Document Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

John Dudley


“An Infinite Advantage”: A Kierkegaardian Analysis of Anxiety and Despair in Post-War American Literature uses a theistically informed existentialist lens to examine issues of selfhood as depicted in American literature from the mid-twentieth century. During this period in America, the changing nature of religious worship led to an uncertain understanding of what it meant to be an individual. With examinations of characters from five novels published in the period, I explore how Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy can help us better understand how Christian authors from the period attempted to define what makes up a self and how a self is to live a Christian life in modern society. I focus my analysis on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960) and structure my readings of these novels around three Kierkegaardian concepts: anxiety, despair, and the present age. The concept of anxiety relates to an individual’s capacity for choice and helps provide a theological and philosophical vocabulary with which to analyze East of Eden, particularly that novel’s linchpin idea of timshel. Relatedly, I analyze O’Connor’s two novels through Kierkegaard’s ideas on despair, exploring how the novels emphasize the importance of how a person must take a stance toward themselves as created beings. For The Moviegoer and Rabbit, Run, I analyze each text using a lens focused on societal concerns and examine how each author describes the modern individual’s struggles to find themselves within an increasingly anonymizing culture while maintaining their connection to God. Kierkegaard’s theistically informed approach to philosophy allows me to analyze the religious themes in these novels from a perspective that takes such themes seriously and provides a framework that shows areas of overlap between the texts. By examining these texts together, I explore how these four authors confronted the existential struggles of the period in their fiction and provided their readers with a path forward for individuals to maintain themselves as they stay focused on their relationship to God and their community without succumbing to the crowd.

Subject Categories

Literature in English, North America


Kierkegaard, O'Connor, Percy, Steinbeck, Updike

Number of Pages



University of South Dakota



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.