As the only self-conscious beings, humans have the unique position of questioning, and ultimately defining, reality for ourselves. We construct different levels of reality to the point that some, such as emotional reality, exist entirely in a realm within our own minds. It is this self-awareness that separates us from all other life, yet at the same time reinforces the complete isolation only a sentient could know. Perhaps this is why, above all others, the question of our purpose is universal, essential, and eternal. Literature has proved to be a useful barometer for capturing the prevailing public sentiment of the day toward this existential dilemma. As such, we will study three literary works (Candide, The Metamorphosis, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich) , and the respective context of each, in hopes of finding, if not an answer, at least a better understanding of man's changed perception towards our place over time.
Voltaire's Candide is a satire against some aspects of the popular movement of his day, the Enlightenment. According to this view, the world, and consequently man's purpose in it, is a vast, infinitely complex machine whose design can be deciphered by God alone. In response, we have a choice: accept faith in God without question, or search for underlying truth through reason to expose the corruption that distorts reality. Voltaire clearly favors logical reasoning as he uses a playful tone to poke fun at the inconsistencies in assuming our existence is beyond our comprehension. The foolishly optimistic Pangloss is a composite representation of the "blind faith" contingent - those who refuse to probe the uncomfortable questions in lei of fatalistic acceptance of man's inferiority. By denying our inquisitive nature, Voltaire suggests, we refuse the very gift which sets man apart from nature. We invite delusion of reality by numbing our instinct to contemplate anything that remains unanswered.