Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4095
When Camus received the Nobel Prize in 1957, the citation lauded him “for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminated the problems of the human conscience in our times.” Camus died less than three years later without augmenting what was a relatively meager oeuvre: three novels and a handful of plays, short stories, and essays. It is possible to read his entire life’s work, including the posthumously published autobiographical fragment Le Premier Homme, in less time than it takes to absorb one novel by some of his more hermetic contemporaries.
Camus is widely read and fervently admired in a way few other twentieth century writers are. In a memoir of Robert F. Kennedy, journalist Jack Newfield recalls that the senator always traveled with a copy of Camus’s writings: “He discovered Camus when he was thirty-eight, in the months of solitude and grief after his brother’s death. By 1968 he had read, and re-read, all of Camus[’s] essays, dramas and novels. But he more than just read Camus. He memorized him, meditated about him, quoted him and was changed by him.”
Heir to the French tradition of literary crusaders, of activist authors like Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, andÉmile Zola, Camus is the lucid moral conscience of his era. His fiction, drama, and essays pose fundamental questions about individual identity and social bonds that cannot be ignored in the century that produced Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Camus served in the underground Resistance to the Nazi occupation of France and after the war refused to confine himself to a purely literary role. He became embroiled in many of the most tumultuous political controversies of the time—colonialism, capital punishment, racism, and East-West alliances. Even posthumously, he remains a public figure challenging his readers to a stringent standard of candor and compassion.
“A novel,” wrote Camus in his review of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949), “is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images.” Camus’s own novels are probably much more than just a philosophy expressed in images but they are never anything less. The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall are among the most popular and esteemed books ever published in France; translated into dozens of languages, they remain not only in print but also in demand long after most other books of their era have been forgotten. Their appeal is less in plot and characterization than in the utter honesty with which they pose questions of personal, social, and cosmic identity. The scrupulously austere style that Camus honed was an embarrassment to the temptations of bogus rhetoric.
Camus came to Paris in the 1940’s with a proletarian and Algerian background that set him apart from the erudite middle-class French intellectuals who befriended him. Along with Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Camus emerged as one of the leaders of existentialism, a philosophical movement that was extremely popular following World War II. Existentialism has its roots in the writings of German philosophers, particularly Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Martin Heidegger, though its legacy can be traced back through Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard to as far as the pre-Socratic Greek Heraclitus of Ephesus. Never a systematic philosophy, existentialism was, in fact, a product of skepticism toward the intellectual arrogance of rational systems. Existentialism was the embodiment of a postwar zeitgeist cynical toward the shibboleths and values that had facilitated and camouflaged global catastrophe. It insisted that existence precedes essence, that nothing is given—nothingness is the given. In the vast, indifferent universe, the individual is ineluctably responsible for creating his or her own identity. Five A’s—alienation, absurdity, angst, anomie, and anxiety—seemed indispensable to the vocabulary of anyone who aspired to speak the language of existentialism, and there were many.
For a while, particularly in philosophical writings such as The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus was a very prominent existentialist voice, and the Algerian newcomer whom Sartre later called a “Cartesian of the absurd” became a frequent companion of Sartre and de Beauvoir during the heady days following the liberation of Paris. Camus, however, became increasingly uncomfortable in the role of high priest of the new cult of the posthumous God. Rejecting the faddishness of it all, he began emphasizing differences between his ideas and those of Sartre and insisted that he was not an existentialist. Following their feud in 1951, he no longer even called himself a friend of Sartre.
Whether or not they are technically “existentialist,” and whether or not the term has ceased to have any clear definition, Camus’s books are an embodiment of the attitudes of many Europeans at the middle of the twentieth century. Behind novels that are tolerant of everything but falsehood lies widespread bitterness over the failure of the crusade to save democracy in Spain, the fall of France’s Third Republic, the Nazi genocide, and the prospects of nuclear annihilation.
“Phony” is Holden Caulfield’s favorite term of derision in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a popular novel published in 1951 during the peak of Camus’s career, and the term applies as well to everything that Meursault, Rieux, and Clamence despise in Camus’s fictional worlds. Camus, for whom metaphysical mutiny was a starting point for full awareness, saw a development in his own writings “from an attitude of solitary revolt to the recognition of a community whose struggles must be shared.” The evolution of his work was cut short by a fatal automobile accident. What he did leave behind is a legacy that Sartre recognized in the eulogy he published three days after his erstwhile comrade’s shocking death: “Camus could never cease to be one of the principal forces in our cultural domain, nor to represent, in his own way, the history of France and of this century.”
First published: L’Étranger, 1942 (English translation, 1946)
Type of work: Novel
This terse account describes how a man kills a stranger and suffers the consequences of actions that he never intended or even understood.
