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Essay on Life Value vs. Existentialism in Grendel

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A main theme in John Gardner’s Grendel, is the constant competition of the ideas of meaning in life versus existentialism. Throughout the novel, Grendel makes a steady spiritual decay to the point of denying any value or significance in life itself. He believes the world is nothing more than “a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears”(16). This progression starts at a young age, and through out the twelve years of Grendel’s life, he grows closer to a total commitment to this theory. Because of the actions of his mother, the dragon, and man in general, Grendel ultimately dies in the misery that has been created by this belief of his life being nothing but programming, machinery, and random chance.

While Grendel enters the world with the naiveté and positive outlook of an everyday child, he quickly learns that he will not live the life he has imagined. He learns that he can not verbally communicate with his own mother and sees the mechanical layout of life. This isolation initiates Grendel’s inevitable separation from society in general, leading him to the belief that he will never be able to be a part of something bigger than himself. His lack of communication with his mother, the only being he is close to, initiates his psychological journey to fully giving in to the belief of nihilism. This occurs when Grendel, at a young age, gets his leg caught in a tree. At this point he “ twisted around as far as [he] could , hunting wildly for her shape on the cliffs, but there was nothing, or rather, there was everything but my mother” (14). This displays Grendel’s drastic separation from his mother, and his desperation to receive her aid and care, which proves to be futile. This separa...


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...even as Grendel, frustrated, shouts, “Use your reason!” (122). The brain-dead creatures Grendel observes only supports the Dragon’s theories, and though Grendel desperately wants to see a meaning to the life of the creatures he encounters, he is left only to witness the pitiful effects of the mechanism of life theory in which the Dragon has him entombed.

At the end of Grendel’s life, he dies surrounded by his main frustration, a group of animals that he has seen through out his life, only wanting them to claim a life of their own. This ending scene is portrayed with a sense of relief, as Grendel is finally leaving the life that he has been trapped in, with no trace in his mind of meaning, significance, or belief system. In the end, Grendel’s lack of a belief system causes his ultimate downfall, and is his only way out of the confusing emptiness he called his life.


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