Reading philosophical novels can be a brilliant way to engage in philosophical themes, ideas and teachings.
It is quite understandable how one may find it daunting to tackle a thick, multivolume non-fiction work by someone like Arthur Schopenhauer or Immanuel Kant. Coming across something like Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation on a bookshelf can be a particularly frightening prospect.
It is comprehensible to see how opting to delve into philosophical novels. Following narratives and characters in a work of fiction can be a much more preferable option.
We do not have to trudge our way through complex and convoluted arguments to be enlightened by important and valuable philosophy. It can be just as valuable, and perhaps more enjoyable for some, to read a story instead.
10 of the greatest philosophical novels ever written
Firstly, it will be helpful to clarify what we mean when we talk of philosophical novels. They are narratives that are heavily focused on and surrounded by deeply profound philosophical themes.
Such books are often discussions about our lives, society and the world through a philosophical lens, played out through engaging and provocative narratives and intriguing characters. They encourage us to engage in important and crucial philosophical ideas. Hence, they embolden us to think deeply about our own lives.
Many great works of literature could have made it onto this list. We could mention any number of celebrated novels and remarkable authors. Many of those have had an untold impact on our culture and society. But some are perhaps more widely recognised than others.
Here are 10 of the greatest and most well-known philosophical novels of all time:
The Stranger – Albert Camus (1942)
A book that is revered as one of the greatest works of philosophical literature is Albert Camus’ The Stranger. This is a tale of a man’s apathy and lack of care towards his mother’s death, to then being drawn into senseless murder and the events that ensue. The Stranger is a stark and chilling inquiry into human existence.
The narrative is an exploration of many colossal questions about our lives. It draws upon ideas from absurdism and existentialism to essentially touching on the age-old question that philosophy tackles – the meaning of life.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll (1865,1871)
Although they are two stories, we can consider both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass as one body of literary work. These novels are the most famous examples of the literary nonsense genre. They are also amongst the most well-known and popular children’s stories of all time.
It is a wonderful expression of the imagination of a child but is also an intricate study on several themes. The stories primarily distort and flip logic on its head. Through this, there is a hidden probe and commentary upon Victorian society, morality, philosophy and all manners of intellectual ideas.
Under the absurd imagery, there is an abundance of philosophical inquiries. You just have to dig very deep to realise they are there.
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is a dark and fascinating examination of human morality. Crime and Punishment follows Raskolnikov, a former law student, who is intelligent and talented but lives in extreme poverty.
He consciously decides to commit murder through convincing himself it is morally justifiable. This is the first part of the novel. The remainder follows Raskolnikov’s difficulty in grappling with and comprehending the consequences and ramifications of the act he has carried out.
It is a philosophical and psychological inspection of his conscience end creeping guilt. This philosophical novel is a masterful exploration of good and evil, and everything in between.
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)
Dostoevsky makes the list again with his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. It is an ardent and epic philosophical novel, which follows the character Fyodor Karamazov and his three sons, Aloysha, Dmitri and Ivan.
The story is a deeply profound and intense discussion of important philosophical facets of society. This discussion is a passionate study on faith, free will and morality. All the brothers reflect and embody different aspects of these ideas and demonstrate the conflicts that arise between them.
A major theme in the novel is the clash between faith and doubt, or between optimism and scepticism. Such conflicts expose the truths and fragilities of the human condition. They also lend to a deeply insightful examination of our existence and society.
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (1915)
Another author that features twice on this list is Franz Kafka. He is generally considered to be one of the most important figures in 20th-century literature. His works are heavily expressive of existential philosophy and can often be quite dark and unsettling.
The Metamorphosis is perhaps the starkest example of this. One morning, Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself transformed into a large insect.
He was a successful travelling salesman who provided for his family before this unlikely event occurred. But the fortunes and dynamics of his life soon change in his new physical form. Now he is unable to work and unable to supply for his family, and so is rejected. Gregor becomes completely isolated in his home and is treated cruelly by his family.
