Existentialism has three outstanding founding fathers, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzche, and Jean-Paul Sartre. These three philosophers have paved the way for many others to follow, which has allowed the field of Existentialism, which centers around finding ones own purpose in life, to grow. This theme has become widely discussed and portrayed greatly as a theme in many works of literature.
Charlotte Bronte's Villette is a Existentialist novel before it's time, before the idea of existentialism was ever created. The novel focuses on Lucy Snowe, an orphan living with her godmother. After a death, Lucy feels overcome with despair and worthlessness. She decides in the span of only hours to leave that very day from Bretton to London. Similar to Jane in Bronte's previous work, Jane Eyre, Lucy describes herself as friendless, and without a relative in the world to turn to. Lucy is completely alone in the world, and sets off to London to find not only a job, but life itself.
She encounters and becomes a part of this vigor of life working in a boarding school as a teacher, but once the children are sent home in the summer, she is completely left bereft of happiness and the passion that once filled her, when she was surrounded by others, including M. Paul and Dr. John, two men she becomes companions to.
From early on in the novel, Lucy proves to be in great search of a purpose in life. She feels that there is a need for her at the school, but when the school lets out, she is lost, once again. This emptiness is similar to the depression she felt which predicated her move to London.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "Winter Dreams" tells the story of the quest for meaning that Dexter Green sets out upon. Dexter becomes enamored with Judy Jones, a woman who is perfectly elusive and unattainable, and despite that, she still pulls Dexter in.
Dexter quits his job, working at the country club Judy attends. He creates a life for himself, instead, that is not his own, but one that Judy would want to be apart of. He hates the way he lives, but doesn't realize it yet, as it is complete with a steady and large income. Dexter becomes excessively wealthy as the story progresses. He sees Judy very rarely, and comes to discover that she is married to a man who neglects her. Dexter holds Judy in such high esteem, he is beside himself. How a princess could marry a peasant? But,that not what he was vying for all along?
Dexter and Judy begin a relationship, despite her marriage, and in the end it falls through. Dexter is left with a lifestyle he hates. He comes to hate himself, as well as his fortune. He comes to realize he has been spending his entire life crafting a life for one, single person who let him down. He is completely robbed of his purpose in the end. A true existential crisis.
Bronte's Villette and Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" are just two examples of existentialism in literature. Although Villette is British Literature and "Winter Dreams," written much later, is American Literature, the theme of existentialism is clearly reflected, not only greatly in literature, but also widespread over the world. This theme defies time and origin, to which these two provide an example. It can be seen from King Lear to Their Eyes Were Watching God, from The Hobbit to Fahrenheit 451. The search for self is an innately human quest, one which we can enjoy reading about from the point of view of another.