Albert Camus

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Albert Camus Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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

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 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:...

(The entire section is 4,388 words.)