Externalization of the Soul - Self in Literature

Works of literature encompass myriad themes and approach them in as many different ways, yet most of these works focus on the concept of “self” – an aspect of the individual in their environment – to a great degree. Self is an inherently inexact way of describing aspects of a given individual in that there is natural variation between its expressions in each person, yet its aspects are common to all in one way or another. Naturally, self manifests itself in a spectrum of strength derived from each individual’s willpower, and as such some people lack will, which results in misery, as self is generally depicted as a resoundingly positive trait. Self is best defined as the ability to maintain a will which is capable of being distinct and separate from that of the surrounding society. True sense of self is best identified as the ability to maintain discrete attributes even in an environment hostile towards said attributes, though the individual may need to decide how strongly they can hold to their beliefs.

As an aspect of self, having one’s own will is essential to maintaining one’s identity, as without such a will a person tends to submit to others and ultimately becomes an extension of another’s will rather than an autonomous body capable of choosing what it is that they desire. Miguel de Unamuno described 4 types of will or lack thereof – querer ser, querer no ser, no querer ser, and no querer no ser; to want to be, to want not to be, to not want to be, and to not want not to be respectively. A want to be and a want not to be are, according to Unamuno, both positive character aspects as they illustrate a dynamic will, while a lack of a want to be and a lack of a want not to be are both negative traits indicative of an individual’s passivity. Unamuno most notably incorporates these forms of willpower in two of his works, The Marquis of Lumbria and Two Mothers. Both of these works illustrate the triumphs of individuals who are able to accomplish their goals by exercising their dominance over their lovers. In The Marquis of Lumbria, Carolina, a daughter of the titular family has one goal – to birth the heir to the family’s estate – and her drive to accomplish this is such that she ultimately achieves her goal by seducing Tristan, her younger sister’s fiancée, and having an illegitimate son by him. She then reinstates herself as the mother of the household following her sister’s death, adopting her son and revealing him to be the true Marquis of Lumbria, rather than his legitimate half-brother. Her systematic execution of her plans in order to accomplish the aforementioned goal is illustrative of her powerful will, as she is able to accomplish this goal without regard for the opinions of others or for the consequences her actions may have upon those around her. In fact, after Carolina has revealed the true Marquis to her stepson, she calls forth her servants and asks them to “go and shout the news throughout the city… Let everyone know of it – let them know of the blot on the escutcheon” (Unamuno 61). Her desire to spread the knowledge of her adulterous affair illustrates that she lacks regard for the opinion of society as a whole, as such opinion is immaterial with respect to her goal of bearing the new Marquis, clearly indicating that her resolve is strong enough for her to maintain it despite the scandalous nature which it entails in her society. The nature of her actions embody a powerful version of Unamuno’s querer ser, a will to maintain a unique self-image no matter what others may think of it, which is a manifestation of the greater concept of self as Unamuno portrays it.

Will Incarnate

This notion of self as an incarnation of willpower is prominent in many other works of literature, and in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, it takes on an additional dimension as self incorporates the ability to control one’s own environment. In this play, Hedda, the central character, seeks to maintain a grip on those around her, directing their actions in the manner which most benefits her own desires, though such desires are never expressly stated in the work. She lives what initially seems to be a pragmatic life, as she married and now lives in a loveless marriage because she believed her husband to have prospects in the academic world. Her strength-of-will clearly manifests itself early in the story, when she refuses to be called by her husband’s last name, instead keeping her maiden name, demonstrating her desire to maintain herself rather than adhering to this social custom which usually accompanies marriage. Hedda continues to act in a manner which, though the ends are somewhat ambiguous, is clearly a self-motivated act driven by the lust for control over those around her. In essence, Hedda’s purpose is to become the dominant will, causing others to act in a manner which most benefits her, which to a degree belies her pragmatic lifestyle in favor of a seemingly impossible fantasy. Her incentives are never entirely clear, such as when she pressures Ejlert Lövberg to kill himself in a noble manner, asking him to do so “beautifully Ejlert Lövberg. Promise me that!” (Ibsen 246) Nonetheless, Hedda has a clear objective of being the sole director of her life. When her designs begin to fall apart following the suspicious death of Lövberg in an ignoble manner which upsets her, and she discovers that Judge Brack intends to abuse his knowledge of her role in Lövberg’s death to force her into an affair, Hedda opts to commit suicide rather than submit to the control of Brack. While suicide may be a social taboo in most cultures, with Brack proclaiming “good God Almighty, people don’t do such things” (Ibsen, 264), it illustrates a definitive will best categorized as Unamuno’s “querer no ser”. In other words, though Hedda’s suicide wasn’t socially acceptable, it was an act which furthered her own agenda of complete power over her own destiny, and in this sense it is a positive expression of self expressed without regard for the opinions of others – the truest expression, and that which seems most difficult to express for many individuals.

