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  • Kelly Sung

Literature’s Interpretation of the “Meaning of Life” Throughout the Years

Updated: Dec 11, 2021


As young children, we have practically grown up listening to tales, all with an underlying moral: persist and transcend the hurdles that life poses to find your true meaning and purpose of living.

This is true for many of the stories we consider to be part of the “Western canon”. Take Homer’s Odyssey, for instance. In the epic ancient Greek poem, Odysseus sacrifices his selfish desires for higher goals, such as reaching his wife Penelope and fulfilling his responsibility to the people of Ithaca, goals he eventually fulfills. It is made evident that he weathers through those hurdles with an underlying purpose, as he refuses to stay enchanted by remaining in paradise with Calypso. He endures the capricious mood swings of the gods and his ten-year-long journey to navigate his way back home after the Trojan War. Homer’s implicit message is clear: the journey of life teems with trials and tribulations, yet those who emerge victorious in the battle against them are the ones who truly deserve honor and glory. This same message is prevalent in other ancient works as well, such as the Aeneid, where Aeneas abandons Dido’s hospitality to fulfill his prophesied role, overcoming whatever impediments are hurled at him.

Yet as time passed, more and more works of postmodernist literature emerged. Postmodernists do not believe that one can attain purpose and meaning just by transcending what life throws at them. They mock this notion, as they do not think meaning is an objective concept to begin with and believe it is up to one’s subjective interpretation—or don’t believe meaning exists at all.

Written in 1942, Albert Camus’ The Stranger epitomizes this absurdist philosophy. In The Stranger, the protagonist Meursault is sentenced to the death penalty for committing murder, but with no apparent motive. While the vast majority of people kill with underlying intent, Meursault murders with no clear reason, and unnecessarily pulls the trigger four more times. This illustrates Camus’ postmodernist interpretation of the meaning of life, as this work does not dictate how we should live our lives, but rather focuses on the idea that trying to find meaning itself is utterly absurd.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, written in 1951, delineates the life of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, who feels arbitrarily hurled into the world, devoid of purpose. He meanders aimlessly through the long streets of New York, getting nowhere geographically and figuratively. He gets kicked out of several boarding schools, yet he is reluctant to find meaning simply by spending long hours sitting at his desk. The fact that he calls everyone and everything “phony” can be accounted for how he is devoid of any emotional connection, for he finds it all meaningless. This novel portrays a person who finds no inherent meaning in living, who does not wish life to be a hike up the mountain with the mountain peak being the ultimate goal, but rather, an aimless walk where one simply roams around for the sake of enjoying the beautiful mountains and extensive scenery.

The general trend in literature has transmuted itself from one that heavily promulgates the value of hard work and weathering through any hurdles posed to one that accentuates life’s lack of a predestined and objective meaning. With this, we feel more liberated, as we can live life without having to worry about dedicating ourselves to an inherent purpose. Yet such liberation does come with more responsibility, as we have to acknowledge our agency and responsibility for our choices, and we are consequently to blame and praise for every choice we make.


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