Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651
*Flanders. World War I battlefield overlapping France and Belgium where the narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, discovers the absurdity of war and its meaningless slaughter. The war symbolizes the disease that has infected Europeans, perhaps all humans, and its victims are not only the wounded and killed but the mentally injured—who include Bardamu. The battlefield literalizes the irrational spirit that has taken over the world.
*Paris. Capital of France. To Ferdinand, this beautiful and historic city is seen from a hospital for mental patients. In his new abode, sexual promiscuity and superficial affairs run rampant. Although he escapes the slaughter of the battlefield by being sent to this hospital, it, too, is a place where stupidity and self-interest reign and is an apt symbol of the unstable mentality that has devastated Europe.
Ferdinand’s search for understanding, truth, and fulfillment eventually brings him back to Paris for a second time, and finally to a mental hospital in a Paris suburb. As he advances geographically, spiritually, and materially, he descends further into nihilism and despair. Paris represents the nadir of his fortunes and his emotional development. In extreme poverty himself, he treats the sick in a neighborhood that is an extension of their moral and emotional illness.
In the City of Light, dark streets, buildings perpetually in shadows, and night scenes are all part of a place that reeks of death, disease, and decay. The mental institution where Ferdinand finds lasting employment, companionship, and purpose represents the ironic outcome of his quest for beauty, reason, and a meaningful life: The sanest place in an insane world is an asylum for the insane.
Ship. Unnamed ship on which Ferdinand sails from Europe to Africa. This sultry, cramped microcosm introduces Ferdinand to another group of people who are idle, vain, self-indulgent, and bigoted. This European crowd further convinces him that, although he has changed places, human nature is the same—egotistical, narrow-minded, self-indulgent, and fundamentally and persistently mendacious and dishonest. Aboard the ship, as in Europe, self-interest and greed drive human beings, who ostracize and punish those who are perceived as threats to their complacency and selfishness. The ship serves as a bridge between the slaughter and insanity in Europe and the rapacity in Africa, giving Ferdinand a foretaste of the human character in a colonial setting.
*French West Africa
*French West Africa. Ferdinand’s experiences in France’s West African colonies provide further evidence of the corruption that rots the human character and turns every place into a festering sore. Africa symbolizes the cruelty and greed of the colonial population. Ironically, the Africans who are brutalized and enslaved by the Europeans are among the dark forces that undermine the white intruders and sap their spirit. The other forces are represented by the African jungle, whose insufferable heat, diseases, and discomforts assault the Europeans who plunder the continent. All together, Africa’s pestilential creatures and miserable conditions constitute a fitting symbol of the disease of colonialism: As the Europeans suck the life blood out of Africa, the continent itself destroys their spirit and defeats their enterprises.
*United States. Ferdinand’s first impressions of New York are of tall buildings and beautiful women. The essence of its appeal is typified by the Hollywood movies he discovers, dream-inducing fantasies that take his mind off the miserable world outside. The movie houses satisfy...
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