Existentialism: Does Life Have Meaning?
Existentialism: Does Life Have Meaning?
Most people would like to think that their life has some kind of meaning or purpose. However how this meaning in life is obtained can cause some differing views. One may believe that they were born with a purpose in life and the other may believe that it is their own responsibility to give their own life meaning. While the first belief may be the preferred option, it doesn’t seem very practical. Existentialists believe that one must give meaning to their own life, which in all reality seems to be the truth.
In the novels Their Eyes Were Watching God, Crime and Punishment, The Awakening, The Stranger, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the existential view that the individual is responsible for giving their own life meaning is confirmed through the character’s actions, pressures of society, and the overall meanings of the works. The behaviors of the characters in these various novels help explain their search for meaning in life.
In the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Nora Zeal Hurston, the main character Janie is on a search for her true purpose in life. She spent her whole life being controlled by her grandmother and her first two husbands, and now that she is living her life with her third husband Teacakes, she is beginning to discover her true potential. Janie is always trying to serve the men in her life so much to the point that she belittles herself into having no meaning to her own life. Janie began to try to find her own meaning in life early in the novel.
In chapter two it states, “Janie was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.
Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. ” At this point Janie realizes that it is her own responsibility to create her own purpose in life and she sets out to do so. By the end of the novel, Janie realizes that she can only depend on herself to be happy and she must put her own needs before the needs of others, thus finding her meaning of life. The actions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, seem to be a constant search for the meaning of life.
In Act Three, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a conversation after they realize that their mission they were sent on is now useless. They say, “Guildenstern: We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation. Rosencrantz: Be happy—if you’re not even happy what’s so good about surviving? We’ll be all right. I suppose we just go on. ” Guildenstern has clearly determined that life has no meaning to it at all and that he is just waiting for death.
However, Rosencrantz recognizes that they must make their own meaning of life. Rosencrantz indicates that the fact that life as a whole does not have any obvious meaning does not mean that it is impossible for any individual life to have meaning. Rosencrantz’s response is an attempt to find meaning and purpose on precisely this individual level. When faced with the chaos of life, Rosencrantz decides that his personal purpose will be to seek pleasure for himself. They begin to realize that they must make their life meaningful on their own rather than by the expectations of others, supporting the existential view.
Societal expectations play a big part on one’s quest to find the meaning of life. In the The Stranger by Albert Camus and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the main characters are conflicted by the pressures of society and doing what they want to do. In The Stranger, Meursault kills a man on the beach and is going through a trial, where he is eventually sentenced to the death penalty. Meursault knows that society is against him and wants him to be put to death. However, Meursault doesn’t want to die.
Like all people, Meursault comes to realize that he has been born, will die, and will have no further importance. Only after Meursault reaches this seemingly dismal realization is he able to attain happiness. When he fully comes to terms with the inevitability of death, he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death at an old age. This understanding enables Meursault to put aside his fantasies of escaping execution by filing a successful legal appeal.
Meursault sees that his hope for sustained life has been a burden. His liberation from this false hope of not being executed means he is free to live life for what it is, and to make the most of his remaining days. With this, Meursault discovers the existential view that it was his own responsibility to give his life meaning and he should stop worrying about societal pressures. Raskolnikov, the main character in Crime and Punishment, finds himself in a similar situation to Meursault. He murders two women and is now debating on whether to turn himself into the police or not.
This ultimately leads to Raskolnikov’s existential crisis: to live or to die. In the novel Raskolnikov says “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or think, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once!
Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be! ” This shows that by the end of the novel, Raskolnikov understands that he must make his life meaningful in order for him to want to live. He knows that he was born into this world with no meaning and he has to give himself a purpose in life to strive towards, no matter what society says. Society wants Raskolnikov to just get executed, but he decides to serve his time in person so that he could still make meaning in his life after he got out of prison.
Raskolnikov came to understand that only he could fulfill his purpose in life and he must live in order to do so. In the novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, the overall meaning of trying to find one’s true self helps support the existential belief of the responsibility of creating one’s purpose in life. Edna Pontellier is unhappy with her life and she begins to try to find a way out. “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.
” She has this “awakening” where she realizes that she needs to stop living for everyone else and instead live for herself. Towards the end of the novel she says, “”I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me. ” She has discovered that her meaning in life was not to be the perfect wife or mom, but to live for what is best for her.
Edna knows that she needs to create her own meaning for her life so she decides to leave her old life behind and set out to do so. By the end of the novel, Edna commits suicide because she realizes that the only way she can escape her life that she is living for everyone else is just to end her life all together. All in all, the existential belief that one must create their own meaning in life is supported in the novels through the characters’ actions, societal pressures, and the overall meanings of the works.
Many of the characters can teach the readers a lesson on how to live for oneself and not be influenced by the wants of others. One only has a single life, so they must make the most of it and create their own purpose in life in order to actually live. If one doesn’t live for their own meaning and purpose in life, then what is the point of living? It’s your choice, but just remember, you only live once.
Subject: Meaning of life,
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 21 November 2016
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