. Gregor’s family decides that it is time to forget about Gregor, believing that, “If it were Gregor, he would long since have realized that it’s impossible for people to live side by side with an animal like that, and would have gone away of his own free will.” Gregor hears them, and in sorrow, dies. Once his family finds out, they mourn him only briefly before finally feeling the relief Gregor’s death brings. They can move into a smaller apartment and be happy. They finally can be happy and non-sedentary. So, is Gregor Samsa worthy of rest? Unfortunately, he is not. All he did in his life was work unnecessarily for a lost cause. He actually was preventing his family from growing as human beings. His death actually frees them from this chrysalis of sloth, letting them focus on the future and growing closer as a family. For doing nothing worthy of meaning in his lifetime, Gregor Samsa is not worthy of rest.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot is about the mental journey of a man, J. Alfred Prufrock, who is at a party and is contemplating asking a girl he meets there out on a date. It follows his entire story, from the beginning when he is just thinking of what he would say to her, to what he imagines her first reaction would be, to what she would say afterwards. It chronicles him raising his courage, then losing it, than raising it again, and then finally losing all hope and coming out of his fantasy. Prufrock’s case is a difficult one when deciding whether or not he is worthy of rest though. Although his whole story had meaning for him, it didn’t impact anyone else. However, Prufrock is worthy of rest. Anyone who has ever loved at all is worthy of rest because that love can be felt by anyone. An old proverb states that, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” This is why Prufrock is worthy of rest.
The existentialist philosophy is a strong philosophy that connects all of these stories, but it has very little relevance in today’s culture. These days, people need something to believe. When happiness is hard to come by, hope is what keeps people alive. If everything we did were to happen simply because it was our faults, then we would be miserable.
In ancient Egypt, they believed that when you die, the gods judged your soul by weighing your heart against a feather. If your heart was lighter than the feather, you were allowed to pass on into the afterlife. If not, then you were fed to an alligator monster. In a similar way, we have judged three existentialist characters. Two were allowed to pass, and only one was fed to the metaphorical alligator monster. This shows that the majority of existentialist characters have something worth living for.