My Takeaways from Winter Break Reading Club – Existential Literature

Many people endure a life fully dedicated to their profession, one where they are obliged to provide for their families. This leads to a continuous cycle of repetitive days that blend together. Imagine while living this kind of life, you wake up to find yourself in the body of a repulsive insect. Suddenly, you can’t go to work, your family won’t stand the sight of you, and you are no longer able to function in society. You resort to hiding and isolating yourself from others due to an internal fear of alienation. This situation would cause anyone to panic and drastically reconsider the meaning of their former life. 

Over the Winter Break, the CDS Reading Club studied and discussed three short stories by Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre: “The Metamorphosis”, “In the Penal Colony”, and “The Wall”. Both of these authors evoke existential pervading dread as an experience for the reader. For example, “The Metamorphosis” depicts the story of a man who becomes a bug, dragging on for months, replicating the experience of dull bureaucratic labour. As time passes, the main character begins to ask himself, “Were the routines I was trapped in worth doing?” This translates off the page, causing the reader to think about the meaning of their own life and how much of it is futile.  

In Kafka’s second story, “In the Penal Colony”, an officer is absurdly dedicated to his intricate torture machine and a former Commandant. Not only is the justice system outdated, but it is pointless and upsetting. However, the officer spent his whole career serving this corrupt organization, which could be an uncanny reality for so many who find themselves as a part of deceitful institutions. 

The final novel we read was Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall”. The main character is living his final day before a brutal execution. Reflecting on his life in the face of death radically alters the perspective he has on his accomplishments: he focuses on everything he missed out on which evokes the thought that life can never be truly completed. 

These stories elucidate a fundamental pointlessness of life, which led the Reading Club to discuss how we can find pure happiness in the face of nihilism. Perhaps the purpose of analyzing this type of upsetting literature is to filter the superficial out of our lives. This gives us a starting point for finding real meaning. In a world where so many people let themselves be swept along by the status quo, the only way to find joy is to take pleasure in every beautiful, fleeting moment. 

Blog By Olivia Budweth ’25