Jean Paul Sartre, the hierophant of modern existentialism, believes that man is born into a kind of void (le heant) and leads a passive existence. But when he becomes aware of himself and experiences “agnnoisse” (anguish) he may come out of his passive existence. He would then feel the absurdity of his existence and despair. This awareness would give him the energy to take decisions, which would assist him in existing and by exercising his volution, he is able to render meaning to existence and to the universe.
Freedom occupies a central place in Sartre’s thought. The individual is free to make his own choices but his freedom is limited in innumerable ways. According to Sartre, man strives for ever to extricate himself from the oppressive structures that alienate freedom. Freedom is experienced by man only when he is released from his present bondage and relieved of the tragic sense of life.
The first two novels of Anita Desai Cry the Peacock and Voices in the city are nihilistic in terms of what this thinking implies about the absence of security or stability. The prospect is bleak indeed for the characters of Anita Desai and the anguish that builds up within them in the perception that there is no external help leave the characters with a stultifying sense of despair. Sartre’s conviction that man may come out of his passive situation by an act of will which not only provides him a reason for his existence but also helps to unite society is brought out in Desai’s novels in Clear Light of Day and Where Shall We Go This Summer? Though Bim feels alienated in the beginning of the novel, towards the end she is able to forgive and make compromises with her brother Raja. Sita’s approach to the existential predicament of loneliness and absurdity is also positive. She compromises with her destiny and returns home to her husband to lead an ordinary life with him. She made an attempt to escape to Manori Island to prevent her fifth child from being born into a world of destruction. By an act of will she is able to come to terms with reality. The individual’s freedom, which is the fundamental tenet of existential philosophy, prominently figures in Desai’s novels especially in Voices in the City where the central character Monisha chooses death as the option to free herself from her stifling existence in a wealthy Calcutta family.
Sartre’s idea that time is the relationship of consciousness to things has been explored by Desai in Clear Light of the Day where she delves into the depth of time “as a destroyer” and “as a preserver” connecting the great changers brought about by the passage of time.