The Stranger offers one of the most striking openings in modern fiction: “Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Immediately introduced is a character, Meursault, so disconnected from chronology and other human beings that he is one of twentieth century literature’s most memorable embodiments of alienation, of an absurdist world where social bonds are a sham. The British edition of Camus’s first published novel translates the title as The Outsider, and Meursault indeed finds himself a marginal figure in a decentered universe where private and immediate sensations have displaced objective norms.
Meursault, an employee of a shipping company, participates in the rituals of his mother’s funeral and, though he realizes he is supposed to be playing the role of bereaved son, cannot feel anything for the old woman’s corpse. Shortly after returning to Algiers, Meursault goes to the beach, picks up a woman, Marie Cardona, and takes her to the movies and then to bed.
The following Sunday, Meursault and Marie are invited by Raymond Sintès, a raffish neighbor, to spend the day at the beach. During the outing, they are trailed and menaced by two Arab men who are apparently resentful of the way in which Raymond has abused a woman. During a solitary walk along the shore, Meursault encounters one of the Arabs again. It is oppressively hot, and the knife that the Arab wields glistens blindingly in the sun. Without premeditation or reflection, Meursault takes the gun that Raymond has given him and fires five shots into the stranger.
Narrated in Meursault’s own affectless voice, The Stranger consists of two sections. The first recounts the events leading up to the fatal shooting, and the second reports its aftermath—Meursault’s imprisonment, trial, conviction, and impending execution. Part 2 is in effect a commentary on part 1, an attempt to find coherence in one man’s random actions. Marie, Raymond, the owner of the café that Meursault frequents, his mother’s elderly friend, and others testify in court about the events in part 1. Both attorneys attempt to find some pattern. In the story that Meursault’s lawyer tells, all the details paint the portrait of an innocent man acting in self-defense.
Yet the prosecutor finds a different design. For him, Meursault’s callousness about his mother’s death is symptomatic of a cold-blooded murderer, and it is that reading that the jury accepts when it sentences Meursault to death by guillotine. Meursault, however, rejects the specious patterns that both attorneys impose on events. He also refuses consolation from the prison chaplain, who offers him a kind of cosmic narrative in which everything is linked to a vast providential scheme.
Alone in his cell, Meursault realizes that despite the lies people tell to camouflage the truth, all are condemned to death. Uncomfortable with the florid rhetoric that distracts a reader from stark realities, he becomes a champion of candor. In his spare, honest style and his recognition that life is gratuitous and resistant to human attempts to catalog and rationalize it, Meursault is prepared to face extinction liberated from all illusions. He is, wrote Camus in 1955, “not a piece of social wreckage, but a poor and naked man enamored of a sun that leaves no shadows. Far from being bereft of all feeling, he is animated by a passion that is deep because it is stubborn, a passion for the absolute and for truth.”
First published: La Peste, 1947 (English translation, 1948)
Type of work: Novel
Inhabitants of Oran, Algeria, are tested by an epidemic that devastates the city.
The Plague, which propelled Camus into international celebrity, is both an allegory of World War II and a universal meditation on human conduct and community. Organized into five sections, The Plague recounts the collective ordeal of Oran, Algeria, in the throes of an outbreak of bubonic plague. At the outset, even before the sudden proliferation of dead rats and sick humans that persuades reluctant officials to declare an epidemic, Oran is described as a drab, ugly city whose inhabitants are preoccupied with commerce.
Trapped within Oran after a quarantine is imposed are the novel’s principal characters: Bernard Rieux, a physician separated from the ailing wife he sent to a sanatorium before the outbreak of the plague; Raymond Rambert, a Parisian journalist on assignment in Oran; Jean Tarrou, a stranger who takes an active part in opposing the epidemic; Joseph Grand, a municipal clerk obsessed with composing a perfect sentence; Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who delivers two crucial sermons during the course of the plague; and Cottard, a black-market opportunist.
Camus begins his novel with an epigraph from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) that invites readers to read the book as a veiled representation of something other than merely an epidemic in Oran. In a 1955 letter to critic Roland Barthes, the author specified the terms of the allegory; “The Plague, which I wanted to be read on a number of levels, nevertheless has as its obvious content the struggle of the European resistance movements against Nazism. The proof of this is that although the specific enemy is nowhere named, everyone in every European country recognized it.”
The book is, moreover, a meditation on human solidarity and individual responsibility. What is the logical and ethical response to a universe in which suffering prevails and effort seems futile? In the first of two sermons strategically positioned in part 2 and part 4 of the five-part chronicle, Paneloux posits an anthropomorphic God who has sent the plague as retribution for human sin. After witnessing the agonizing death of an innocent child, however, Paneloux revises his theodicy to reconcile unmerited torment with belief in a logical and benevolent Providence.
