Two persistent themes animate all of Albert Camus’s writing and underlie his artistic vision: One is the enigma of the universe, which is breathtakingly beautiful yet indifferent to life; the other is the enigma of man, whose craving for happiness and meaning in life remains unextinguished by his full awareness of his own mortality and of the sovereign indifference of his environment. At the root of every novel, every play, every essay, even every entry in his notebooks can be found Camus’s incessant need to probe and puzzle over the ironic double bind that he perceived to be the essence of the human condition: Man is endowed with the imagination to conceive an ideal existence, but neither his circumstances nor his own powers permit its attainment. The perception of this hopeless double bind made inescapable for Camus the obligation to face up to an overriding moral issue for man: Given man’s circumscribed condition, are there honorable terms on which his life can be lived?
A Happy Death
In his earliest attempt at casting these themes in fictional form, Camus made use of the traditional novel of personal development, or bildungsroman, to describe one young man’s encounters with life, love, and death. The result was an episodic novel, obviously based on his own experiences but composed in the third person and so lacking in unity and coherence as to betray the central idea on which he wished to focus: the problem of accepting death. He called the novel A Happy Death and showed his hero resolutely fixing his consciousness on the inanimate world around him, striving to become one with the stones and achieve a happy death by blending gently and painlessly into the silent harmony of the universe while retaining his lucidity until his last breath. The book’s last sentence strives to convince the reader by rhetoric that the hero has indeed achieved the happy death he sought: “And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of motionless worlds.”
Camus seems to have sensed, however, that the rhetoric was unconvincing and that the ideal of a happy death was an illusion. Perhaps he even recognized that his hero’s struggle to remain conscious of life until his last breath was, in reality, a protest against death and a contradiction of his desire to make the transition to death serene and imperceptible. It was doubtless some such sense of the book’s failure that convinced Camus not to publish this work, composed when he was not yet twenty-five. Its posthumous publication has given scholars the opportunity to see Camus’s first halting steps in trying to formulate the subtle and complex themes of the novels that were to make him great.
The Stranger, Camus’s second attempt at writing a novel, includes a number of the scenes, characters, and situations found in A Happy Death (Mersault, the hero of A Happy Death, becomes Meursault in The Stranger). A detailed comparison of the two novels, however, makes it clear that The Stranger, which appeared in 1942, four years and many events after Camus abandoned A Happy Death, is a wholly different work in both conception and theme. No longer preoccupied with happiness in death, Camus turned his attention in The Stranger to the problem of happiness in life, to man’s irrational and desperate need to find meaning in existence. Hisprotagonist, Meursault, is not the frail, sophisticated, death-haunted figure of the earlier novel, but rather a robust primitive who seems eerily devoid of the normal attitudes, values, and culturally induced feelings of...
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his society, as though he had been brought up on some other planet—a “stranger” in the fullest sense of the word. Moreover, Camus hit upon the device of first-person narration as the most effective and dramatic means of confronting his readers with his disturbing protagonist, so alien to his environment. The famous opening words shock the reader into an awareness of the disquieting strangeness of the narrator: Mama died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the home: “Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours truly.” That doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps it was yesterday.
Shrewdly focusing on a mother’s death as a revealing touchstone of humankind’s most deeply ingrained social attitudes, these words achieve a double effect: They tell the reader that the son of the deceased mother can speak of her death without any of the expected symptoms of grief, but, at the same time, they remind the reader that the rest of society, having no familial ties with the deceased, habitually masks its indifference under empty rhetorical formulas such as the telegraphic announcement.
