Variable Topics in Comparative Literature: The Literature of Existentialism


This course examines the Existentialist tenet that "existence precedes essence"—that humans are alive before their lives take on meaning, and that we, according to our decisions, determine who we are.


What you can learn.

  • Define the key concepts of existentialism: the idea of a Sisyphus-like victory, the notion of absurd reasoning, and the phrase existence precedes essence
  • Assess proto-existentialist reasoning in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil
  • Compare and contrast existential reasoning in narrative
  • Describe the ways the existential condition has been dramatized in the plays of Sartre, Anouilh, and Beckett

About this course:

The central tenet of this 20th-century European cultural movement (though its sources date back to the 19th century) is best described as "existence precedes essence." This defining phrase asserts that humans are alive before their lives take on meaning and implies that we, according to our decisions, determine who we are. To the existentialist, people are assumed to be free and thus responsible for what they do, and what they do tells them who they are. What they find most objectionable is the arbitrary imposition of beliefs, values, rules, so that humans, before they begin to live, are already known. Existentialists can be religious, agnostic, or God-denying. Kierkegaard was a religious philosopher, Nietzsche was an anti-Christian, and Sartre and Camus were atheists. We read these authors as well as Dostoevsky, Kafka, Gide, Beckett, and Woody Allen. Transferable for UC credit.

Contact Us

Speak to a program representative. Hours: Mon-Fri, 8am-5pm
Keep up to date on the latest news and offerings in Humanities & Social Sciences-General

vector icon of building

Corporate Education

Learn how we can help your organization meet its professional development goals and corporate training needs.

Learn More

vector icon of building

Donate to UCLA Extension

Support our many efforts to reach communities in need.

Innovation Programs

Student Scholarships

Coding Boot Camp

Lifelong Learning