Existentialism - Essay Topics

Prompts to practice writing exam essays

If you are studying existentialism and have an exam coming up, the best way to prepare for it is to write lots of practice essays.  Doing this helps you to recall the texts and the ideas you have studied; it helps you to organize your knowledge of these; and it often triggers original or critical insights of your own. 

Here are a set of essay questions you can use.  They relate to the following classic existentialist texts:

 

Tolstoy, My Confession

Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Dostoyevsky, "The Grand Inquisitor"

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Sartre, "The Wall"

Sartre, Nausea

Sartre, "Existentialism as a Humanism"

Sartre, “Portrait of an Anti-Semite”

Kafka, "A Message from the Emperor," "A Little Fable," "Couriers," "Before the Law"

Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus"

Camus The Stranger

 

Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky

Both Tolstoy's Confession and Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground seem to reject science and rationalistic philosophy.  Why?  Explain and evaluate the reasons for the critical attitudes toward science in these two texts.

 

Both Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich (at least once he falls sick) and Dostoyevsky’s  Underground Man feel estranged from the people around them.  Why?  In what ways is the kind of isolation they experience similar, and in what ways is it different?

 

The underground man says that ‘to be too conscious is an illness.’  What does he mean?  What are his reasons?  In what ways does the underground man suffer from excessive consciousness?  Do you see this as the root cause of his sufferings or are there deeper problems that give rise to it?  Does Ivan Ilyich also suffer from excessive consciousness, or is his problem something different?

 

Both The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Notes From Underground portray individuals who feel separated from their society.  Is the isolation they experience avoidable, or is it primarily caused by the sort of society they belong to.

 

In the "Author's Note" at the beginning of Notes from Underground, the author describes the underground man as "representative" of a new type of person that must inevitably appear in modern society.  What aspects of the character are "representative" of this new type of modern individual?  Does he remain representative today in 21st century America, or has his "type" more or less disappeared?

 

Contrast what Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says about freedom with what the Underground Man says about it.  Whose views do you most agree with?

 

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Tolstoy (in Confession), Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, and Nietzsche in The Gay Science, are all critical of those who think the main goal in life should be the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.  Why? 

 

When Nietzsche read Notes from Underground he immediately hailed Dostoyevsky as a ’kindred spirit’.  Why?

 

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says: “Life—that is: being cruel and inexorable against everything about us that is growing old and weak….being without reverence for those who are dying, who are wretched, who are ancient."   Explain, giving illustrative examples, what you think he means and why he says this.

  Do you agree with him?

 

At the beginning of Book IV of The Gay Science, Nietzsche says "all in all and on the whole: some day I wish only to be a Yes-sayer."  Explain what he means—and what he is opposing himself to--by reference to issues he discusses elsewhere in the work.  How successful is he in maintaining this life-affirming stance?

 

"Morality is herd instinct in the individual."  What does Nietzsche mean by this?  How does this statement fit in with the way he views conventional morality and his own  alternative values?

 

Explain in detail Nietzsche’s view of Christianity.  What aspects of Western civilization, both positive and negative, does he see as largely due to its influence?

 

In The Gay Science Nietzsche says: “The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity.”  Explain, giving examples, what you think he means and why he says this.

  Do you agree with him?

 

In The Gay Science Nietzsche seems to both criticize moralists who distrust the passions and instincts and also himself be a great advocate of self-control.  Can these two aspects of his thinking be reconciled?  If so, how?

 

What is Nietzsche’s attitude in The Gay Science towards the quest for truth and knowledge? Is it something heroic and admirable, or should it be viewed with suspicion as a hangover from traditional morality and religion?

 

Sartre

Sartre famously observed that "man is condemned to be free."   He also wrote that "man is a futile passion."  Explain what these statements mean and the reasoning that lies behind them.  Would you describe the conception of humanity that emerges as optimistic or pessimistic?

 

Sartre’s existentialism was labeled by one critic “the philosophy of the graveyard,” and existentialism strikes many as dominated by depressing ideas and outlooks.  Why would someone think this?  And why might others disagree?  In Sartre’s thinking which tendencies do you see as depressing and which uplifting or inspiring?

 

In his "Portrait of the anti-Semite", Sartre says the anti-Semite feels the "nostalgia of impermeability."  What does this mean?  How does it help us understand anti-Semitism?  Where else in Sartre's writings is this tendency examined?

 

The climax of Sartre's novel Nausea is Roquentin's revelation in the park when he contemplates.   What is the nature of this revelation?  Should it be described as a form of enlightenment?

 

Explain and discuss either Anny’s ideas about ‘perfect moments’ or Roquentin’s ideas about ‘adventures (or both).  How do these notions relate to the major themes explored in Nausea?

 

It has been said that Nausea presents the world as it appears to one who experiences at a deep level what Nietzsche described as "the death of God".  What supports this interpretation?  Do you agree with it?

 

Explain what Sartre means when he says that we make our decisions and perform our actions in anguish, abandonment and despair.

  Do you find his reasons for viewing human action in this way convincing?  [In answering this question, make sure you consider Sartrean texts beyond just his lecture "Existentialism and Humanism"]

 

At one point in Nausea, Roquentin says, “Beware of literature!”  What does he mean? Why does he say this?

 

Kafka, Camus, Beckett

Kafka's stories and parables have often praised for capturing certain aspects of the human condition in the modern age.  With reference to the parables we discussed in class, explain which features of modernity Kafka' illuminates and what insights, if any, he has to offer.

 

At the end of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ Camus says that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’?  Why does he say this?  Wherein lies Sisyphus’ happiness?  Does Camus’ conclusion follow logically from the rest of the essay?  How plausible do you find this conclusion?

 

Is Meursault. the protagonist of The Stranger, an example of what Camus calls in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ an ‘absurd hero’?  Justify your answer with close reference to both the novel and the essay.

 

Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, is—obviously—about waiting.  But Vladimir and Estragon wait in different way and with different attitudes.  How do their ways of waiting express different possible responses to their situation and, by implication, to what Beckett sees as the human condition?

 

Existentialism in general

‘The important thing is not to be cured but to live with one’s ailments’ (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus).  Discuss this statement with reference to at least three of the following works: 

                       The Myth of Sisyphus

                       The Gay Science

                        Notes from Underground

                        Nausea

                       Waiting for Godot

Do the works in question illustrate, support, or criticize the outlook expressed in Camus' statement? 

 

From Tolstoy's account of his suicidal despair in his Confession to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, there is much in existentialist writing that seems to offer a bleak view of the human condition.  On the basis of the texts you have studied, would you say that existentialism is indeed, a bleak philosophy, excessively concerned with mortality and meaninglessness?  Or does it have a positive aspect also?

 

According to William Barrett existentialism belongs to a longstanding tradition of intense, passionate reflection on life and the human condition, yet it is also in some ways an essentially modern phenomenon.  What is it about the modern world that has given rise to existentialism?  And what aspects of existentialism are particularly modern?

 

Related links

Life of Jean Paul Sartre

Sartre - Quotations

Sartre's terminology

Sartre's concept of "bad faith"