“Camus’s Idea of Absurdity”

There are many interpretations of the existentialist concept of absurdity. Webster’s Dictionary defines “absurdity” as “the state in which humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe wherein people’s lives have no purpose or meaning.” However, numerous existentialist philosophers argue with dictionary definitions and thus develop their own personal interpretations. Soren Kierkegaard, a German existentialist describes absurdity as “the state in which Christian faith contradicts the expectations of human society”. Although there is no single interpretation for this idea, this is not how Albert Camus viewed it. Camus expresses his existentialist views on the concept of absurdity through the various characters and motifs in his novel, “The Outsider,” which is a tale of a young man’s indifference to society. The protagonist of the story, Meursault, is used cleverly as an instrument by Camus to reflect on his own personal character. Because Camus uses Meursault as an instrument to reflect his personal nature, there are many instances where Camus disguises his idea of absurdity through Meursault’s interaction with society, which can then be uses to derive Camus’s view on absurdity.

The first few chapters of the book unravel aspects behind one of Camus’s main pillars behind his idea of absurdity. Camus believes that the existence of human beings is meaningless and that there is no reason for existence. The existentialist nature of Meursault is quickly introduced in the book. Meursault clearly portrays this theme when he finds out about the death of his mother. The initial reaction of Meursault is highly unusual and quite shocking. Meursault shows no emotion towards his mother’s death; instead he states it in a blunt and monotonous tone, “Mother died today”, which implies that her death is meaningless to him. Meursault’s statements during his interview with his lawyer can verify this implication. He admits that he probably loves his mother, “I probably loved mother quite a lot” and confesses that he does not suppress his natural feelings, “Then he asked me if he could say that I’d controlled my natural feelings that day. I said, ‘No, because it’s not true.” These statements eliminate two common responses towards Meursault’s initial reaction of his mother’s death: Whether or not he loves his mother, and whether or not he suppresses his feelings. The death of Meursault’s mother does not bother him at all because he knows that the only thing certain in life is death. Even his killing of the Arab does not bother him because he knows that the Arab will die sooner or later. This would explain why Meursault does not regret his crime. (“Has he even expressed any regrets? Never, gentlemen. Not once in front of the examining magistrate did he show any emotion with regard to his abominable crime.”) Because all humans will eventually die, Camus believes that there is no purpose to live; a meaningless life. The theme of watching and observation derives this view from Camus. There are many occasions in this novel where Meursault watches certain characters and in return they watch him back. In one case, Meursault spends his Sunday watching people on his street from his balcony. In another situation, the Arabs silently watch Meursault, Marie and Raymond as they get on the bus. The importance of this theme illustrates humanity’s endless search for a meaning in a meaningless world. Although Meursault portrays this idea of the meaningless of existence, he does not fully grasp this idea until the ending of the book. Camus cleverly uses the character of the magistrate to express his own views through Meursault on the meaningless of life. Meursault understands that life is meaningless, but he does not fully grasp it because he regrets not reading books on how to escape from prisons. (“But there must have been special books which I’d never been curious enough to refer to. That was where I might have found stories of people who’d escaped”) Meursault wants to live again. “And I too felt ready to live my life again” He knows that life is meaningless but Meursault wants to keep living. When Meursault talks to the magistrate, he comes into full terms with the meaningless of life. He realizes that there is no point in evading death because he will die sooner or later. The magistrate constantly tries to convert Meursault into a believer in god but Meursault refuses to convert because he thinks that religion is an artificial meaning that fills lives.

