Date of Award

Spring 2021

Degree Type




Director of Thesis

Jennifer Frey

First Reader

Jeanne Britton

Second Reader

Jeanne Britton


This thesis aims to examine the development of the concept of the absurd in literature across different time periods and cultural contexts. The absurd, as defined by Camus, is the gap between humanity’s desire to understand the world and the impossibility of doing so.

However, the ways in which the absurd is recognized as an aspect of existence depends heavily on the sociological contexts in which an individual lives. By analyzing the works of absurdist authors, filmmakers, and artists across time, we can track the development of these absurdist conceptions in both Europe and American literary movements.

Looking at these works, the European and American conceptions of the absurd can be shown to differ along four sociological axes—system density, population density, conflict, and ostracism and alienation. Taken together, these factors lead to a European absurdity that characterizes the universe as inherently, fundamentally meaningless. American absurdity, meanwhile, places more emphasis on the human inability to understand the universe, even if such fundamental meaning does exist.

These differing conceptions of the absurd meet the threshold of incommensurability—they are so different that they cannot be meaningfully compared or reduced into each other. Instead, the only way to bridge this gap in understanding is to interact with the cultures from which these absurdist conceptions sprang, to better understand the pressures that led to their creation. By engaging with other formulations of the absurd, we can participate in more accurate and fulfilling existentialist discussion.

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© 2021, Benjamin Spencer