The Myth of Sisyphus

by Albert Camus

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Student Question

Who are a real person and a fictional character that could qualify as an "absurd hero" as defined by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, and why?

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First, let's talk a bit about what Camus means when he refers to Sisyphus as the "absurd hero." What makes Sisyphus absurd is his consciousness; his intelligence got him into trouble with the gods (as he arrogantly scorned them, besting Thanatos and denying Hades his due souls), but his consciousness is also the key to making his eternal torture in the Underworld bearable. The gods can ultimately force Sisyphus to do a certain task (pushing the boulder up the hill each day and watching it roll back down each night), but they cannot control his thoughts. In a futile universe, Sisyphus can convince himself (as we all must) that his task has meaning. As Camus writes, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

One fictional character who could be called an absurd hero is Jay Gatsby, the titular character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby has worked so hard in order to earn the fortune that he believes will help him win back Daisy. When he could not earn his money legally, he turned to bootlegging (the illegal distribution and sale of alcohol during the Prohibition Era in the U.S.). The American Dream, the idea that anyone can prosper (lawfully) as a result of hard work and determination, is revealed to be false. Gatsby can only prosper when he turns to criminal activity, but this doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He can only focus on his hope, with his "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life." Despite Gatsby’s ability to keep dreaming despite whatever hurdles are thrown into his path, he is "preyed on" by others and his dreams are dirtied by the "foul dust [that] floated in [their] wake." His dream is futile—he cannot beat the system, although he keeps trying. He doesn’t even realize the futility, hoping until the last that "Daisy’ll call."

One real-life person we might call an absurd hero is Al Gore. For a long time, he has been concerned about climate change, and he’s tried very hard to draw attention to the problem and prompt change in the way we treat the environment so we don’t push it past the brink of saving. Despite Gore's data, facts, and statistics and the fact that the brink is edging closer, people continue to ignore his warnings. Nonetheless, he keeps trying. He is absurd because, despite the seeming futility of his speeches, he keeps giving them. He maintains the belief that we might listen and change, even though we don’t make the kind of strides necessary to reverse the damage we’ve already done to the environment or minimize it in the future.

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