Choice and Responsibility in Three Works of Fiction

Sartre and his existentialist philosophy have been subjects of curiosity for me for years. Only recently, after taking a philosophy class, have I begun to grasp some of the major principals of existentialism. Though I'm unsure about some of the peripheral arguments and implications of existentialism, the core of the system appeals strongly to me: Human beings are themselves the basis of values and meaning, and in this sense values are real--evolving, developing, and real. Existentialism places the individual at the center of things, gives him a sense of empowerment and responsibility, and erects a bridge on which Man can find his way out of many of the traps and snares he constructs for himself. Sartre's character in the play "No Exit," Orestes, finds such freedom and, in a humanist sense, is one of the most enviable characters I encountered in this course.

How can this be? Orestes commits two murders and is exiled from his rightful kingdom, barely escaping with his life. What is enviable about him? Orestes possesses a certain mental and emotional freedom at the end of the play that other fictional characters (and even real people) have not attained in far less dire circumstances. Orestes is a testament to the power of the individual to determine for himself what he will do, and why, without allowing others to direct his actions or his responses. He is the supremely inner-directed individual, taking responsibility for his acts, and thereby taking control of his whole life. In today's world, where people commonly feel disenfranchised and powerless, Orestes' personal reality is an enviable reality.

Orestes strongly reminds me of Biff Loman in "Death of a Salesman." In the beginning of both dramas, these characters struggle with the demands of outer circumstances as opposed to their own needs and desires. Finally, each character chooses to listen to their inner promptings, and they then find an inexhaustable source of strength and affirmation. Orestes' statement, "For a man, and every man must find his own way...I am doomed to have no other law but mine," is an echo of Biff's assertion, "I know who I am, kid." Each character chooses and follows his own path. They kill their "Buddhas," transcend their circumstances, and create a personal, empowered reality of their own.

My praise for Orestes' and Biff's choices speaks for me because I agree with how they dealt with their lives. Some might call it egotistical to base one's actions on an internal scale of values but, to me, it seems that I am the only thing in this world I have any control over; therefore, my self must be the source and basis of my resources. Such a view protects me from outer circumstances, as it did for Orestes after the murders, because he found a free path through others' condemnations and judgments. This was precisely Electra's failure: she lacked the courage to believe in and trust herself and so fell victim to the judgments of others. Such was also the case with Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." Though Goodman Brown caught a glimpse of a reality his community strove to deny, he lacked the courage and faith in himself to pursue this discovery and eventually replace his lost illusions of the community's values with a perception of reality and a value system that was uniqu! e to himself. He couldn't find within himself the strength necessary to take the next step, from disillusion to freedom, that Orestes and Biff were able to find. Biff's brother, Happy, is a final example of someone who couldn't, or wouldn't, break away from the safe harbor of conformity and test himself in the open seas of life.

No one denies that blazing one's own path through life is difficult, arduous, and often surprising. Materially and socially, it is often unrewarding. But I cannot think of an emptier or more horrifying feeling than waking up one morning and realizing I had lost touch with the only thing a person can ever really have, a sense of self. No matter how much money I had, this experience would brand me as a failure in my own eyes. Conversely, no matter how little success I might manifest in the world, as long as I maintained my personal integrity, I would view myself as a success.

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