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Existentialism in literature: Dostoevsky and Kafka

Key Takeaways:

  • Both Dostoevsky and Kafka delve into the burdens and isolations that come with freedom and the responsibility of forging one’s own path in an indifferent world.
  • Their characters frequently grapple with existential angst, challenging readers to reflect on the search for meaning in their own lives.
  • Dostoevsky and Kafka’s contributions to literature profoundly shaped existential philosophy, influencing not only their contemporaries but also future generations of thinkers and writers.

Existentialism, a philosophical movement that thrives on exploring the raw and ofen unsettling aspects of human existence, probes into themes of freedom, isolation, absurdity, and despair. Two literary giants who mastered the depiction of these themes are Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka. Their narratives, steeped in the turbulent waters of existential thought, reveal the profound depths of the human psyche and its confrontations with the world. This post aims to dive into their literary worlds, unraveling how Dostoevsky and Kafka not only depicted existential dilemmas but also how they shaped the discourse of existential philosophy through their characters and plots.

Existentialism Defined

At its core, existentialism focuses on individual freedom, choice, and the intrinsic search for meaning amidst an indifferent and often absurd universe. The philosophy suggests that while traditional doctrines often impose predefined meanings on life, existentialism posits that it is up to each individual to discover their own purpose and navigate the inherent meaninglessness of existence. This leads to feelings of alienation, as individuals realize the isolating responsibility of shaping their own destiny, often in a world that seems unresponsive if not outright hostile.

The origins of existentialism are commonly traced back to the 19th century with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, who is often considered the first existentialist philosopher. Kierkegaard rejected the then-dominant philosophical systems which he felt failed to account for the lived experience of being a thinking, feeling human being. Friedrich Nietzsche later expanded on these ideas, introducing his notion of the ‘Übermensch’ or “Superman” as an ideal for humanity unfettered by traditional moralities and societal norms. However, it was not until the 20th century that existentialism reached its peak with thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who famously declared “existence precedes essence.” This phrase captures the essence of existentialism: we are first thrown into the world, exist, and only afterward define ourselves and our meanings.

Through literature, existentialism finds a vivid expression, particularly in the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka, whose characters are often thrust into crises due to the burdensome freedom they must shoulder and the opaque, often surreal worlds they inhabit. In the following sections, we will explore how these two authors weave existential themes into their narratives, creating stories that not only challenge their characters but also provoke their readers to question the very foundations of their own existence.

Dostoevsky’s Dive into the Human Psyche

Fyodor Dostoevsky, a titan of literary existentialism, delves into the depths of the human soul with a keen focus on the moral and spiritual crises of his characters. His novels, notably “Notes from Underground” and “Crime and Punishment,” are pivotal in exploring themes such as free will, the burden of guilt, and the search for redemption. In “Notes from Underground,” the unnamed protagonist, often referred to as the Underground Man, embodies the existential ideal of an individual in conflict with society and himself. He is introspective to the point of self-destruction, constantly questioning the motives behind his actions and the authenticity of his existence.

“Crime and Punishment” further illustrates Dostoevsky’s existential exploration through the character of Raskolnikov, a young student who believes himself above conventional morality. The narrative follows his planning, execution, and aftermath of a murder, highlighting his struggle with guilt and redemption. Raskolnikov’s internal conflict and rationalizations depict a profound engagement with existential themes—his actions are a test of his philosophical theories against the unforgiving realities of human conscience and societal judgment.

Dostoevsky’s portrayal of these characters challenges the reader to consider the weight of existential freedom and the isolating journey toward self-realization. His exploration of existential despair and the quest for a meaningful life without relying on societal norms forces his characters—and his readers—to confront the darker, often hidden layers of human psyche.

Kafka’s Chronicles of Absurdity

Franz Kafka, another master of existential literature, encapsulates the absurdity and surrealism of modern existence in his works. “The Trial” and “The Metamorphosis” stand out as prime examples of how Kafka weaves existential themes into the fabric of his narratives. In “The Trial,” Joseph K., a respectable bank clerk, is suddenly arrested for a crime that is never explained to him. Throughout the novel, Kafka portrays Joseph’s futile attempts to navigate a labyrinthine and impersonal legal system, reflecting the existential theme of man’s struggle against an incomprehensible and indifferent universe.

“The Metamorphosis” further highlights Kafka’s fascination with the absurd through the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a gigantic insect. This metamorphosis, inexplicable and unaccepted by his family, isolates Gregor and strips him of his humanity, reflecting existentialist ideas of alienation and identity crisis. The family’s reaction to Gregor’s change underscores the fragility of human relationships and the alienation that often accompanies nonconformity to societal norms.

Kafka’s settings—opaque, oppressive, and bizarre—create a sense of disorientation and existential dread, both for his characters and his readers. His narratives do not resolve neatly, instead leaving characters to languish in ambiguity, which powerfully illustrates the existential belief in the absurdity of searching for a clear meaning or purpose in life. Through his unique narrative style, Kafka challenges his readers to reflect on their own relationships with society, authority, and their personal sense of identity in an often unfathomable world.

Comparative Analysis

While Dostoevsky and Kafka both explore existential themes, their approaches and conclusions offer distinct insights into human existence and freedom. Dostoevsky’s characters frequently encounter moral dilemmas that force them into deep self-reflection and spiritual awakening. For instance, Raskolnikov’s journey in “Crime and Punishment” leads to a profound realization of moral responsibility, suggesting a potential for redemption through suffering. This reflects Dostoevsky’s belief in the possibility of personal transformation through confronting one’s own abyss.

In contrast, Kafka’s characters typically find no such redemption. The bizarre predicaments they face, like Joseph K.’s endless and opaque trial, do not lead to personal enlightenment but rather to a deeper entrenchment in alienation and despair. Kafka’s depiction of the absurdity of existence offers no clear path to freedom or authenticity, instead portraying a world where such aspirations might be inherently futile.

The comparative analysis of these two authors reveals a spectrum within existential literature. On one end, Dostoevsky offers a glimmer of hope in the bleakness, suggesting that through the existential crisis, one can achieve a deeper understanding of self and society. On the other end, Kafka presents a landscape where existential struggles lead to isolation and a disillusionment with the structures of the world.

Impact and Legacy

The legacies of Dostoevsky and Kafka have profoundly shaped the landscape of modern literature and existential thought. Their works have not only influenced a wide array of writers and philosophers but have also permeated popular culture, prompting audiences to grapple with complex existential questions. Dostoevsky’s themes of faith, redemption, and the human condition resonate in the works of later existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who also explore the limits of human freedom and the burdens of responsibility.

Kafka’s exploration of the absurd has left a lasting imprint on both literature and philosophy, with his term “Kafkaesque” becoming a critical descriptor of similar surreal and oppressive situations. His portrayal of the bureaucratic and impersonal aspects of modern society continues to influence discussions in philosophy, particularly in existentialism and absurdism, as well as in critiques of social and political systems.


Exploring the existential themes in the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka provides not only a window into the rich narrative landscapes they constructed but also invites us into a deeper engagement with our own existential queries. Both authors challenge us to reflect on our autonomy, the meaning of our actions, and our place in a world that may seem indifferent or absurd. As we navigate through their narratives, we are prompted to confront the essence of our own lives, making their stories timeless and perpetually relevant.