This dual perspective is fully developed in subsequent chapters as the basic theme of the book: While Meursault shows by his own forthright account of his life that he does not share his society’s conventional notions about death, religion, family, friendship, love, marriage, and ambition, he also manages to reveal—often without realizing it—that those conventional notions are often shallow, hypocritical, or delusory and constitute the pathetic inventions of a society desperate to invest its existence with a meaning it does not have. Thus, when Meursault, asked by his boss whether he would be interested in an assignment to establish a Paris office for his boss’s business, says that he has no interest in living in Paris, the reader recognizes that Meursault simply does not believe that material surroundings can make his life any different. At the same time, the boss’s dismayed reaction to Meursault’s indifference to opportunity subtly disturbs the reader with the suspicion that, after all, the boss may have a touching but misplaced faith in the value of ambition. A similar moment occurs when Meursault and his girlfriend, Marie, discuss love and marriage. The reader is surely made uncomfortable by Meursault’s casualness in saying that he does not know what love is, but that he is willing to marry Marie if she wants it. It is, however, a different order of discomfort that overcomes the reader when Marie insists that marriage is a very serious matter and Meursault calmly replies that it is not.
All of part 2 of the novel, devoted to Meursault’s trial after he has killed an Arab, brings additional and even more disturbing changes on the same dual perspective, with Meursault showing no awareness or acceptance of conventional beliefs about justice, murder, legal procedures, and the nature of evidence, while all the “normal” people involved show unexamined or self-deceiving convictions about all such matters. The ironic meaning that emerges from the novel is that although Meursault is guilty of taking a life, society sentences him to death not for his crime, with which it seems incapable of dealing, but for his refusal to live by society’s values, for not “playing the game.” As Camus himself laconically remarked, his novel means that any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral risks being condemned to death.
Critics have regularly protested that, in The Stranger, Camus manipulates his readers’ emotions, inducing sympathy for Meursault even though he is a moral monster and ridiculing everyone else as representative of a society afraid to face reality, hence threatened by Meursault’s clear-eyed and unsentimental acceptance of the world. Such protests are justified, however, only if one assumes that Camus intended The Stranger to be a realistic representation of the world, holding the mirror up to nature. In fact, Meursault is not a believable human figure, the events of the novel are but dimly evoked and unconvincingly motivated, and the very existence of the text itself, as Meursault’s first-person account of events, is never explained. In The Stranger, Camus makes almost no concessions to the conventional procedures of realism, constructing instead a kind of mythic tale of philosophical intent to dramatize an imaginary confrontation between man’s basic nature as a simple, sensual being and his grandly narcissistic self-image as an intelligent being whose every gesture has transcendent significance. Read as a kind of poetic allegory rather than as an exemplary tale of human conduct, The Stranger is seen as a powerful depiction of man’s painfully divided soul, at once joyous for the gift of life and miserable at the absence of any discernible purpose in that life and at the indifference of the surrounding universe. Viewed that way, The Stranger deserves its reputation as one of the great works of art of the first half of the twentieth century.
The allegorical mode is given a much more detailed and realistically human foundation in Camus’s next novel, The Plague, regarded by many critics as his masterpiece. This time, Camus makes a concerted effort to create a strong sense of place in a real setting and to depict fully rounded and believable characters. With the vividness of concrete details and actual place-names, Camus takes the reader to the city of Oran, in AlgeriA&Mdash;a city of which he had intimate personal knowledge, having lived there for an extended period—and describes the impact on that real place of an imaginary outbreak of bubonic plague. The reader shares the first frightening discovery of rats dying in the streets and apartment house hallways and experiences the spread of terror and panic as the first human victims of the plague appear in random locations around the city. Soon, the city is ordered closed, quarantined from the rest of the world, and the authorities try to mobilize the trapped population and lay down strict sanitation rules to try to limit the impact of a disease they know they cannot cure.
The heart of the novel is the depiction of the various ways in which individuals react to the fear and isolation imposed by this sudden state of siege, in which the invading army is invisible. To convey the variety of responses to such an extreme and concentrated crisis in human affairs, Camus deliberately eschews the convenient device of the omniscient narrator, making the depiction of every event and scene an eyewitness account in some form: the spoken words of reports or dialogues, the written words of letters or private diaries, and, as the main device, the written record of the daily observations of the novel’s main character, Dr. Rieux. Whereas in The Stranger first-person narration is primarily a device of characterization, used to portray an alien figure’s disconcertingly remote and hollow personality, in The Plague it is a device of narrative realism, used to reduce devastatingly incomprehensible events to a human, hence believable, scale by portraying the way these events are seen by a representative group of ordinary citizens.
