Article abstract: Camus’s philosophical and literary writings established his reputation as the moral conscience of France during the 1940’s and 1950’s. With understated eloquence, he reaffirmed the intrinsic values of individual freedom and dignity in the face of such evils as Nazism, Stalinism, and colonial exploitation.
Albert Camus had a very difficult childhood. When he was born on November 7, 1913, his parents Lucien and Catherine were living in the small Algerian city of Mondovi, where his father worked for a vineyard. His parents were very poor. The very next year, Lucien was drafted, and he died in October, 1914, as a result of wounds received during the Battle of the Marne. His widow Catherine, already partially deaf, suffered a stroke soon after Lucien’s death, and this stroke permanently affected her speech. She moved to Algiers with her two sons, Albert and Lucien. They lived with her domineering mother, Catherine Sintes, in the working-class neighborhood of Belcourt. The harsh conditions of Camus’s youth taught him to value independence, personal responsibility, and human dignity.
Camus did very well in grammar school and earned a scholarship to the prestigious Grand Lycée of Algiers, where he developed a profound interest in philosophy and literature under the guidance of his teacher, Jean Grenier, to whom he would later dedicate both a volume of essays, L’Envers et l’endroit (1937; The Wrong Side and the Right Side, 1968), and a philosophical essay, L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956). At the age of seventeen, however, he became gravely ill with tuberculosis, from which his lungs never fully recovered. Camus did, however, resume his studies, and in 1936 he defended his master’s thesis on the problem of evil in the writings of Plotinus and Saint Augustine. Although his mother was Catholic, Camus was an agnostic. His medical problems prevented him from being offered a teaching position in Algeria.
Between 1935 and his move to France in 1942, he worked as a journalist in Algiers. He also became involved with a theatrical troupe there, first as an actor and then as a playwright and director. He wrote his first play, Caligula (English translation, 1948), in 1938. He temporarily joined the Algerian Communist Party, but he soon became disillusioned with communism. His distrust of communism greatly influenced his political opinions. In 1940, he married Francine Faure. Two years later, he moved permanently to France in order to join the French Resistance. Francine stayed in Algeria from 1942 until 1944. She rejoined Camus in 1944 after the liberation of Paris. Camus and Francine had two children—twins, Catherine and Jean, born in 1945.
Although Camus did publish in Algiers two well-crafted volumes of short stories, Betwixt and Between and Noces (1938; Nuptials, 1968) in the 1930’s, his work was then appreciated only in Algeria. His international reputation as a writer and philosopher dates from the publication in occupied Paris of L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) and Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Stories, 1955).
The Stranger is a first-person narrative whose principal character, Meursault, does not even have a first name. Meursault, an Algerian office worker, is alienated from society. He is incapable of expressing strong emotions even at his mother’s wake and burial. He has no real ambition or sensitivity to the feelings of his lover Marie. Meursault does not truly respect the dignity of other people. Raymond, a close friend, is a pimp, and Meursault sees nothing wrong with this amoral profession. Meursault kills an Arab who has been following Raymond. Although Meursault is clearly guilty, he still should receive a fair trial. Impartial justice, of course, no longer existed in occupied France. The presiding judge overtly favors the prosecutor, who is allowed to introduce numerous irrelevant and damaging remarks about Meursault, whose incompetent or corrupt lawyer never protests effectively. Nazi collaborators in France denounced The Stranger as a dangerous novel because it held the French judicial system up to ridicule. In an early essay on The Stranger, Jean-Paul Sartre noted perceptively that these collaborators had not fully understood The Stranger. This novel clearly condemns the legal injustices committed by the Nazis and their collaborators, but it also reaffirms the French republican ideals of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” The Nazis wanted nothing to do with the moral values of the French Third Republic, which they had destroyed in 1940.
Camus’s next major work was his 1942 philosophical treatise The Myth of Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to push a large rock to the top of a mountain. Every...
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