The question of self is ambiguous when viewed in the terms of “good and evil”, as self is something generally interpreted as a positive characteristic, yet having such a dominant will can obviously be abused in a negative manner. Such negative use of willpower is visible in Carolina’s character, though not in an evil manner so much as a manipulative one. In another of Unamuno’s short stories, Two Mothers, the prevailing character of the story is Raquel who, much like Carolina from The Marquis of Lumbria, desperately wants a child and is willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve this goal. In the sense that she has a goal and an avid desire to achieve it, Raquel is clearly self-aware, which is a definite positive aspect of humanity, yet her methods ultimately disrupt the lives of those around her, as she effectively overpowers the will of her lover Don Juan, mitigating his personality and emasculating him, referring to him as though she were his own mother rather than his lover, calling to him “come here, my child” (Unamuno 103). Thus, though Raquel attains what she ultimately desires and clearly has a powerful sense of self as illustrated by her prevailing will, she disrupts the lives of those around her, reducing Don Juan to no querer ser – he lacks the desire to be alive, yet he lacks to drive to end his life.

Such negative personifications of self are perhaps more clear in Euripides’ classic Medea, which tells the tale of a scorned woman whose dominant will was wholly inappropriate to the general stereotype of womanhood which existed at the time of the play’s inception. As the protagonist of the story, Medea, a sorceress with a history of bloodshed, is presented as manipulative and at times malevolent. Abandoned by her husband, the allegedly heroic Jason of the Argonauts, she seeks vengeance once she realizes she has lost him forever, and her methods are truly cruel, as she brings herself to murder her own children so that he will suffer. Though Medea portends to be acting in the best interest of her children, and she is in fact sanctified by the gods in that she is defending her sacred marriage vows, the inhumanity of her actions is undeniable, and though she seeks to lay the blame upon Jason by stating that “The gods know who was the author of this sorrow” (Euripides 106) it is quite clear that the carnage is a result of her dominance and selfishness. Indeed, the character of Jason is surprisingly weak-willed for his society, proclaiming at the death of his children “O woman, you have destroyed me!” (Euripides 103), and it is this selfsame weakness in Jason that amplifies Medea’s own strength, allowing her destructive will to destroy the lives of those immediately around her, even if they be completely innocent of blame, as was the case with her children. Medea is unquestionably a powerful yet dangerous incarnation of self-motivation, failing to care about the opinions of any of the other Corinthian women and even forewarning them of her plan to end her children’s lives. Medea is one of the clearest possible examples of the way in which, though a positive trait in that it permits individual development, self is not something which is inherently “good”, as it may easily be utilized for cruel purposes when it manifests itself in the form of an overpowering will.

The Scottish Play

In a similar yet more cautionary vein, Shakespeare’s Macbeth emphasizes not only that a powerful will may permit one to accomplish evil things just as it may good, but that such a will may lead to an individual’s destruction, as the evils borne of such willpower are ultimately destructive for all they affect. Lady Macbeth is initially the dominant will of the story, pushing her husband to commit regicide in order that he might become the ruler of Scotland, yet as the story progresses Macbeth too seems to develop a powerful and at times homicidal will that suggests he has submitted himself to madness. Both the wills of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are clearly indicative of self-oriented goals without regard to the opinions of others, but their wills soon bring about their own destruction, as their sins are presented as immaterial things which are effectively irremovable, marking them for their inevitable downfall. By destroying those near to him, Macbeth loses the respect of his thanes and his citizens, and as a result he is left alone in his struggle, with Angus – a Scottish thane – proclaiming that “his secret murders sticking on his hands, now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach; those he commands movie only in command, nothing in love…” (Shakespeare 197). Much as Macbeth’s destructive will abandons him and leads to his death at the hands of Macduff, Lady Macbeth’s resolve returns to haunt her in her nightmares, causing her to recount her horrible deeds as she walks in her sleep. Her guilt ultimately consumes her and she dies shortly before her husband meets with a similar fate. The power-hungry designs of the Macbeths illustrate perhaps the greatest dichotomy between the positivity of possessing a sense of self and the negativity for which a powerful will may be used, demonstrating that self isn’t inherently good, though it may be necessary for the individual to define themselves.

