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 individual liberty must affirm, not destroy, the bonds of humanity. Le malentendu (1944; The Misunderstanding), the story of a man's murder by his sister and mother, is often considered Camus's attempt at a modern tragedy in the classical Greek style. L'état de siège (1948; The State of Siege) has been viewed as a satiric attack on totalitarianism and an allegory demonstrating the value of courageous human action. The plague that ravishes the town and brutalizes its citizens is stopped only when one character sacrifices his life for the woman he loves. Many scholars argue that the attack on ruthless governments reflects Camus's experience living under the Nazi occupation of France. Les justes (1950; The Just Assassins) portrays a revolutionary who refuses to throw a bomb because his intended victim is accompanied by a young nephew and niece. This work, many scholars assert, further emphasizes Camus's strong sense of humanity: the end does not justify the means if the cost is human lives.
Critical reception to Camus's plays is mixed. Most critics agree that the overriding concern with intellectual and philosophical issues in Camus's dramas makes them stiff, formal, and lifeless. Many also argue that the characters in these plays are too often merely representatives of specific ideologies. Camus is admired as a director and innovator and his plays are generally well regarded as texts, but the consensus among scholars is that Camus's work for the stage is inferior to his fiction.
La peste (1947; The Plague) is a novel which deals with Camus's theme of revolt. Complementing his concept of the absurd, Camus believed in the necessity of each person to "revolt" against the common fate of humanity by seeking personal free-dom. Dr. Rieux, the protagonist of The Plague, narrates the story of several men in a plague-ridden city. The characters react in different ways, but eventually they unite in their battle against the plague. This emphasis on individual revolt is also the subject of the long essay L'homme révolté (1951; The Rebel). Examining the nature and history of revolution, Camus advances the theory that each individual must revolt against injustice by refusing to be part of it. Camus opposed mass revolutions because he believed they become nihilistic and their participants accept murder and oppression as necessary means to an end.
Camus's belief in the supremacy of the individual lies at the heart of one of the most publicized events in modern literature: Camus's break with his long-time compatriot, Jean-Paul Sartre. These two leading figures of the postwar French intellectual scene had similar literary philosophies, but their political differences led to a quarrel in the early 1950s which ended their friendship as well as their working relationship. Sartre saw the Soviet purges and labor camps of the 1940s as a stage in the Marxian dialectic process that would eventually bring about a just society. Camus, however, could not condone what he perceived to be the Communists' disregard for human rights. Played out in the international as well as Parisian press, the debate was popularly conceded to Sartre. The effect on Camus was disheartening and his fall into public scorn cast a long shadow over the remainder of his career.
In following years Camus suffered from bouts of depression and writer's block. His reputation was further damaged when he took a central stance on the issue of Arab uprisings in his native Algiers. Both the French government and the Arabs denounced him, and the furor extracted an additional toll on his emotional well-being. His next novel, La chute (1956; The Fall), is a long, enigmatic monologue of a formerly self-satisfied lawyer who suffers from guilt and relentlessly confesses his sins in order to judge others and induce them to confess as well. Some scholars noted a new tone in this work and suggested that Camus had bleakly submitted to nihilism by asserting that every person shares the guilt for a violent and corrupt world. Many argued, however, that Camus's essential love and respect for humanity is a major element of the novel; they viewed his wish for a common confession as an attempt to reaffirm human solidarity.
When Camus published his first collection of short stories, L'exil et le royaume (1957; The Exile and the Kingdom), many critics detected a new vitality and optimism in his prose. The energy of the stories, each written in a different style, led many scholars to suggest that Camus had regained direction in his career and established himself as a master of short fiction with this collection. In the following years Camus worked around political quarrels, family troubles, and ill health to begin work on a new novel, Le premier homme. He worked diligently and with great hope for this text, but before it was completed he was killed in an automobile accident.
In spite of marked fluctuations in Camus's popularity—his rise to literary fame in the 1940s occurred as rapidly as his fall from popular appeal in the years preceding his death—his literary significance remains largely undisputed. His work has elicited an enormous amount of scholarly attention and, two decades after his death, he continues to be the subject of much serious study. A defender of political liberty and personal freedom, Camus endures not only as a significant contributor to contemporary literature, but also as a figure of hope and possibility.