The Plague differs from its predecessor not only technically but also thematically. Camus’s inspiration for The Plague was no philosophical abstraction but a specific event of his own life: the frustration and despair he experienced during the war, when the aftermath of the Allied invasion of North Africa trapped his wife in Oran (while he was in the Resistance organization in the Massif Central) and cut off all communication between them. That experience started the fictional idea germinating in his mind, and a literary model—Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)—gave the idea more concrete form.
Central to the idea of The Plague, certainly, is the theme of man’s encounter with death rather than the theme of man’s interpretation of life, which dominates The Stranger. Indeed, with The Plague, Camus was returning to the preoccupation of his earliest work of fiction, A Happy Death, but with a major new emphasis. The Plague concerns not an individual’s quest in relation to death but a collectivity’s involuntary confrontation with it. In The Plague, death is depicted as a chance outgrowth of an indifferent nature that suddenly, and for no apparent reason, becomes an evil threat to humankind. Death in the form of a plague is unexpected, irrational—a manifestation of that absurdity, that radical absence of meaning in life that is a major underlying theme of The Stranger. In The Plague, however, Camus proposes the paradox that when death is a manifestation of the absurd, it galvanizes something in a person’s spirit that enables the individual to join with others to fight against death and thus give meaning and purpose to life. From evil may come happiness, this novel seems to suggest: It is a painful irony of the human condition that individuals often discover their own capacities for courage and for fraternal affection—that is, for happiness—only if they are forced by the threat of evil to make the discovery.
The hint of optimism in this paradoxical theme—happiness is, after all, possible for some if the circumstances are dire enough—is, however, insufficient to offset the fundamental pessimism of The Plague. A glance at the fates of the main characters will make the basic bleakness of this work manifest. At the center of the action is Bernard Rieux, a doctor who risks his life every day to lead the fight against the plague and who, more than anyone else in the novel, experiences the satisfaction and the joy of finding himself equal to a heroic task and feeling with others a fraternal bond engendered by their common struggle. His satisfaction is brief and his joys few, however. He knows that he cannot cure victims of the plague and must suppress his sympathy for them if he is to be effective in palliating their suffering and in keeping them from infecting others. The result of this bind is that Rieux strikes his patients and their families as cold and indifferent; he ends up being hated by those he is trying to help. The fraternal bond with others who are trying to help develops in only a few instances, since most of his fellow citizens are too frightened or egocentric to join him in the effort. Moreover, where the bond does develop, it proves too tenuous to penetrate his natural isolation.
The limits of the fraternal bond are most graphically expressed by the moment in the novel when Rieux and Jean Tarrou (a traveler through whose journal part of the novel is related), seeing the first signs that the plague is receding, decide to go for a swim together, in celebration. The point is carefully made that, while each feels a sense of fraternity with the other as they swim in the same water, each is also conscious of being ultimately quite alone in the joy and freedom of moving serenely through the water and forgetting the plague for a short while. In spite of the shared emotion that unites them, each feels the swim to be predominantly a solitary experience. Finally, when the plague does end, Rieux finds himself strangely empty and alienated from the joyous crowds now once more filling the streets of Oran; the urgency of his task no longer exists to summon forth his courage. Indeed, because he has lost those dearest to him—his wife and Tarrou—he feels more alone than ever after the plague has gone.
The other important characters fare no better than Rieux: Tarrou is killed by the plague; Joseph Grand suffers from it but recovers and resumes his self-imposed task of writing a novel, of which he has yet to complete the first sentence, because he has endlessly revised and recast it in a fruitless search for perfection; Rembart, a journalist who is trapped in Oran by the plague, leaves when it is over, but without having written anything about it, having found his profession inadequate to such an awesome task; and Cottard, who engages in black-market profiteering during the plague, goes crazy when the plague ends, shooting citizens at random until he is caught and killed by the police. There is little in this novel to nourish an optimistic outlook, except for the hesitant and tentative statement of Rieux, at the end of his chronicle, that amid the ravages of pestilence, one learns that “there are, in men, more things to admire than to despise.”