Tarrou, a magistrate’s son who left home in revulsion over state executions, remains forever opposed to a scheme of things in which cruelty triumphs. His selfless, if hopeless, dedication to the struggle against the plague—both the actual disease and the metaphorical plague he contends is the human condition—offers a sharp contrast to the egoism of Cottard, who exploits the misfortunes of Oran for personal advantage. Rambert’s initial reaction to the quarantine is concern for his personal happiness, for how he can escape from the city and return to Paris to the woman he loves. He learns, however, that his lot is also Oran’s, and he stays in the city to make common cause with the victims of the plague.
Under such circumstances, the flamboyant individualism that enlivens traditional fiction is inappropriate, and the novel, conceding that readers crave heroes, nominates the lackluster Grand, whose grandness resides in selfless, bootless dedication to writing a perfect sentence and ending the plague:Yes, if it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a “hero,” the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.
One of the novel’s most striking features is its handling of narrative point of view. The story is told in meticulously neutral prose, from a perspective that seems detached from the experiences it recounts. Less than a dozen pages from the end, however, when the plague has subsided and the gates of Oran have been reopened, Rieux steps forward to confess that he has been the narrator all along. Though the text’s preoccupation with exile and isolation are clearly the result of Rieux’s own enforced separation from his ailing wife, he as narrator has taken great pains to present an impersonal “chronicle,” the objective account of an honest witness. Writing himself into the story of his community is another way in which Rieux tries to overcome the solitude that is his lot as a widower and a human being.
In a universe in which “plague” is inexplicable and gratuitous, Rieux realizes that physicians are as ineffectual as anyone else. Yet he finds value in collective struggle, regardless of the outcome. The plague is never defeated. It merely, and mysteriously, recedes, and the reader is left with Rieux’s realization that eternal vigilance is necessary against an indomitable foe.
First published: La Chute, 1956 (English translation, 1957)
Type of work: Novel
In an Amsterdam bar, a French lawyer imparts to a stranger his lessons in misanthropy.
The Fall is an extended monologue conducted over the course of five days by a man who calls himself Jean-Baptiste Clamence. The setting is Amsterdam, whose fogginess is miasmic and whose canals are likened to the concentric circles of hell. Like some infernal Ancient Mariner, the speaker attaches himself to a stranger who happens to wander into a raffish bar incongruously named Mexico City. A master of guile, Clamence deliberately piques the curiosity of his listener, who remains an unnamed “you.” Gradually, cunningly, he implicates him—and the reader—in his diabolical tale. Clamence infers that his auditor is a successful Parisian lawyer in his forties, and he tailors his story to appeal to and expose the weaknesses of the stranger.
Clamence claims that he, too, used to live in Paris, where, as a widely respected magistrate, he exuded self-confidence. He then recounts an incident that forever undermined his certainties about personal worth.
One November evening, walking across a bridge, he heard the cry of a woman who had thrown herself into the river. His reaction was to deny that he had heard anything and to continue walking. He remains, however, haunted by that dying cry and the fact that he evaded responsibility toward another human being.
Written at a troubled time in Camus’s own life, The Fall is the bitter fictional tirade of a brilliant misanthrope who dismisses civilization with a mordant epigram: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” Clamence admits that his name is a cunning alias. Like the biblical vox clamans in deserto, the narrator is a voice crying in the wilderness mocking specious hope for clemency toward universal guilt. “Every man testifies to the crime of all the others—that is my faith and my hope,” declares Clamence. It is also the rationale for his narrative, a strategy of confessing his culpability and coercing the listener—and reader—into acknowledging and sharing it.
Duplicitous Clamence has assumed the function of what he calls “judge-penitent,” a deft way of being both condemner and condemned. He eventually lures his listener to his apartment, where he reveals a stolen Van Eyck on the wall. The reader’s knowledge of the purloined painting now implicates the reader, too, in the crime. The subject of the work, The Just Judges, reinforces the novel’s theme of judgement even as it mocks the possibility of justice. It is not merely perverse bravado that impels Clamence to entrust his felonious secret to a stranger; he realizes that in a world devoid of innocence, no one dare judge anyone else. Yet he dreams of being apprehended, of finding release from his personal burden by a stroke of the guillotine. Jean-Baptiste longs for the decapitation that was the fate of his namesake John the Baptist:I would be decapitated, for instance, and I’d have no more fear of death; I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and could again dominate—an exemplar. All would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to come forth.
Such redemption never comes. The Fall portrays all as trapped in a fallen world. Like Sisyphus, Clamence is condemned to repeat his futile gestures. Every time he encounters another listener (and reader), he is compelled anew to spread his gospel of universal guilt, to confirm it by his very success in persuading readers to share his story.
