Study Guide

Nothing Existential Nihilism, Or Nothing Means Nothing

By Janne Teller

Existential Nihilism, Or Nothing Means Nothing

Seeing the Forest…

Okay, let's talk Kierkegaard. In order to understand Nothing, you need to understand that the first existentialist philosopher—that would be Kierkegaard—was from Denmark, so they take existentialism pretty seriously over there. Before you go throwing your hands up in the air and saying, "I didn't sign up for Philosophy 101," here's all you need to know: the basic tenet of existentialism is that it is entirely the responsibility of the individual to give life meaning.

"But wait!" you may be saying. "If Kierkegaard thought each individual created meaning for himself, why didn't Pierre Anthon choose to create his own meaning? Wouldn't that make his classmates right and Pierre Anthon wrong?"

Well, not exactly. Because, you see, Pierre Anthon's branch of existentialism is called existential nihilism, as written about by Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. Basically, it's like you've gone on the fast track from becoming authentic and real to becoming jaded. You've discovered yourself, looked around you, and found that everything is pointless. And if you're Pierre Anthon, you've done it by the time you're 12.

So if we look at Nothing as an allegory for existential nihilism, Pierre Anthon represents the authentic individual, and Class 7A represents the masses of inauthentic individuals who are ruled by the fear of not fitting in. Existential nihilists believe that fear is responsible for faith in religion and the supernatural, and—as far as Pierre Anthon's concerned—in any belief that anything matters at all.

… For the Trees

The individual objects the students give up are little mini-allegories in themselves. If we go with the idea that fear drives belief in meaning ("ha! what nonsense!" says Pierre), it stands to reason that those who are willing to give up the most (or demand the most of others) are the most fearful. Two of the students who express a lot of fear when making their sacrifice to the heap of meaning are Hussain and Holy Karl. Not only do they fear what their gods will do to them, they fear what their parents will do to them, too.

As Agnes tells us after Hussain gives up his prayer mat, "He was not a good Muslim, his father had told him, and then he had beaten the life out of him. That wasn't the worst. The worst was that he wasn't a good Muslim. A bad Muslim! No Muslim! No one!" (12.3-6). Failing at your religion means not only losing your protection from fear but losing your identity as well. It's the same deal when Holy Karl has to give up Jesus on the Cross and he hides behind the altar, where Agnes tells us he "covered his ears and… howled."

The animal sacrifice that results from Holy Karl's attempt to avenge Jesus (when he makes Pretty Rosa cut off Cinderella's head) could be seen as an allegory for religion-driven war. The desire to get revenge on someone, even a dog, who defiled his god is just one step closer to everyone beating each other to a bloody pulp over, well, meaning itself.

And then there's the fact that Sofie's rape is one of the most shocking moments in the book. It's the point when you realize things have gone completely off the rails. What follows is a big bunch of Biblical vengeance—some real eye-for-an-eye action. Are you noticing yet that every time anyone thinks they know where the real meaning is—whether it's in sacrifice, religion, material objects, whatever—violence ensues?

To sum up this whole allegory and the individual allegories of the sacrifices in one sentence (stand back, we're gonna try it): one authentic individual who questions the authenticity of the things in which the masses find meaning can send people controlled by fear into a deadly rage.

Excuse us while we pause for a breath.

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