The Plague is the longest, the most realistic, and artistically the most impressive of Camus’s novels, offering a richly varied cast of characters and a coherent and riveting plot, bringing an integrated world memorably to life while stimulating the reader’s capacity for moral reflection. In spite of its vivid realism, The Plague is no less mythical and allegorical in its impact than is The Stranger. When first published, The Plague was widely interpreted as a novel about the German Occupation and the French Resistance, with the plague symbolizing the evil presence of the Nazis. Since the 1940’s, however, more universal themes and symbols have been discovered in the book, including the frighteningly random nature of evil and the perception that humankind’s conquest of evil is never more than provisional, that the struggle will always have to be renewed. It has also been widely recognized that The Plague is, in significant degree, a profound meditation on the frustrating limits of human language both as a means of communication and as a means of representing the truth about human existence. The discovery of that theme has made The Plague the most modern of Camus’s novels, the one with the most to say to future generations of Camus’s readers.
For nearly a decade after the publication of The Plague, impeded by the consequences of fame, Camus struggled to find enough time and privacy to compose a new work of fiction and to complete philosophical and theatrical writings begun before he wrote The Plague. In the mid-1950’s, he began to compose a group of short stories with the common theme of the condition of the exile, and it was one of those stories that he was suddenly inspired to expand into a short novel written in the form of a monologue and published in 1956 as The Fall.
The product of a troubled time in Camus’s life, The Fall is a troubling work, full of brilliant invention, dazzling wordplay, and devastating satire, but so profoundly ironic and marked by so many abrupt shifts in tone as to leave the reader constantly off balance and uncertain of the author’s viewpoint or purpose. This difficulty in discerning the book’s meaning is inherent in its basic premise, for the work records a stream of talk—actually one side of a dialogue—by a Frenchman who haunts a sleazy bar in the harbor district of Amsterdam and who does not trouble to hide the fact that most of what he says, including his name, is invented. Because he is worldly and cultivated, his talk is fascinating and seizes the attention of his implied interlocutor (who is also, of course, the reader) with riveting force. The name he gives himself is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a name that evokes the biblical figure of the prophet John the Baptist as the voice crying in the wilderness (vox clamantis in deserto) and that coincides neatly with the occupation he claims to follow, also of his own invention: judge-penitent.
When Clamence remarks to his interlocutor, near the end of his five-day monologue, “I know what you are thinking: it is very difficult to distinguish the true from the false in what I am telling you. I confess that you are right,” the reader feels that Camus has suddenly made a personal intervention into the novel in order to warn the reader that he or she has been deliberately manipulated by Clamence’s playacting and has every right to feel bewildered. Camus thus signals to the reader that the book’s troubling impact has been calculated and deliberate from the start. Only in the closing pages of the novel does he clarify the purpose of Clamence’s invented narrative and the meaning of his invented calling, but the explanation comes too late—deliberately so, for the reader can never be free of doubt about whether Clamence’s entire performance has been designed to raise questions concerning what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil.
Clamence’s “explanation” is, in fact, the most unsettling element in the book. He pointedly admits to his interlocutor that he has been penitently “confessing” his own sins in a carefully controlled pattern, only in order to induce his interlocutor to “confess” in turn, thus enabling Clamence to play the role of judge. Clamence begins his “confession” by describing his successful career in Paris as a much-admired lawyer known for his defense of “widows and orphans”—that is, the helpless and disadvantaged of society. He had every reason to see himself as a man of virtue, he says, until he began to “hear” a woman’s mocking laughter whenever he looked at himself in the mirror with those feelings of self-satisfaction. The mocking laughter reminded him that his lawyerly altruism was only a mask for selfishness and forced him to recall an incident he had tried to forget: Crossing a bridge over the Seine one night, he had seen a young woman throw herself into the water and had made no effort to rescue her or to get help, instead walking hurriedly away without looking back. The mocking laughter was thus his conscience taunting him with the suppressed memory of his guilt: The admired man of virtue was in reality a fraud, a sinner like everyone else.
