Albert Camus 1913–1960
French-Algerian novelist, dramatist, essayist, short story writer, journalist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Camus's career through 1997. See Albert Camus Short Story Criticism, Albert Camus Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 11, 32.
A celebrated novelist and postwar intellectual, Albert Camus is considered one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. His short novel L'etranger (1942; The Stranger) and existentialist treatise Le mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus) are regarded as seminal works of "absurdism," a literary philosophy founded on the belief that human existence is inherently meaningless and futile. The long essay L'homme révolté (1951; The Rebel) and subsequent novels La peste (1947; The Plague) and La chute (1956; The Fall) fortified Camus's reputation as a formidable independent thinker and uncompromising artist. Public and critical interest in his work was renewed by the posthumous publication of his unfinished novel Le premier homme (1994; The First Man). His Nobel prize-winning novels, essays, and plays evince his commitment to social justice and the possibility of moral integrity in the modern world. Once hailed as the conscience of France, Camus is an internationally renowned literary figure whose poignant metaphysical concerns and arresting prose style exert a profound influence on contemporary letters.
Born in Mondovi, Algeria, a French colony in North Africa until 1962, Camus was raised in poverty by his illiterate Spanish mother. His father, an itinerant laborer of French descent, was fatally wounded in the First World War before Camus reached his first birthday. In 1914 Camus moved with his brother and emotionally detached mother into a small apartment in Algiers which they shared with his uncle and grandmother. The adverse circumstances of his upbringing forged a lasting respect for his hardworking mother and the plight of the underprivileged. With the encouragement of Louis Germain, an elementary school teacher who early recognized Camus's abilities, he won a competitive grant to enter the Grand Lycée in Paris in 1924. At the Grand Lycée, Camus's intellectual mentor was philosophy teacher Jean Grenier, whom he later studied under at the University of Algiers. Shortly before enrolling at the University of Algiers at age sixteen, Camus suffered a near fatal bout with tuberculosis, a chronic illness whose physical and emotional effects haunted him for the remainder of his life. After a period of convalescence, he began studies in philosophy and literature at the University of Algiers, from which he graduated in 1936. While still a student, Camus married briefly and divorced; he remarried Francine Faure in 1940. Camus became increasingly involved in political activities during the 1930s. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, though resigned his membership in 1937 over ideological differences. He published his first two books, L'envers et l'endroit (1937; The Right Side and the Wrong Side) and Noces (1937; Nuptials), the same year. He also wrote and abandoned his first novel La morte heureuse (1971; A Happy Death). Between 1935 and 1938, Camus was active as an actor, writer, and producer with Theatre du travail (Labor Theater), renamed Theatre de I'equipe (Team Theater) after he abandoned the Communist Party. During the Second World War, Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger while living in France and Algeria. He also wrote for Combat, the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance, through which he met existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Upon the Allied liberation of Paris in 1944, Camus was awarded the Medal of the Liberation. Acclaim for The Stranger and his contributions to Combat, which he presided over as editor until 1947, quickly established Camus as a foremost French writer and intellectual of the postwar period. Over the next decade he produced The Plague, The Rebel, and dramatic works including Caligula (1944), Le malentendu (1944; The Misunderstanding), L'etat de siege (1948; The State of Siege), and Les justes (1949; The Just Assassins). During the 1950s, Camus's disdain for Soviet communism precipitated his highly publicized estrangement from Sartre and other Left Bank intellectuals. Camus's passivity during the Algerian struggle for independence also drew heavy criticism that damaged his reputation and plunged him into depression and writer's block. Despite such setbacks, he produced The Fall, the collection of essays L'eté (1954; Resistance, Rebellion, and Death), and the volume of short stories L'exil et le royaume (1957; Exile and the Kingdom). Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Three years later he was killed in an automobile accident near Paris. The manuscript for The First Man was found in his briefcase at the site of the wreck.
