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The End of the World as Felix Knows It

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ex·is·ten·tial·ism (n)–

A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts.


Throughout the course of Zadie Smith’s novel NW, the reader is treated to three different yet concurrent perspectives from residents of the NW neighborhood in London. The novel stars Leah Hanwell, the perennial underachiever, Felix Cooper, who is actively turning his life around, and Natalie Blake, née Keisha Blake, who on the surface seems the happiest and most successful of the three, but has her own demons to deal with. Each character has chapters following his or her life, leading up to the annual neighborhood Carnival. Besides the neighborhood itself, one of the points of the novel that ties all three sections together is Felix’s death the night before Carnival. It is referenced in Leah’s chapters, experienced in his, and the aftermath is mentioned in Natalie’s. Smith uses the intersection of these perspectives within the city in regards to Felix’s death as a tool to express the ideas of existentialist philosophy, structuring the story to show the connections in order to expose the meaninglessness in the lives behind those connections.

Each section ends with a sense of futility, but none more so than Felix’s. At the end of Felix’s section of NW, Felix is fatally stabbed on Albert Road. Smith spends nearly one hundred pages introducing Felix and his tragic backstory, allowing the reader to empathize with him as a fellow human, before she rips him away. Felix’s death, when seen in existentialist terms, is simply the end to his life. It is not the grand ending of a wonder tale; it is, arguably, not even the climax of the book. On the contrary, the book continues for another two hundred pages, scarcely mentioning that Felix even existed in this world. The fact that strangers murder him also reinforces the idea that life is ultimately inconsequential: if life had a value beyond that of each individual, the strangers would not have randomly murdered him. They did not know him, and thus their lives were not impacted whether Felix lived or died. Their disregard for Felix’s life shows the existentialist philosophy at work, and the way Smith builds up Felix as a character to earn the empathy of the audience only to kill him off and barely mention it later mirrors real life. People live, and each person has an intricate life with loved ones, troubles, and anything anyone else has, but in the end, when the person dies, all of what made them special dies with them, and most of the time they die barely leaving a mark on the world or anyone in it. Besides, per existentialism, if they do left a mark on any people in the world, it will eventually fade away, as those people die as well, and every facet of their personality dies with them.

To further prove this point, Smith references Felix’s death in both Leah and Natalie’s sections as well, but gives the death exactly as much attention as a real person would. Although the characters all exist within the same space, neither of the women’s paths cross with Felix’s notably in the story, and so there is no occasion for sadness when they hear of his death. To them, he is just another person, another person who is no longer breathing. When each woman hears of his death, she continues on with the more important things occupying her time. Leah hears of the stabbing on the news after it happens, and pauses momentarily before continuing on to a party. Natalie sees the pleas for information on the stabbing from his father and girlfriend in the paper, briefly empathizes with the family, and then moves on towards more pressing concerns. By all means, Smith is reinforcing the idea that Felix has an unremarkable end to an ordinary life, and that a precious few are worse off after his death than they were before. However, Smith’s way of structuring the story makes the reader truly empathize with Felix, and, by merit of focusing on him, makes him seem very important. However, Smith simultaneously contradicts that idea by using his appearance in the other sections to show how unimportant any single individual is in the end, and how the world will not stop for anyone. 

Sources Consulted:

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotion. [S.l.]: Allied, 1947. 1-20. Print.
Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.
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