Clamence goes on to explain that thereafter he had found it increasingly difficult to continue his career in Paris and live with his guilt. At the same time, he could not give up his need to feel morally superior to others. His solution to this private inner conflict, he then declares, was his brilliant invention of a new career for himself as a judge-penitent. He closed his Paris office and moved to the harbor section of Amsterdam—which, he notes, is in the center of the concentric circles of Amsterdam’s canals, like the ninth circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, and is, moreover, “the site of one of the greatest crimes of modern history,” meaning the Nazi destruction of the entire Jewish community of Amsterdam. In these new surroundings, he not only could assuage his guilt by the feeling that he was in the ninth circle of Hell, where he belonged, but also could have access to the endless succession of tourists who gravitated to that spot, whom he could “help,” in such propitious surroundings, to recognize their own guilt as well. His “help” consisted of a recital of his own sins, so arranged as to emphasize their universality, thus subtly prompting his listener to confess the same sins in turn. In this way, Clamence uses his perfected performance as a penitent to put himself in the deeply satisfying position of judge, hearing his listener’s confession while basking in the warm glow of his own moral superiority. Because everyone, without exception, is a guilty sinner, says Clamence, he has solved the dilemma of how to live happily with his nagging guilt. The essential secret, he says, is to accuse oneself first—and of all seven cardinal sins—thereby earning the right to accuse everyone else.
Clamence’s “solution,” which concludes The Fall, is a burlesque of moral reasoning, underscoring the bitterness of the satire that is at the heart of this novel. Like Camus’s other novels, The Fall is an exploration of man’s moral nature and his passionate search for happiness in a world that is indifferent to such spiritual values, but unlike any of his other works of fiction, The Fall is both unrelievedly pessimistic and irreducibly ambiguous. In Clamence’s confession, is Camus’s intention to castigate himself for having taken his own fame too seriously and thus expiate his personal sin of pride? Many critics read the book that way when it appeared in 1956. Or is he using Clamence, rather, to avenge himself on his enemies, whom he thought too quick to adopt a tone of moral superiority in judging his position on the Algerian Civil War? Many other critics saw The Fall that way. Generations later, it seems reasonable to suggest that both interpretations have validity. The Fall is a comic masterpiece, remarkably parallel in its tone, its themes, and its ambiguity to Camus’s short story “Jonas,” written about the same time—a story in which, everyone agrees, the author attempted to come to terms with his artistic sterility and with the conflict he felt between public obligation and the need for privacy.
“Jonas” ends with a celebrated verbal ambiguity: The painter-hero of the story, after long meditation, translates his thought to canvas by means of a single word, but it is impossible to discern whether that word is “solitary” or “solidary.” It is tempting to conclude, using that short story as analogue, that the ambiguity of The Fall is also deliberate and that Camus meant his work both as private confession and public condemnation. Those two meanings, the one private and the other public, are surely intended to combine retrospectively in the reader’s mind to form Camus’s universal condemnation of man’s moral bankruptcy. As the title is meant to suggest, The Fall is a modern parable about Original Sin and the Fall of Man.
There is reason to believe that the unrelenting pessimism of The Fall was not Camus’s final word on humanity but was rather the expression of a temporary discouragement that he had almost succeeded in dispelling at the time of his death. In 1959, he was at work on a new novel, to be called “Le Premier Homme,” the theme of which was to be a celebration of the formative experience of his Algerian youth. The First Man was not published until long after his death, in 1994; it addresses from a particularly personal perspective the subject that, at bottom, always animated Camus’s fiction—the enigma of human beings’ struggle against the indifference of creation and the unquenchable thirst for moral significance in life. Camus’s unforgettable contribution to the ongoing dialogue inspired by that vast subject is embodied in the three great novels he managed to complete before his untimely death.