Camus's fiction, discursive writings, and dramatic works revolve around the central themes of existential alienation, moral dilemma, and revolt. His first novel, A Happy Death, and early autobiographic essays in The Right Side and the Wrong Side and Nuptials adumbrate the lucidity, irony, and lyrical quality of his subsequent works. The Right Side and the Wrong Side, considered a pivotal early text, sheds light on Camus's experience with poverty and his relationship with his silent mother. His most important works are contained in two triptychs, each comprised of a novel, essay, and play. The first grouping, often referred to as the "cycle of the absurd," includes The Myth of Sisyphus, The Stranger, and Caligula. In the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus examines the fundamental paradoxes of the human condition as evidence of the absurd. The title refers to Sisyphus of Greek legend who was condemned to repeatedly roll a massive stone up a hill only to roll it back down after reaching the crest. Dismissing suicide as a viable response to such futility, Camus suggests that consciousness of the absurd and vigilant resistance to its terms may facilitate the formation of personal identity and value. The Stranger, a novel set in Camus's native Algeria, features protagonist Meursault, a French-Algerian youth who impulsively guns down an Arab man on the beach while overcome by the blinding sun. Arrested, jailed, tried, and sentenced to death, Meursault begins to reflect on his actions and the absurdity of his situation. Emotionless over the recent death of his mother and unrepentant for the murder, Meursault welcomes his fate and resigns himself to his execution in open defiance of society and its imposed morality. In the play Caligula, Camus portrays the eponymous Roman emperor's tyrannical quest for unbridled individual freedom. Stunned at the death of his sister, who is also his lover, Caligula becomes cognizant of the absurdity of life, whereupon he initiates an orgy of random rapes, murders, and punishments to act out his disillusionment. In The Misunderstanding, another significant play from this period, Camus presents a variation of the Oedipus myth in which a man is mistakenly murdered by his mother and sister. Camus's second major triad, unified by the theme of revolt, includes The Plague, The Just Assassins, and The Rebel, The Plague recounts the impact of a fictitious epidemic on the populace of Oran, a city in Algeria. The protagonist and narrator is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a secular physician committed to the systematic treatment of the afflicted. His spiritual foil is Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who appeals to divine intervention and the promise of salvation. Though the pestilence is eventually brought under control by a medical, or human, solution, their cooperative effort suggests the importance of fraternity and courage in the face of oppression. Regarded as a allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France during the Second World War, the novel illustrates the imperative of revolt against agents of persecution. The Just Assassins dramatizes the human cost of political violence in the service of ideology or expediency. The play centers upon Kalayiev, an idealistic poet and revolutionary who volunteers to throw a bomb at the Grand Duke in a planned assassination. However, when he notices the Duke's niece and nephew beside him in the carriage, he changes his mind, realizing that for this act he would be a murderer rather than a "just assassin." Camus elucidates the history and varieties of revolution in The Rebel, an extended essay in which he attempts to formulate the ethical conditions for revolt free of murder or malefaction. Opposing the nihilistic, violent tendencies of mass revolutions, Camus concludes that the individual must revolt against injustice by simply refusing to be a part of it. Camus's last novels, though extensions of earlier investigations, reveal a new vitality and theological interest. The novel The Fall presents the enigmatic, hypocritical confessions of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a successful trial lawyer who, through rambling, self-mocking conversation with an interlocutor, excoriates himself for his perversity and numerous transgressions. The title refers to his guilt at having once failed to rescue a drowning woman. In his unfinished novel The First Man, Camus began to reconstruct the story of his life in the experiences of autobiographic protagonist Jacques Cormery. The existing narrative, a fragmentary account of Jacques's childhood, reveals Camus's deeply personal search for self-identity and connection with his prematurely deceased father.
Camus is widely recognized as one of the most provocative and enduring literary figures of the postwar period. He is consistently praised for his perceptive evocation of metaphysical despair, the stark intensity and natural imagery of his lyrical prose, and his unequivocal condemnation of political tyranny. A preeminent absurdist writer who captured the moral climate of his generation, Camus defined the philosophical and artistic sensibility of many contemporary authors, especially those affiliated with the Theatre of the Absurd during the 1950s and 1960s. His popular association with existentialism, a classification that he dismissed, is traced to the philosophical legacy of Fydor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Soren Kierkegaard. While The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus are viewed as his greatest accomplishments, Camus is also highly regarded for The Plague, The Fall, and his examination of revolution in The Rebel. Critics note that The First Man, though incomplete, is further evidence of Camus's remarkable sensitivity and narrative gifts. Caligula and The Misunderstanding are generally considered Camus's most effective plays, however, his dramatic works as a whole are typically viewed as secondary to his novels and essays. The Stranger, his best known work and a brilliant study of modern alienation, continues to attract rigorous critical scrutiny directed at the moral and psychological motivations of its protagonist, particularly as informed by Camus's aversion to capital punishment and his relationship with his mother. Critics frequently comment on the significance of Camus's early poverty and the Algerian landscape in this and all his writings. Though Camus enjoyed a mercurial rise, he became the subject of ridicule following his notorious break with Sartre, intensified by his neutrality during the Franco-Algerian war. Camus's detractors, especially those allied with Sartre, cite egregious elements of political naivete, moral intransigence, and philosophical amateurism in his writing. Despite such criticism, Camus's literary reputation rests largely upon the power of his prose, his unshakable commitment to his art, and his compelling effort to fashion meaning out the absurd.