Absurd in Literature: Examples, Origin & Definition

What is absurd in literature?

The use of absurdity in literature is a vehicle for writers to explore those elements in the world that do not make sense.

It examines questions of meaning and life, and writers often use absurd themes, characters, or situations to question whether meaning or structure exists.

An avant-garde style in which structure, plot, and characterization are disregarded or garbled in order to stress lack of logic in nature and man’s isolation in universe which has no meaning or value.

Origin of Absurd

The theatre of the absurd was a term, derived from Camus and popular-ized by Martin Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), applied to a group of dramatists whose work emerged during the early 1950’s in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) Camus defined the absurd as the tension which emerges from the individual’s determination to discover purpose and order in a world which steadfastly refuses to evidence either.

To writers like Lonesco and Beckett this paradox leaves human actions, aspirations and emotions merely ironical. For to the ‘absurd’ dramatist it is axiomatic that humans live in an entropic world in which communication is impossible and illusion preferred to reality.

The term ‘absurd drama’, applied by Esslin to dramatists as diverse as Beckett, lonesco, Adamov, Genet, Arrabal and Simpson, is something of a blunt weapon.

Esslin had a disturbing if understandable tendency to trace the origins of the absurd in an incredible array of writers some of whom do not properly belong in a theatre which is convinced of the unbridgeable gulf between aspiration and fulfillment, the impossibility of communication or the futility of human relationships.

Example 1

“You are dealing with a reborn icicle age poltergeist,

Uprock, sidewalk cycles stuck at the bus stop.

Wookie foot must not sleep under the invaders, no batteries, no jumper cables.” (Aesop Rock, “No Jumper Cables”)

Inspired by the absurdist movement in philosophy, many artists and musicians have tried to express absurdism through their creations.

Usually, this involves creating art workd and lyrics that have no sense or meaning.

The idea is that the audience will learn to accept the lack of meaning, findings their own ways to enjoy the art without demanding that it “make sense.”

This is a kind of practice for living in a world in which nothing truly makes sense in the first place.

Example 2

The TV series Red Dwarf is based on a pretty absurdist/existentialist premise: the main character is the last human being alive in the universe.

A radiation disaster killed everyone in the solar system, with the single exception of David Lister, who happened to be in the stasis chamber of a mining ship which protected him from the disaster.

David wakes up 3 million years after the disaster to find that everyone he ever knew has been dead for thousands of millennia.

It’s hard to imagine someone staring more directly into meaninglessness! The show follows David’s efforts to keep himself same and even find happiness despite his unending isolation.

Further Reading

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