1. What is it?

Futility is the notion that actions are useless or hopeless. In literature this often equates to a feeling that life has no meaning, one’s actions are of no relevance, and happiness may never be achieved.

2. How is it made?

Character is placed in society, but shows no purpose.Repetition of aimless tasks.
 Philosophical contemplations of meaning of life.Depression, ennui, melancholy, disdain for work.
Hope is introduced, but ultimately destroyed.Depression and disdain for society grows.
 Alcohol or drug abuse, and odd sleeping patterns.Contemplation of inevitable failure or death.

3. Examples in literature

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 
by T.S. Eliot

Know Your Book

Title: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Author: T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Published: 1910
Language: English
Genre: Poetry; modernist
Synopsis: The poem is narrated by a middle-aged man and raises matters psychologically concerning him. Immediately, this is his interest in a woman with whom he is struggling to speak, ultimately choosing to remain silent. However, the poem is also a discussion on ageing, making reference to the banality of middle- and old-age, and the fear of death.  

Excerpt from Part 3:

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” –
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

Skimming, Scanning and Basic Comprehension

1. Within this excerpt, in what areas of life does the narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock, believe he is unfulfilled?
2. What is the narrator’s hair like?
3. Which biblical character is referred to within this excerpt? 
Identifying Techniques

4. The poem does not have a standard rhyme structure. What is its rhyme structure?
5. Of what is ‘the eternal footman’ a personification?
6. How is anaphora used within the poem? 
Text Analysis

7. In each stanza, the list of ‘after…’ activities grows longer. What is this expressing?
8. The first given stanza notes: ‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.’ What is the narrator saying here?
9. A contrast exists between the actions of the narrator and his self-doubts. How are these two elements portrayed within the poem?
10. What is the relevance of the line ‘that is not what I meant, at all’? 
Theme Exploration

11. How does the poem reveal the narrator’s sense of futility in life? 
Provoking Opinion

12. What emotion did you feel upon reading this poem?
13. J. Alfred Prufrock believes his life was a waste because he was dully normal and achieved nothing. Is an unadventurous ‘normal’ life a life wasted?
14. What do you feel are the most important aspects of living a life of which one can be proud?

The Stranger 
by Albert Camus

Know Your Book

Title: L’Étranger (*trans: The Stranger)
Author: Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Published: 1942
Language: French
Genre: Fiction; novel; philosophical novel; existential novel
Plot: Meursault attends his mother’s funeral. Over the next few days, he begins an affair and becomes involved in the domestic abuse case of his neighbour Raymond and Raymond’s girlfriend. An incident at a beach sees Meursault shoot an acquaintance of the girlfriend multiple times. He is then taken to prison, where he has time to think about his meaningless life. The fact that Meursault did not cry at his mother’s funeral is used as evidence at the sentencing. 
Setting: Algiers; 1930s or 1940s
Characters: Meursault (narrator); Marie; Raymond; Salamano; Meursault’s mother

Excerpt from Chapter 5 (translated from French):

Once he was gone, I felt calm again. I was exhausted and I threw myself onto my bunk. I think I must have fallen asleep because I woke up with stars shining on my face. Sounds of the countryside were wafting in. The night air was cooling my temples with the smell of earth and salt. The wondrous peace of this sleeping summer flooded into me. At that point, on the verge of daybreak, there was a scream of sirens. They were announcing a departure to a world towards which I would now be forever indifferent. For the first time in a very long time I thought of mother. I felt that I understood why at the end of her life she’d taken a ‘fiancé’ and why she’d pretended to start again. There at the home, where lives faded away, there too the evenings were a kind of melancholy truce. So close to death, mother must have felt liberated and ready to live her life again. No one, no one at all had any right to cry over her. And I too felt ready to live my life again. As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.

1. In which of the following locations does this scene take place?

a) A prison cell
b) A hospital
c) The narrator’s family home
d) A beach
e) An observatory

2. ‘I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.’ This line states

a) the narrator no longer cares about the world
b) the world does not care about anyone’s lives
c) the universe is awe-inspiring
d) an individual life is insignificant against wider society
e) the narrator is finding religion

3. In the final line of the passage, the narrator expresses that

a) he is happy to die
b) although his family hates him, he would be glad to see them
c) people are cruel and don’t deserve his attention
d) having people make the effort to hate him means he isn’t alone
e) he still has things he wants to do in life

4. The passage insinuates that, as death approaches, people

a) seek a new life so they can take their mind off their upcoming end
b) find a joy that was previously absent
c) begin a second childhood
d) consider the regrets and mistakes of their life
e) desperately start trying to fulfil all the wishes they had in life

5. Both The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Outsider emphasise futility by having their characters reflect on life while

a) incarcerated
b) considering inevitable death
c) having affairs
d) grieving
e) starting a new family