Elements of Essentialism and Existentialism in Literature

A research paper that explores the concepts of existentialism and essentialism through the characters in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illyich”.

The paper begins by defining the philosophical terms of existentialism and essentialism and how they are reflected in literature in general. It then moves on to explain the thesis of the paper – in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich and Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler”, the characteristics of the two philosophies are most noticeable in the characters Ivan and Gerasim (Tolstoy) and Hedda and George (Ibsen). The paper provides evidence from “Hedda Gabler” that the character George is an essentialist, whereas Hedda contrasts as an existentialist in an essentialist society, which leads her to commit suicide, a very existential action. The paper shows that in Tolstoy’s work, the character Ivan Illyich is an existentialist in an existentialist society who at his end transforms into an essentialist.
On the question of creating meaning in one’s life, there are two keys that unlock this ageless mystery, long tackled by philosophers. The first, as developed by the classical philosopher Plato, is called essentialism, which holds that human beings must follow a pre-existing pattern, written in sacred religious documents such as the Ten Commandments or the Koran, to fulfill their purpose in life. Therefore, one is to measure the degree to which one is in the right based on these documents and by comparing themselves to those who have followed the documents before them. Yet, the other philosophy, existentialism, as developed by Sartre, rejects the existence of the correct pattern of action, and suggests that human beings solely hold the responsibility of creating meaning in a meaningless world. This opposite philosophy suggests a more atheistic approach to life, with people deciding what is right for them, rather than relying on God to tell them which is the right way of proceeding through life. Thus, existentialists blindly forge their way through a dark void, leaving their own, new path of meaning behind them, as opposed to following the well-trodden Twelve Fold Path of essentialism, which is studded with lampposts by which one can mark their progress.