Existential Literary Techniques

     Note: I just want to make clear at the outset that the following makes no comment regarding the definition of, nor any mention of the arguments for or detractions regarding, Existentialism in terms of philosophy, but is focused solely on highlighting certain techniques frequently seen in fiction writing that either explicitly is or bears the characteristics of Existential literature, for whether or not a work is Existential has nothing necessarily to do with whether or not it's author is an Existentialist. Also, the fact that I present the techniques listed below as identifying hallmarks of Existential literature is by no means meant to suggest their usage is exclusively confined to this particular genre. 

     Existential literature is generally typified by characters who are confused by their lives, their surroundings, and the broader world, all existing, as they do to the character, apparently without any discernible absolute meaning, and struggle to find their purpose in a world without definite values, the question of 'who' they are and what their 'role' is typically serving as particular points of emphasis within the text, highlighting the Existential struggle for a life of meaning. 

     With few exceptions, good writing shows rather than tells. A writer shows by using action in a story to illustrate the point the writer is trying to make rather than outrightly telling the reader. Here are some classic ways in which some of the best in the western literary canon have used action to exhibit the uncertainty characteristic of Existential literature.

     First, narrators failing to have a name, or having one which never becomes known to the reader, such as in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. The narrator being denied a known label of identification does two things, firstly, it prevents easy self-identification. Imagine being introduced to someone at a party and they say 'Hi, my name is Greg'. What would you say in response if you had no name to give as a signifier of yourself in return? Would you start describing things about yourself in an effort to communicate your identity? Secondly, the narrator having no name creates a certain feeling of impersonality to the character, something like a wall between the character and the reader, this difficulty in connecting with others being another recurrent theme in Existential literature.

     Next we have characters failing to recognize themselves, typically their reflections, such as in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, when the narrator, having donned a pair of sunglasses, happens to pass a storefront window and is surprised to find the alien reflection is a representation of his self and examines it closely. Being able to recognize oneself, to know oneself, is, at least in part, an act of claiming oneself, being able to answer the question 'who am I?' Being able to say positively and without hesitation 'this is me', is an act of self-possession, confidence of being, control--in short, anathema to the notions of a mysterious, unknowable world and equally mystifying, elusive self, so common in works of Existential concern.

     In keeping with these ideas of narrators or characters knowing or recognizing themselves, and being able to define themselves, we pivot slightly, turning our attention to the high levels of concern (and by concern I mean it broadly, as in 'interest') narrators or characters experience when considering how they are seen by others. Raskolnikov, in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, is a perfect example. Raskolnikov continually frets at the way he feels people are staring at him, making assumptions about what they must be thinking with regards to himself, constantly questioning how he must look in the eyes of others, doubting they understand him, several times castigating other characters for daring to think they understand him. The reason for this hostility is that when others make assumptions, or any other value judgment about you, particularly one you feel isn't accurate, they are taking away a bit of your autonomy, your identity. You are now, in their mind, whatever they think, regardless of what you may actually be. 

     Loss of control over one's identity in the minds of others leads us to an interesting concept especially prevalent in Camus and Kafka, particularly The Stranger and The Trial, the individual being denied autonomy by virtue of contemporary constraining social norms or customs which seem foreign or repugnant to the narrator or character but which are impressed upon them by neighbors, family members, coworkers, et cetera, or else the narrator having the limits of their freedom circumscribed or impinged upon by a government which is impersonal, confusing, and arbitrary, yet has the final say.

     Speaking of speaking we have narrators or characters wishing to speak but fearing they will not be able to make themselves understood, a poignant example of which can be found in the first four sections of David Foster Wallace's tome Infinite Jest, in which Hal, fearing he won't be understood, finally gives an answer to the expectantly waiting deans of the college he is attempting to gain admission to; and while his answer is presented to the reader as highly articulate and intelligent it is heard by those listening, the deans among others, as indecipherable, crazed, animal noise.

     The above mentioned scene from Infinite Jest also affords an opportunity to touch on the last technique I wanted to mention, frequently seen in Existential works, that of confusion or disagreement among witnesses of an event, or differing opinions or interpretations of ideas, as none who witness Hal's 'speech' can agree just what it was or sounded like. Talking about this technique in particular runs the risk of straying across the murky line dividing Existential and Absurd literature, which share many qualities, and also of Modernist literature, which is highly concerned with matters pertaining to perspective, but a certain ambiguity in the depiction of events, their causes, their effects, and interpretations of all three is something seen time and again in texts touching on, or specifically related to, Existential questions.

     The above list is by no means complete, but give the reader several things to look for when asking whether or not they are reading an Existential literary text, or a text which is principally, or tangentially concerned with existential questions, and can, I believe, enhance overall enjoyment of the texts by understanding the deeper connotations of the denoted action intended by the author.