The Metamorphosis is an unsettling but profound display of existential ideas of feeling a sense of confusion and turmoil in an absurd and meaningless world.
The Trial –Franz Kafka (1925)
Many of Kafka’s novels express similar themes, and this is glaringly evident in his unfinished story The Trial. The protagonist, Joseph K., is suddenly and randomly arrested and put on trial. The character does not know what he has been accused of and what he is on trial for. Kafka never reveals this to the reader either.
Joseph K. becomes consumed in an absurd and mysterious court case where he is oppressed by a strange bureaucratic institution. This could be a metaphor for the individual’s alienation in an unforgiving modern society; or a bleak premonition to the totalitarian regimes that will soon arise in the west.
What is striking is the character’s sorrowful feeling of inadequacy and guilt despite not knowing what he is allegedly guilty of. Kafka expresses the distressing existential anxieties of our existence and the world we live in again in such a foreboding way.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera (1984)
We cannot talk about philosophical novels without considering Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is a distinctly philosophically centred novel and begins with a discussion of a conflicting set of ideas between Friedrich Nietzsche and Parmenides.
The degree of the ‘lightness’ and the ‘weight’ of our existence is the overriding concern of the novel. It is also the ramifications of our actions and decisions in our lives in terms of these ideas. The story follows Tomas, Sabina (Tomas’s mistress) and Tereza (Tomas’s wife) and how their lives intertwine and play out.
The constant themes of lightness, if our actions have no ramifications on our lives, and weight, if our decisions are of great significance on our lives, are constantly looming over the narrative. It is a profoundly thoughtful and provocative work and a brilliant novel to read as a way of directly engaging with philosophy.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche (1891)
Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps one of the most well-known and influential philosophers of the modern world. He is indeed first and foremost a philosopher and wrote many complex and dense works, but he is often literary and dramatic in his style.
We can see this in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a narrative chronicling the preaching and travelling of Zarathustra. The character is a prophet type figure who has come to spread his teachings to civilisation after meditating for several years up a mountain.
The work is vivid narrative prose where Nietzsche sharply expresses much of his most famous ideas, such as the Übermensch, the Will to power and Eternal return.
1984 – George Orwell (1949)
This classic dystopian story of a brutal totalitarian regime is an immensely important literary work. 1984 tells the tale of one of the three totalitarian states, Oceania, where the whole population are numbly obedient to its mysterious leader – Big Brother. The Thought Police survey the streets to ensure that the people are adhering to the party’s strict doctrines.
If people are accused of speaking or thinking in the wrong way, then they will be punished. The narrative follows Winston Smith who rebels against the government, is caught and suffers horrific punishment as a result. This exposes the brutal, corrupt and heinous nature of the all-powerful state to the reader.
Orwell’s cautionary philosophical novel is utterly politically focused and is a reflection of the devastating totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It is a meditation on the sufferings these regimes had inflicted on 20th Century Europe. At the same time, it is also a warning against such oppressive states arising in the future.
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1890)
Oscar Wilde’s only novel is an ominous story of the consequences of indulging in lust and vice. Dorian Gray is a young man who is considered by those he meets to be extremely beautiful.
Fascination over Dorian begins when he has his portrait painted by Basil Hallward who discusses the painting with his unscrupulous friend Henry Wotton. Dorian is then corrupted by Henry’s ideas of the indulgence in lustful desires and so chooses a life of dishonesty and lechery, with grave consequences.
Central themes to the novel are morality and the dangers of vice, portraying a warning against living such a damaging and corruptive lifestyle and an appetite for the superficialities of society.
What can we learn from these novels?
These philosophical novels can be a valuable source of important and crucial ideas about so many facets of our lives and the societies we live in. They can provide us with an understanding of ourselves through intriguing and compelling narratives, and we will be much better off for it.
We may often feel confusion, helplessness and deep anxiety over elements of our existence that we struggle to understand and comprehend.
These novels will enlighten us to garner an understanding of the complexity and fragility of the human condition. They leave us better equipped to tackle the struggles and dilemmas that we will all inevitably face.
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