(A man decides there is no purpose in life, and is freed from a sense of responsibility-- now what is the cost?).All text except quotations is copyright 1999 by David Lahti, and represents his views alone. Thanks to Encarta for the portrait above. Please comment on this page in my guestbook.
Part I: A story about nothing mattering:
ch.1 - The narrator's mother dies
ch.2 - The passage of time
ch.3 - On right and wrong, and friendship-- the narrator complies with a man's (Raymond's) plot of vengeance
ch.4 - Cruelty to animals (Salomano's dog) and people (Raymond's girl)
ch.5 - Love and marriage (to Marie) and way of life (job)
ch.6 - Narrator ends up shooting someone out of his self-centered superficiality
Part II: The consequences of the man's apathy; and his reasons for it.
ch.1 - Narrator doesn't care about being in jail, or about God. His apathy proves dangerous to his legal case
ch.2 - Prison is boring, but one gets used to it
ch.3 - The trial - Finally, he exhibits emotions! His past apathy and compliance speak against him in court
ch.4 - Prosecutor fabricates premeditation, portrays a "criminal mentality" in the narrator, and claims that for his heartlessness he deserves no mercy. He receives none.
ch.5 - He meets with the chaplain, and tells of his philosophy of apathy, anomie, and emotional liberty. Happiness is the banishment of hope, for hope is false. The universe is indifferent.
A literary work need not make a positive point in order to contribute to our understanding of ourselves and of life. In fact, the work of Albert Camus is great precisely because he raises questions that pierce to the heart of existence, and he is adamant in his refusal to permit easy answers. In this novel he portrays a rejection of the belief systems and perhaps unquestioned assumptions we carry with us through life. The narrator does not see this as the road to success or happiness, however. He plainly admits that our beliefs about the meaning of life are (conveniently) the most productive of benefits such as peace of mind and social acceptance. Unlike many prudence-oriented Victorian novelists whose works were influential in Camus’ day, however, this novel does not endorse happiness or social comfort as a worthwhile reason for acting or believing something. In fact, the narrator finds that there is no worthwhile reason for doing anything. After sweeping away our comfortable crutches, all we have left is hopelessness, and a resignation to the fate decreed by the universe. This is a frightening philosophy, to be sure, a philosophy of meaninglessness that is prompted by a frustration at human frailty and our lack of omniscience. Does Camus hurt us by this deconstruction? Is what he says offensive? If so, then this is a sign that we are hanging on for dear life to our crutches. If they are snatched away, can we justly and with good reason take them up again? After Camus has deconstructed our world-view, can we rebuild it, or another one? Or must we remain as he has left us-- alone, frustrated, resigned, and forced to find some semblance of happiness in that sad state of affairs? The book is negative, because it swipes our answers but does not provide any to replace them, unless you count his empty consolation-prize "happiness in hopelessness" that I doubt many people can really buy.
Nevertheless, perhaps someone who is not prepared to live like this can still take something useful from Camus. Isn't wiping the slate clean needed sometimes? We sure do get enough people shoving easy answers at us. We might do well to endure the painful process of cleaning off our philosophical desk, even if we end up putting a lot of the same things right back onto it. For then, at least, we have looked at the stuff, and made sure we really think it should be there. And who knows, maybe we'll discover that we're missing something we should have; or, perhaps something we've had all our lives really ought to be thrown away! But to be honest, such a cheery self-help attitude towards Camus will never be in his spirit. In fact it would seem to him to be a wimpy evasion of reality. He simply presents a nightmarish outlook on life that allows no way out, and if we try to alter this fact we must admit that we are departing from Camus.
"'This man has, I repeat, no place in a community whose basic principles he flouts without compunction. Nor, heartless as he is, has he any claim to mercy. I ask you to impose the extreme penalty of the law; and I ask it without a qualm. In the course of a long career, in which it has often been my duty to ask for a capital sentence, never have I felt that painful duty weigh so little on my mind as in the present case. In demanding a verdict of murder without extenuating circumstances, I am following not only the dictates of my conscience and a sacred obligation, but also those of the natural and righteous indignation I feel at the sight of a criminal devoid of the least spark of human feeling.'"
-Prosecutor, Pt.II, ch.4
"How had I failed to recognize that nothing was more important than an execution; that, viewed from one angle, it's the only thing that can genuinely interest a man?"
"...there's no idea to which one doesn't get acclimatized in time."
"I explained that I didn't believe in God... I said I saw no point in troubling my head about the matter; whether I believed or didn't was, to my mind, a question of so little importance."
"I told him that I wasn't conscious of any 'sin'."
"Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into-- just as it had got its teeth into me."
"What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother's love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to 'choose' not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers. Surely, surely he must see that? Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others'. And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn't weep at his mother's funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end?"
"It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe."
...you find yourself suspecting that your perfect and comfortable philosophy of life needs a little testing; or you would like a portrayal of a brutal trial-by-fire of common assumptions and hopes.
(For the questioner of comfortable beliefs:)
-Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846)
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1892)
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938)
-Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
(For the psychoanalyst of the mind of a murderer)
-William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)
-Edgar Allan Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846)
-Fyodor Dostoefsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
-William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
(Please click the hardcover (left) or paperback (right))