Teaching Existential Literature – Pros and Cons
As an English teacher, existential literature is not my favorite genre. Full of doom, gloom, futility and hopelessness, and let’s not forget those other great negative qualities, apathy and indifference; they do not exactly paint a rosy picture of the world and the societies their protagonists lived in. So you would think that teenagers would find them dull and boring; better to choose novels from far away lands, or novels set in the future, or choose some of the wonderful classics from the Victorian period, for example… Guess what ..Wrong! Think again!
In my experience teenagers have some strange fascination to these texts and they actually enjoy reading them! This is not to say of course you should not also teach novels from all genres previously mentioned, but somehow teenagers are fascinated by existentialist novels–especially boys. Whether it is the isolation of the protagonist and the monotony of their lives, the lack of conformity to societal values, or the fact that the main character is usually an outsider (or even a bug) who is not part of the community, these texts are a hit in the classroom. For various reasons students somehow find these types of novels intriguing.
Two popular texts from this genre Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and The Outsider by Albert Camus will be the focus for this series of articles giving tips on how to plan lessons effectively around these texts.
Researching the Movement
To begin with students will need some background information on Existential Literature. Start this topic by doing some internet research. Here are some excellent links to the origins and history of the genre. Have students browse these sites in small groups to grasp some of the fundamental concepts behind this literary movement. To finish this introductory lesson each group can then give a brief three minute presentation on one of the websites to the rest of the class summarizing the key information and concepts.
- Genre of Existentialism: This website places the genre in context with the history of the period when existentialist texts were first developed.
- Background to Existentialism: The Existentialist Primer This site gives comprehensive information on the ethics and philosophy as well as information on all the major writers of the genre.
- Das Schloss: Franz Kafka website: This site focuses on the life and influences of Kafka which is particularly useful for Metamorphosis
- Albert Camus: Here students will find a biography of the writer as well as a collection of essays. His essay on the Myth of Sysyphus provides relevant information which will help students understand the text more clearly.
- Jean Paul Sartre: Comprehensive site on this celebrated French writer with a variety of different types of relevant information.