Novels About Life, Meaning of Life, or the Human Condition

Characters are trying to find satisfaction or meaning in their lives in these novels. A heading for the human condition is further down the page.

Life or the Meaning of Life

Steppenwolf | Hermann Hesse

When Harry Haller abruptly leaves his rented room, the narrator finds a manuscript Haller wrote about himself. It records his distaste for life–its mediocrity, its conventions and comforts. When he’s out walking one evening, he is handed a book by a stranger that is about Haller’s personality and attitude. It claims he has a dual nature–man and wolf. Haller considers suicide to escape his unsatisfying life.

“There are always a few such people who demand the utmost of life and yet cannot come to terms with its stupidity and crudeness.”

Read “Steppenwolf”

Herzog | Saul Bellow

Moses Herzog is at his country house writing letters to people – family; friends; and historical figures, living and dead – because he’s struggling with mental stability. He was a teacher and scholar before his marriage went bad. He eventually gets news that his daughter needs him, so he goes to a lawyer, Simkin, for advice on how to get custody of her.

Rabbit, Run | John Updike

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is twenty-six and a former high school basketball star. He has a low level job selling a kitchen gadget and is unsatisfied with his life, including his marriage. He leaves home one day but gets lost, and ends up at the home of his ex coach, Marty. Through him he meets Ruth, who complicates things further.

The Sun Also Rises | Ernest Hemingway

Jake Barnes, the narrator, is in Paris with his friend Robert Cohn, who feels that life is passing him by. At a club, Jake watches Brett, a woman he loves; she also loves him. They don’t get really close because of an unnamed injury from Jake’s World War I days.

Siddhartha | Hermann Hesse

A young Brahman (a member of the highest Hindu caste), searches for the meaning of life through religion–Hinduism, asceticism, and Buddhism–and also through material success and physical pleasure.

“…he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”

Read “Siddhartha”

The Big Sleep | Raymond Chandler

Private Investigator Phillip Marlowe visits General Sternwood’s mansion. The General is being blackmailed by Arthur Geiger. Marlowe goes to his antique bookshop, and follows a suspicious customer, leading to the first break in the case.

Read “The Big Sleep”

Theme: The Human Condition

These novels have characters struggling with what it means to be human, or coping with feelings and experiences common to people all over the world.

The Old Man and the Sea | Ernest Hemingway

Santiago is an elderly Cuban fisherman who is on a streak of bad luck – he hasn’t caught a sellable fish in eighty-four days. His friend and assistant, Manolin, has left him for another boat at the behest of his parents, but he still visits to talk and eat. Santiago’s luck changes when he hooks a huge marlin, leading to the struggle of his life.

Read “The Old Man and the Sea”

Breathing Lessons | Anne Tyler

Ira and Maggie, a married couple, are preparing to go to a funeral. On the long drive, they talk about the possibility of visiting their ex daughter-in-law and granddaughter, and they get upset with each other. It continues with the events of the funeral and the drive home.

Candide | Francois Voltaire

Candide is a young man who is in love with Cunegonde, a beautiful baron’s daughter. Candide is torn between the opposing philosophies of Pangloss and Martin: blind optimism and extreme pessimism. They undergo a series of extreme hardships and injustices that put their beliefs to the test.

Read “Candide”

Gulliver’s Travels | Jonathan Swift

Lemuel Gulliver returns from his fourth and final trip and tells about his adventures. He visited Lilliput, populated by tiny people; Brobdingnag, populated by giants; and several other places on the third and fourth trips, each with their own peculiarities.

Read “Gulliver’s Travels”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? | Philip K. Dick

After a war the earth is covered with radioactive dust and many plants and animals are extinct. Lots of people have moved to Mars. Real and artificial animals are expensive. Androids are given to the Mars colonists to serve as slaves, and sometimes they rebel and flee to earth. A bounty hunter, Rick Deckard, is assigned to find and “retire” six escaped androids.

Read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

The Human Comedy | William Saroyan

Homer Macauley, fourteen, delivers telegraph messages to help support his mother and younger brother Ulysses. His father is dead, and his older brother is serving in World War II. Homer has to deliver death messages, which begins to wear on him, making him question the world.

Einstein’s Dreams | Alan Lightman

It is 1905 in the Alps where Einsten has finished a paper on his theory of time. The narrative goes back two months to relate his dreams about how time could move or be perceived. In his waking life, he thinks about his theory of relativity, and interacts with his wife and friend Besso.

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