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The Indian Review of World Literature in English, Vol. 1, No. I – Jan, 2005

NAGAPPAN SETHURAMAN Existentialism as a philosophy is historically and culturally of European origin. Ever since it was recognised as the dominating philosophy of the West in the midtwentieth century, it has left “its impact on literature [which] has both been substantial and significant” (Chatterji 10). Existentialism does not offer a set of doctrines or a single philosophy system. It has been diversely defined and interpreted by various thinkers over the years. As a result, “as a philosophy, existentialism by its very nature defies and abhors systematisation” (Ahmad 10). Nevertheless, it is possible to identify certain traits of this school of thought. All the existentialists “emphasise the importance of the individual as well as his freedom and responsibility for being what he is” (Das 423). In their attempt to describe man’s “existence and its conflicts, the origin of its conflicts, and the anticipation of overcoming them” (Ahmad 13), existentialists focus their attention on certain aspects of human existence. Srivastava enumerates them as follows: b) it is never safe and ever at the mercy of chance, c) it is full of suffering, of one variety or other, d) it is full of conflict, e) it is rotted in guilt, f) it cannot escape from the final situation of death (185). These tenets of existentialism have been widely reflected in the literature of the world since the advent of Sartre who established an interaction between literature and philosophy in his writings. John Macquarrie sums up the essence of existentialism as, “On the whole, it has been the tragic sense of life… that has been prevalent among the existentialists” (Macquarrie 164). Almost all great writers of the present generation have handled the doctrines of existentialism in their works. This is the main reason why “man’s alienation, dread, absurdity, bad faith, responsibility, commitment to freedom, anguish are the very hallmarks of 20th century literature” (Ahmad 5). As a novelist, Anita Desai exhibits a strong inclination towards the existentialist interpretation of the human predicament. In particular, she voices “the mute miseries and helplessness of married women tormented by existentialist problems and predicaments” (Prasad 139). A woman novelist, Desai has won a niche by exploring the emotional world of women, bringing to light the various deeper forces at work in feminine sensibility as well as psychology. This predilection leads her to examine the psyche of her women protagonists when they are confronted with the absurdity of life. This draws her attention to the darker side of life. She projects a tragic vision in her novels by placing her female protagonists in hostile situations. Desai further examines her women protagonists as individuals who find themselves forced into uncongenial environments, fighting against the odds. This problem of the

The Indian Review of World Literature in English, Vol. 1, No. I – Jan, 2005

tragic tension between the individual and their unfavourable environment acquires the dimensions of existential angst. Starting from her first novel Cry the Peacock to the latest Baumgartner’s Bombay, all her novels highlight the existentialist’s predilection for portraying the predicament of man. Many critics have traced shades of existentialist thought in the novel of Anita Desai. Time and again her themes and characters have been interpreted in the light of existential philosophy. In this regard it has been pointed out: Desai’s chief concern is human relationship. Her central theme is she existential predicament of an individual, which she projects through incompatible couples- very sensitive wives and ill matched husbands. She is a minute observer and perceives everything mutely, minutely and delicately. Whenever she creates a poetical situation, she gives it a perfect poetic treatment to every...
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