The Problem of the Outsider in Society

The Problem of the Outsider as Represented in some  Works of Modern Literature

Dear friends,

A little while ago I came across this paper I wrote several years ago.  Rereading it I was amazed how much sense it continues to  makes in our present day world.  No wonder the books I read are considered classics.  I urge you to read my paper and maybe some of the literature I quote from.

We live in a world of instant communication on social media.  Like most of us I spend a big chunk of my day interacting with the world wide net.  But I find less time to read  books than in the past.  My longing for good literature is getting stronger.  I made a pledge to myself  to start reading more books again.  I challenge and urge you to read some of the prophetic and insightful works of the great modern writers I refer to in my paper.  They will enrich you and give you insights into the human spirit  of  this miraculous life.

Van Meer

Van Meer

Modern man is increasingly faced with the problem of the outsider. An outsider is that kind of individual who for a complex combination of psychological and environmental factors deviates from the con­ventional or prescribed norm of behavior, ethical values and metaphysical and ideological beliefs of his society and time. The reasons contributing to the crisis of the outsider are multifaceted and may result from his conscience, his consciousness, his physical attributes, his personality, his beliefs or convictions. The out­sider stands apart or dissociates himself from ready – made forms of beliefs, behavior, morals and conventions. He experiences alienation, isolation and despair, and in most cases is unable to love and be loved.

The crisis of the outsider is ultimately the crisis of an individual in search for his own answers to the most fundamental questions of  humanity. What is the nature and extent of man’s freedom? What constitutes the essence of man, and what is the meaning of life?
Modern literature has dealt with the problem of the outsider. There are the existentialist outsiders of the 20th century who live in a relativistic world of no absolute values and beliefs, who have no guiding stars, no orientation, no expectations and no enthusiasm for life. They are unable to cope with the demands and responsibilities of reality because life holds no meaning for them. They are the nihilists, the escapists and the suicides unable to love and be loved, doomed to a spiritual death in a seemingly absurd world.

Man’s search for his identity is ultimately a search for the limits of his individual freedom. Bazarov, the young iconoclastic nihilist in Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons tries to Fathers and Sonsdefine man by reason alone. The essence of man is his reason and that is what he should live by. Bazarov, however, is not free to live by reason alone and succumbs to the irrational forces of life he so willfully tried to deny.


In Franz Kafka’s work The Metamorphosis, the irrational forces of life are intensified to cruel absurdity. Here a human being, who has been a useful and productive member of society, becomes an outsider by a sudden stroke of fate, which physically transforms him into a creature losing all human attributes, incapable of fulfilling human functions and actions. Although he initially still feels human in his inner being, he increasingly doubts his human identity when he is treated by his family and society as that repulsive bug he has been physically transformed to. The crucial question arises: Is a human being only defined by his physical attributes and his place and function in society? The same question is also asked in Solzhenitsyn’s courageous novel Cancer Ward: Where does the human being end when his body is ravaged by a terrible disease? Can such a useless being demand any human rights, such as the right to be treated with dignity by his fellow men?

Cancer Ward

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man portrays an outsider who suffers from a disease of the mind. He is a confused man unable to de­fine himself and reality. He suffers from an intense feeling of boredom and meaninglessness. He compares his existence to that of a fly, which goes unnoticed until it becomes bothersome. He retreats out of spite for a cruel and impersonal world into his imaginary inner world, the underground. He resorts to daydreams and self-deceptions, and preoccupies his mind with trivial events and happenings from his actual life blowing them out of proportion, reliving them ad absurdum. He projects his distorted feelings, emotions, thoughts and anxieties onto reality and tries to con­vert his daydreams into unrealistic actions. He cannot cope with reality. However, he is also a man of deep thoughts and under­standing and truth. Yet he cannot act on that knowledge because he has no sense of reality and is dominated by irrational impulses. He recognizes his sickness but is unwilling to seek and accept help, because he has elevated his suffering to a perverted sense of joy. He cannot love and receive love. In this work man is portrayed as a capricious being solely motivated to have his own spiteful way.


In Ibsen’s drama, Hedda Gabler, Hedda’s “heroic” act of will is also a desperate attempt to have her own way and to spite a society in which she is unable to find self-realization. Her peculiar personality stands in opposition to the values and conventions of her time. She is a woman who cannot submit and find fulfillment in the traditional role as wife and mother. However, she does not dare to openly express and exert her true personality but outwardly adheres to the conventions and morals of middleclass society. She has no courage to change or continue her life. She seeks freedom without responsibility and escapes into death by suicide.

Hedda Gabler

These are some examples of outsiders who are confused as to their human identity and the nature and limit of their freedom. They are unable to function in a meaningful arid acceptable way because life has no meaning or purpose. They are physically or mentally in­sane individuals who live in a world without love.

However, there are also those outsiders , as Hesse describes in Steppenwolf, who are able to overcome their Weltschmerz and do not succumb to the sickness and imperfections of their time and society. They are those romantic outsiders who through the power of their extraordinary perceptual, spiritual and creative abilities become the visionaries, the prophets, the utopian dreamers and the spiritual and moral leaders of the “common herd” of men. They are those men who are willing to forsake the quest for materialistic happiness for the search of truth. They are the Nietzschean men, as Hesse describes Nietzschean thought, who are the link between Nature and Spirit.


In some societies man is denied the right and the freedom to search for his own identity and his own meaning of existence and to live according to his conscience. These are the societies as described in Zamiatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and also to a lesser degree in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. In these societies man has been reduced to a simple formula. Out­siders do not only have to face alienation and isolation but are physically exiled and persecuted to death for deviating in word, thought or deed from the prescribed norms.

Outsiders of such societies are motivated by a higher goal than the quest for personal or materialistic happiness. These men are willing to sacrifice their bare existence on earth in order to follow the dictates of their conscience. These men rather die a physical than a spiritual death. They are motivated to stand up against the world out of love for God, for Truth and for Mankind. For these men the meaning of existence is, as the old doctor in Cancer Ward expresses so beautifully, to preserve unspoiled, undisturbed and undistorted the image of eternity with which each person is born.

Without a belief in that eternal truth man is surely doomed. Love is a manifestation of that truth. Tolstoy in his powerful fable What Men Live By offers a solution to the crisis of the outsider:

“I know that God does not desire men to live apart from each
other, and therefore has not revealed to them what is needful
for each of them to live by himself. He wishes them to
live together, united, and therefore has revealed to them that
they are needful to each other’s happiness …. People only
seem to live when they care for themselves, and that it is
by love for other that they really live, He who has Love
has God m him, and is in God – because God is Love.”

Stories Tolstoy