Just as awareness of self is a generally positive characteristic, the lack of self is a strongly negative trait often manifesting itself in the form of a lack of will, be it no querer ser or no querer no ser. It is generally a negative passive emotion which results in the destruction of the individual afflicted by it. For example, Tristan from The Marquis of Lumbria has his will effectively siphoned from him by his two wives, who truly only view him as a proxy by which they may birth the heir to their familial fortunes. Lacking the ability to assert himself, Tristan is relegated to the role of a tool, with Carolina “holding her husband by the arm as if her were her prisoner…” (Unamuno 62). He is so emasculated by his domineering wife that whatever fledgling will he may have once had has now been expunged, and he distinctly lack the desire to do anything – he is effectively left as a rag doll, a marionette to be manipulated until his usefulness is ultimately gone. Knowing that he could never hope to reclaim himself while married to Carolina, but lacking the will to flee, Tristan illustrates the distinct negativity of such weakness of will, and the story closes as he passively “bowed his head under the weight of the centuries” (Unamuno 66). By submitting to become a pawn of Carolina’s will, Tristan effectively destroyed himself, and though he continued to persist as a living being, he could no longer take an active role even in his own life, embodying the negative destruction that comes at the hands of total submission to the will of another.


Though self has thus far been presented as something internalized which may imposed upon others in the form of a powerful will, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible presents self as the holding of a principle as being more important than one’s own life. In a similar but more extreme vein to that of Meursault’s dying because he won’t submit to society’s morality, John Proctor finds himself facing the hangman’s noose because he holds his name and his dignity higher than his own life. Condemned as a witch Proctor insists that, though he does wish to live, he cannot confess his name to witchcraft “because I lie and sign myself to lies… how may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (Miller 133) In this statement Proctor effectively proclaims that his life isn’t as important as is the maintenance of his family’s good name, for should he surrender his name in return for his life, he would be destroying his friends, sacrificing them to save himself. His choice between life and dignity is a struggle echoed within many of the play’s central characters, though it is perhaps most difficult for Proctor, as he lives in a society which cannot forgive past sins, and his choice between a noble and a practical purpose is illustrative of the torment which his soul has undergone ever since his lustful affair with Abagail Williams. Truly, Proctor has great difficulty in submitting himself to death, and his will visibly wavers as he initially signs the confession. Still, upon realizing the true implications of such a confession and tearing it apart, Proctor positively asserts his strength of will, for choosing death over any other alternative is assuredly one of the most difficult decisions an individual can make, and thus the result is most certainly the most accurate possible gauge of positive willpower achievable. In essence, according to The Crucible, self is more than merely possessing strength-of-will; self is possessing such internalized resolve that one may sacrifice oneself for a cause because they feel it to be a higher and more important purpose for the greater good of their world.

A Darkened Heart

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness presents a different view of self, synthesizing the dangers of submission with another force that directs the individual – personal restraint. Marlow, the central character, realizes that restraint is an inherent aspect of humanity which unites both the “civilized” and “uncivilized” people he meets, for when he views the natives of the Congo he exclaims “Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me…” (Conrad 71). This observance of restraint outside the confines of conventional society indicates what Marlow comes to suspect – that the natives are indeed self-aware rather than mere savages, and that it is their restraint that protects them and yields them with their individual motivations and personalities. Conrad suggests that only when one loses or lacks a restraining force on their actions do they submit to their surroundings, brining about their ultimate destruction. Kurtz’ lack of restraint is clear from the onset, for as Marlow states “Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” (Conrad 95). His corruption and the ensuing illness which he suffers at the hands of his surrounding environment indicate that he has become assimilated into the environment, becoming more a wild beast than a thinking human, for he loses consideration for the consequences of his actions, and in doing so he loses the restraint which is, according to Conrad, perhaps the most critical aspect of one’s own individuality. Thus, in much the same way as an individual lacking will is harnessed by those surrounding them, an individual lacking restraint loses their humanity and becomes an extension of the brutality and harshness of their surrounding environment.

Marlow recognizes that Kurtz has truly ceased to be as a human being by the time the two meet, becoming the aforementioned extension of her environment; as Marlow states it “I had turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried” (Conrad 101). Still despite this utter loss of self-awareness, in his dying moments, Kurtz may have grasped a last shred of his self when he utters the infamous phrase “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 112), as he finally glimpses his utter lack of restraint and the destruction it has wrought. In this way, one might consider self as something which, even in those that seem to lack it, may be regained. Restraint is something which, though when forgotten leads to the individual’s submission to their surroundings, is not altogether unattainable – it is a mutable aspect of the self that directs properly incorporates the individualized motivations that have thus far been discussed as inherent to the existence of self.

