Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

The Rebel takes its place among Western nonfiction classics. It belongs among the important works of the immediate post-World War II period that signaled a retreat from extremism and pointed the way toward moderation and democracy. These great works include George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).

The Rebel was well received in the English-speaking world as a brilliant work that dissected the dangers of ideological tyranny, affirmed the rights of the individual, and pointed the way to life and hope for Western civilization. Some critics found fault with Camus’ loose generalizations, oversimplifications, and lack of a firm logical structure. Yet on the whole, The Rebel was hailed as the most eloquent of the affirmations of postwar reconstructive humanism.

The major controversies over the book erupted in France. Camus had addressed his book mainly to postwar French intellectuals, who were still characterized by ideological extremes and who were by no means well-disposed to Camus’ brand of liberalism. Liberals and progressive Catholics welcomed Camus’ individualism and democratic anti-Communism; Communists and their sympathizers, as well as the Surrealists, predictably attacked the work.

The publication of The Rebel resulted in the final break between the two existentialist giants of French philosophy and letters, Camus and Sartre. Sartre accused Camus of abandoning his former activist outlook and ignoring the realities of political action. Camus replied that Sartre was bowing to expediency by defending servitude (in the Soviet Union) in the guise of humanitarianism.

It is clear that as existentialists Sartre and Camus opposed preconceived ideas of human nature. Yet Sartre (though not a card-carrying Communist) remained sympathetic to Marxism, viewing it as a philosophy of hope and social liberation despite its distortion by the Soviets. Camus placed his faith in the individual as rebel and maintained that freedom of artistic expression was incompatible with Marxist ideology. Camus and Sartre never spoke or collaborated again after the publication of The Rebel.

Camus was killed in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960. Sartre then justly eulogized him as a noble figure of his turbulent time. He characterized Camus as one of those rare individuals who understand the malady of their time, lay it bare, and strive to affirm what is best in man. Camus questioned everything except human freedom, limits, decency, and the love of life. In the end, Sartre realized that his friend and antagonist Camus was indeed the indispensable rebel of his time.

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