Meaning ‘The Outsider’, Camus’ 1942 novel, L’Etranger, follows the story of Meursault, the ‘outsider’ of the novel’s title. Meursault commits a crime and is subsequently labeled a psychopath when he fails to conform to social expectations about how he should behave. Certainly readers will be horrified by his emotionless and detached descriptions, and stunned by his failure to cry at his mother’s funeral. The terrifying irrationality of his actions and the total lack of order in the novel are deliberate reflections by Camus of his absurdist theories about humanity. Absurdism proposed the idea that human existence is a contradiction of our desperate attempts to discover meaning in our lives and the utter fruitlessness of these attempts given the completely irrational and complex nature of our existence. The plain, emotionless language, almost brutal in its simplicity, makes for dramatic reading. This style also perfectly reflects the simplified thought patterns of the novel’s supposedly mentally deranged protagonist. This succinct novel is an ideal introduction to Camus and his absurdist line of thinking.
Published in 1947, La Peste is Camus’ next most famous work. Explore the dystopian world of La Peste: a novel in which a savage plague epidemic infects the large Algerian city of Oran. Mass-deaths of rats, social hysteria, quarantine that divides lovers and families, and tragic demises of many of the novel’s characters ensue. The harsh, gritty realism of this novel is legendary and distinctive of Camus’ honest style as well as his tendency to depict the intrinsic flaws in human character. La Peste explores both the dark depths that humanity will sink to and the radiant highs it can rise to when placed in the worst of situations. The novel is part of Camus’ ‘cycle of revolt’, which portrays the nobility of humanity’s struggle against death, no matter how inevitable the end is. The universality of La Peste’s themes ensures that the novel still resonates today.
La Chute, Camus’ last piece of fiction, was released in 1956 and is known as the work in which Camus’ inner self really emerges. The novel comprises dramatic monologues by its protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who acts as both the accused and the judge of his own actions throughout life. The descriptions by the former defense lawyer of his own fall from grace will capture your imagination from the first page and the title itself translates as ‘The Fall’. Let yourself become immersed in the protagonist’s mind, at one with his deepest thoughts, darkest secrets, and most bitter regrets. The thread of the narrative takes you on a philosophical and emotional journey and portrays themes of imprisonment, innocence, and existence. Jean-Paul Sartre described La Chute as ‘perhaps the most beautiful and least understood’ of Camus’ books.
The Myth of Sisyphus
Similarly to L’Etranger, this short essay manages to succinctly encapsulate Camus’ beliefs and his absurdist philosophy. This exploration of the difficulty in reconciling man’s craving for meaning in his life, coupled with the impossibility of finding meaning in our baffling and complex existences, makes for fascinating reading. Not simply a philosopher, Camus was also a goalkeeper for his university football team and famously wrote: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football’. This quote perfectly reflects the author’s conviction that there is no higher purpose to human existence. The Myth of Sisyphus goes on from L’Étranger to attempt to resolve the problem of how we continue living knowing that death, with no chance of after-life, is our inevitable end. The essay ends with a comparison of human existence and Sisyphus of Greek mythology, condemned forever to repeatedly push a rock up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down immediately after.
The Rebel is an essay, published in 1951, that forms part of Camus’ ‘cycle of revolt’. It acts as an analysis of all his musings so far and explores the evolution of rebellion in society throughout history. This portrait of humankind in revolt examines our motives at such times, which Camus suggest stem from a lack of justice and our determination to find clarity in life where there is none. However, the book also proposes that revolution leads to tyranny. The essay is a fascinating exploration of humanity which still strikes a chord today.
This most famous of Camus’ plays was first published in 1944. The play‘s subject matter centers around the Roman Emperor Caligula and his desperate reaction to the death of Drusilla, his sister and lover. It portrays, in devastating style, the emperor’s realization that men die unhappy and that their lives are meaningless. Caligula revolts against this idea, attempting to use murder and cruelty to establish order and control over his life. Camus’ skill as an author means that the depth of man’s depravity in times of desperation comes through here in the boldest of colors.