Camus' Stranger

So far the utilized definition of self has primarily been described as an assertion of one’s desires, with such assertions allowing for the existence of such self in a hostile environment, however Camus’ The Stranger presents self which may exist in a passive individual in certain cases. Meursault, the novel’s main character, exists as a primarily instinctual being, with many of his actions being driven by immediate environmental stimuli, illustrated most clearly by the fact that he kills an Arab man because the harsh sun seemingly drives him into a state of temporary psychosis. When called before court to account for his crimes, he finds that in truth it is his morality which is on trial, as he does not adhere to the predominant customs of Algerian society, as prosecutor claims that “I didn’t have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that governs men’s hearts, was within my reach” (Camus 101). Indeed, Meursault’s unique nature of pragmatism and perceived apathy disturb many of those in his society, and it is this disturbing aspect of Meursault’s character that leads to his ultimate downfall. Despite the judgment of his contemporaries, Meursault never relinquishes his pragmatic approach to life in favor of that of others, and yet he never seeks to impose his view on others as others do on him. He merely wishes to be left to his own devices; to his own morality, as evidenced by his refusal to turn to religion despite his imminent death, as such is typical of doomed prisoners – he merely explains the clergyman that “I had only a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God” (Camus 120), causing the preacher to pray for Meursault’s soul. Though the majority of his society damned his presentation of self as a heretical abomination, Meursault failed to submit to their will, instead seeking merely to passively maintain his own – death was, for him, immaterial. This presentation of self is quite different from those previously explored, as it demonstrates that self may exist without a strong will, existing more as an aspect of one’s internalized behaviors; one’s “soul” as Meursault’s accusers might portend.

The Stranger is generally considered to be an existentialist novel, and the themes which it encompasses can easily be extrapolated to a more general sense of self. The existential movement was one which sought to popularize the idea that life is inherently meaningless, and that one must thus create one’s own meaning. When viewing life in such a manner, it becomes utterly absurd to force one’s morality on another as occurs in Meursault’s trial, since no definitive moral code can possibly exist in such a world. This view captures an aspect of self exceptionally well, in that it depicts self as something which is truly internalized to the extent that it is expressed as an aspect of one’s natural character, and that one can only lack a sense of self if they lack a purpose in their existence. From this perspective, any purpose can be construed as positive in that it is an expression of self, though, as previously stated, this does not mean these purposes are “good” when viewed from a general moral outline. Still, viewed within the confines of a strictly existential view, one can interpret the actions of characters such as the Macbeths and Medea as positive embodiments of self through the execution of a purpose, as the existence of such a purpose indicates a sense of self-direction characteristic of the existential thought. Thus this interpretation of self expands upon and strengthens its previously established definition to incorporate the idea that self is something determined on a personal level in the form of a unique purpose carried out through acts of will, establishing itself naturally in the actions of each individual rather than always being forcibly maintained, as evidenced by Meursault’s passive nature.

Having explored the various presentations of self as demonstrated by various authors, it becomes clear that the definition of self is nearly as variable as the characteristic which it personifies. Still, there are many unifying themes visible in these many works of literature which were surveyed in the formulation of this conceptualization of the self. Self is the presence of an internalized will which can be used for ends which may be good or ill, so long as these ends are the unique goal of the individual in question. True sense of self arises from the ability to hold some purpose as being more important than one’s life or the opinions of other, in extreme cases being prepared to die for said beliefs. Self isn’t something which must be forced on others, as demonstrated by Meursault, for it is inherent to one’s character, though if lost it has the hope of being regained – as may have been the case in Kurtz’ dying moments. The utter lack of any form of will or restraint characterizes the lack of self, which is a very negative character trait in that it indicates a complete lack of individual; a lack of character itself. In truth, self is something which is expressed to different degrees and manners on an individual basis. The soul is not, as the members of the court in The Stranger seems to suggest, an inherent morality that is the same among all human beings. The soul is the internalization of self; of individuality. This explains how it may be positive in one and negative in another, and yet each of these individuals may maintain a uniquely identifiable agenda. Self is the Soul, and the only truly soulless ones are not those who fail to submit to a dominant sense of morality, but those who submit entirely and lose their own opinions as a result.


Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York. Random House, Inc., 1988.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. England. Penguin Press, 1995.

Euripides. Medea. Translated by Rex Warner. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. London, England. Penguin Press, 2003.

Shakespeare. Macbeth. New York. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Unamuno, Miguel de. Three Exemplary Novels. New York. Grove Press, Inc., 1956.

Literature | Philosophy | Book Review

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