Albert Camus

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albert Camus 1913–1960

Algerian-born French novelist, essayist, dramatist, short story writer, and journalist. In this volume commentary on Albert Camus is focused on his plays. See also Albert Camus Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 11, 14, 124.

Camus is one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. In his highly varied career Camus consistently, often passionately, explored and presented his major theme: the belief that people can be happy in a world without meaning. Throughout his novels, plays, essays, and stories, Camus defended the dignity and decency of the individual and asserted that through purposeful action one can overcome the apparent nihilism of the world. His notion of an "absurd" universe is premised on the tension between life in an irrational universe and the human desire for rationality. Camus's position on this dilemma, demonstrated most clearly in his essay Le mythe de Sisyphe (1943; The Myth of Sisyphus), is that each person must first recognize that life is "absurd," that is, irrational and meaningless, and then rise above the absurdity. Although this world view has led Camus to be linked with the Existentialists, he himself rejected that classification. Well regarded for his style as well as his ideas, Camus is also praised as a fierce moralist whose faith in humankind did not waver. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.

Camus was born into poverty and finished school only by earning scholarships and working part-time jobs. At the Lycée d'Algiers he studied philosophy, but the tuberculosis Camus contracted before entering the university prevented him from pursuing a career as an academician. Instead, he became a journalist and immersed himself in the Algerian intellectual scene. His interest in the theater was already evident, for he helped found a theater group, adapted works for the stage, and collaborated on an original play. His first two books, L'envers et l'endroit (1937; The Wrong Side and the Right Side) and Noces (1938; Nuptials), are collections of lyrical essays detailing his early life of poverty and his travels through Europe. Also written at this time, but not published until much later, is Camus's first novel, La mort heureuse (1971; A Happy Death). This work, although less stylistically developed than his later works, touches on the themes of absurdity and self-realization which recur throughout Camus's writings. In 1942 he moved to Paris and became, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, an intellectual leader of the French Resistance.

Taken together, The Myth of Sisyphus and his novel L'étranger (1942; The Stranger) represent Camus's development of the concept of the absurd. Camus perceived the story of Sisyphus, who was doomed to push a rock up a hill only to see it continually roll back down, as a metaphor for the human condition. For Camus, life, like Sisyphus's task, is senseless, but awareness of the absurdity can help humankind overcome its condition. Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger, shoots an Arab for no apparent reason, but he is convicted not so much for killing the man as for refusing to conform to society's standards. Because he acts only on those few things he believes in, Meursault is alienated from the society that wants him to make a show of his contriteness. Approaching his execution, Meursault accepts life as an imperfect end in itself and, although he wants to live, he resolves to die happily and with dignity.

While writing these works Camus remained active in the theater, directing and adapting works by others as well as his own. Of his four original dramas, Caligula (1944) is often considered his most significant. It recounts the young Roman emperor's search for absolute individual freedom. The death of his sister/lover shocks him into an awareness of life's absurdity, and as a result he orders and participates in random rapes, murders, and humiliations that alienate him from those around him. Most scholars see Caligula as a parable warning that...

(The entire section is 22,195 words.)