First published: “L’Hôte,” 1957 (collected in Exile and the Kingdom, 1958)
Type of work: Short story
A schoolmaster living on a remote Algerian plateau is torn by an order to deliver an Arab prisoner to authorities.
To translate the French word hôte—someone who either gives or receives hospitality—into English, it is necessary to sacrifice its ambiguity. “The Guest,” Camus’s most frequently anthologized short story, focuses on a character who, suspended between giving and receiving, fails at hospitality. It could as accurately, or ironically, be translated as “The Host.”
At the outset of “The Guest,” Daru, a schoolmaster of European stock who was born in Algeria, observes two figures, one on horseback and one on foot, slowly make their way through the desolate, snowy landscape toward the schoolhouse where he lives, alone. Balducci, the man on horseback, is a gendarme, and he is accompanying an Arab who has been arrested for killing his own cousin.
Balducci explains that because of civil unrest Daru is being conscripted to convey the prisoner to the authorities in Tinguit, a town located a few hours’ journey away, the next day. The teacher refuses this assignment, but Balducci leaves the unnamed Arab with him anyway. A reluctant host to an unwanted guest, Daru passes the night fitfully, fearful that the Arab might attack him and wishing for his escape. In the morning, the two set out for police headquarters in Tinguit. After walking a considerable distance but still two hours short of their destination, Daru parts company with the Arab, telling him to proceed alone, either to turn himself in to the police in Tinguit or to seek refuge among sympathetic nomads. The teacher watches somberly as the Arab continues alone along the path to prison. On returning to his schoolhouse, Daru, who has tried not to take sides, discovers a message threatening revenge against him for having delivered the Arab to the authorities.
In “The Guest,” the third of six short stories in a collection titled Exile and the Kingdom, Camus continues his examination of longing and alienation. The final word of the story, “alone,” emphasizes the work’s central theme of solitude. Just like the French Algerian Camus, who was rebuffed by both sides when he attempted in 1955 to mediate between France and the Algerian separatists, Daru finds himself condemned to solitude, uncomfortable either among his fellow colons or within the indigenous Arab community. A drawing of the four rivers of France on the schoolroom blackboard indicates that his job is to inculcate his North African pupils with the culture of a European colonial power. However, Daru’s loyalties are not so much torn as eroded. The only bond that he feels is, ironically, with the vast, forbidding landscape that remains indifferent to the human beings who put in brief appearances. Like much of the rest of Camus’s fiction, “The Guest” employs spare, incisive language to depict a universe of disconnected human beings who are tormented by the illusion of free choice.
The Myth of Sisyphus
First published: Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942 (English translation, 1955)
Type of work: Essays
The Myth of Sisyphus is a meditation on an ancient Greek figure who, condemned for eternity to a futile task, is seen by Camus as representative of the human condition.
The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s most explicit philosophical pronouncement, begins by dismissing all reflection that evades the question of why people live. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” he declares. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
The Myth of Sisyphus includes several miscellaneous pieces—a discussion of Franz Kafka, a self-interview on the responsibility of the artist, and four personal evocations of the landscape of Algeria that were also published elsewhere. The most remarkable and influential section of The Myth of Sisyphus, however, is its title essay. In it and the supporting chapters, Camus appropriates the ancient Greek story of the king of Corinth who was punished by the gods for failing to show them sufficient respect. Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to push a boulder up the side of a steep mountain. Whenever he is about to reach the summit, the boulder rolls back to the base, and Sisyphus is obliged to begin his endless, pointless task again.
Camus seizes on this myth as an emblem of the human condition. Life, he contends, is absurd. Devoid of purpose, existence is an endless, empty series of compulsive repetitions with no possibility of attaining a goal. Sisyphus becomes the prototype of the “absurd hero,” a figure whose variations Camus traces in the roles of the philanderer, the actor, and the conqueror. Like Rieux, who rebels against a scheme of things he cannot accept but cannot change, Camus’s Sisyphus is a figure of admirable futility: “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”
A literary meditation rather than a work of rigorous formal philosophy, The Myth of Sisyphus offers a vision of human contingency and self-authentication popularly associated with the term existentialism. It assumes a post-Nietzschean universe in which the obituary for God has been written. Refusing to accept external validation, Camus contends that individuals are responsible for their own situations. He insists that such responsibility begins with awareness, a consciousness that The Myth of Sisyphus is itself designed to encourage.
The essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” concludes with the provocative assertion that despite the futility and dreariness of his punitive task, Sisyphus is a figure of felicity:Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Sisyphus possesses the satisfaction of awareness, the modest pleasure of honest confrontation with the bleak conditions of his existence. It is a gloss on the life and works of Camus himself, an obsessively lucid author who refused the spurious consolations of actions and expressions that divert readers from the truth.