Critical Context

Albert Camus’ dramatic adaptation of Dostoevski’s novel demonstrates the enormous debt that twentieth century existentialism owes to nineteenth century nihilism. Russian intellectuals who embraced Western liberalism and relativism in the 1800’s spawned a far-reaching nihilism, which erupted in anarchy and war on an unprecedented scale in the 1900’s. Born of that upheaval in the social, political, and religious life of Europe, modern existentialists sought in turn to develop a new philosophy of life. By condemning the sources of existentialism in Russian nihilism, Camus tried to redirect existentialism toward a less negative philosophy. Reacting to Ivan Turgenev’s Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867), Dostoevski had been concerned with showing how Russian life was threatened by Western intellectual movements such as egalitarianism, humanism, positivism, atheism, and socialism. Camus follows Dostoevski in depicting the degradation of the ideals of one generation by the next. Having fostered lofty notions, Stepan sees his own son Peter turned into a fanatical monster and his pupil Stavrogin debauched by them.

Camus said that Dostoevski’s novel was one of the four or five works of literature he ranked above all others—that he had grown up on it and taken sustenance from it. He spent twenty years adapting it for the stage, and The Possessed was the last work he completed before his death. In fact, he was on his way back from a performance of the play when he lost his life in an automobile accident.

Though an adaptation, The Possessed has been considered an important play because it stands as the last testament of an existentialist, coming, as it did, after the Nobel Prize, after Camus’ celebrated rift with existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and at the very end of his life. Camus himself had once been a secret member of the Communist Party, but his understanding transcended dogma, and in his last work he, like Shatov, looked toward intellectual honesty, freedom, and love. Against the left-wing tendencies of modern existentialism, the play asserts the authentic achievements of faith and exposes the sterility of leftist abstractions.