One of the most evident pillars of Camus’s idea of absurdity comes from the second half of his book. Because Camus does not believe in god, he sees religion as an artificial meaning that brings fulfillment in the meaningless lives of people. The bringing out of the magistrate’s crucifix creates a clash between Camus’s philosophy of absurdism and Christianity. Absurdism suggests that life is meaningless and irrational because death is certain whereas Christianity proposes a rational universe based on the teachings of God. Christianity comes into conflict with absurdism because it suggests that the answer towards the meaningless of life is religion. However, Meursault does not believe that. His countless rejections of religion reflect Camus’s own beliefs. Camus cannot accept religion because it is not certain; there is no physical proof of God whereas death is certain because there is physical proof. Because of this, the character of Meursault constantly refuses the magistrate’s persuasions to convert to Christianity. (“You do believe and you will put your trust in Him, won’t you? I obviously said no again.”) However, Meursault does acknowledge the significance of religion. (“That was his belief and if he should ever doubt it, his life would become meaningless.”) He sees religion as a filler to provide meaning in a person’s life. But, he views religion as a false hope. Meursault cannot understand why people would impose restrictions on themselves in the current life so they could have a better life in the after life as appose to living life to its fullest. This is evident in the last chapter of the book when the chaplain asks Meursault if he wishes for “another life”. The chaplain further explains that another life can be granted after death if Meursault embraces God and asks for forgiveness of his sins. At this point, Meursault explodes because he believes that the magistrate’s words are nonsense. From this, Camus’s whole stance on religion can be derived. He thinks that life is absurd, that there is no reward for in the after life for living life according to commandments because the idea of an afterlife is uncertain. When Meursault realizes the absurd inevitably of death, he also notices that his life was full. (“I’d been happy, and that I was still happy.”) Therefore he believes in order to live a full life; one must accept the absurd inevitably of death.

The theme of judgment illustrates yet another one of Camus’s main pillars behind his view on absurdity. Because Camus claims that there is no God to make rules to abide by, he believes that each person should develop his or her own set of rules. As a result of this, an individual cannot justly judge or denounce another individual’s actions. Camus illustrates this idea through Meursault, who develops his own rules to live by. While the story progresses, Meursault’s rules to live by become clearly evident. He tries to live life as intensively as possible. (“Gentlemen of the jury, on the day after the death of his mother, this man was swimming in the sea, entering into an irregular liaison and laughing at a Fernandel Film”) The day after his mother’s death does not stop him from having fun and enjoying himself. Also, Meursault is very honest. (“…Masson who announced that I was an honest chap.”) When the lawyer asks Meursault to lie to strengthen the case, (“Then he asked me if he could say that I’d controlled my natural feelings that day.”) Meursault refuses. (“I said, ‘No, because it’s not true.”) This upsets his lawyer deeply, (“Here the lawyer interrupted me, looking very flustered.”) which causes him to judge the character of Meursault. The lawyer does not understand Meursault because he is accustom to living by his rules; the rules of the society and not Meursault’s rules. Therefore he judges the character of Meursault because he finds him indifferent to society. Camus illustrates the unfairness of judging individuals who create their own rules to live by through the outcome of the trial. Meursault plays by his own game, therefore he has to remind himself that he is a criminal under the rules of society. (“I realized at the same time that this was ridiculous because, after all, I was the criminal.”) Because Meursault plays by his own rules, he does not live up to the standard of society, making him an outsider to everyone else. During the trial Meursault is judged by his indifference to society. The prosecutor does not care about the actual crime; instead he creates a horrific picture of the character of Meursault. Because he does not understand Meursault, he sees him as a monstrous man with no soul. This appeals to the jury and they instantly reach a verdict, despite the pleas of Salamano and Masson. Camus uses the corruption and the outcome of the trial to highlight the fact that one cannot judge or condemn another based on his or her own rules to live by because there will be a misunderstanding which will result in serious consequences like in this case, the execution of Meursault.

In conclusion, Albert Camus cleverly disguises his existentialist views on the idea of absurdity in the various situations and interactions of his characters throughout his novel. Meursault, a reflection of Camus, is used mainly to derive these views from the book. By analyzing the character of Meursault, Camus’s main pillars behind absurdity become evident. Camus argues life is meaningless and that there is no reason before existence because of the absurdity of certain death. The theme of watching and observation clearly illustrates this point. Camus also views religion as an artificial filler that provides meaning in people’s lives. This is shown through Meursault’s countless rejections towards accepting God. And lastly, because there is no God to make rules to live by, Camus believes that one should make his or her own set of rules. By doing this one cannot be justly judged by another’s actions because the foundations are not the same. Camus cleverly uses the punishment for Meursault’s crime as an indicator of the dire consequences that may follow.


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