BORN: 1913, Mondovi, Algeria
DIED: 1960, Paris
NATIONALITY: Algerian, French
GENRE: Novels, essays, plays
The Stranger (1942)
The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
The Plague (1947)
Albert Camus. Camus, Albert, photograph. AP Images.
Literary scholars hail Albert Camus (also known as Albert Mathe, Bauchart, and Saetone) as North Africa’s first writer of consequence. A pied-noir, or French citizen born in Algeria while it was still a colony of France, Camus emerged from an underprivileged background to become one of the leading writers of the twentieth century. Trained in philosophy, Camus wrote several acclaimed plays, essays, and short stories, but is best remembered for two novels: The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Algeria and Parents’ Impact. Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, outside Mondovi, a village near Bone (now Annaba), in eastern Algeria, then a French territory. When World War I began in summer 1914, Camus’s father was called into military service and was wounded in the Battle of the Marne. He died in a hospital in autumn 1914. The tragedy caused Camus’s already reclusive mother to become even more withdrawn.
Camus’s family life and his early loss of his father is reflected in his writing. In Camus’s works, fathers are often missing or shadowy; only in his unfinished autobiographical novel The First Man (1994) does a father appear directly and extensively. In contrast, a mother is a recurring figure throughout Camus’s work. He wrote always of his own mother with respect and devotion, often connecting her to Algeria and the sense of home. In a letter to his friend Jules Roy, Camus commented, ‘‘What justifies life is our mothers; that’s why I wish to die before mine’’—a wish that was, in fact, granted. Based on his writings, it can be argued that Camus was haunted by the maternal idea; the word ‘‘mother’’ bears considerable weight in his prose, as when it is paired with ‘‘truth’’ in the original French: ‘‘ma mere et ma verite.’’ There are suggestions, however, that the relationship between Camus and his mother was not an easy one; as Camus wrote in his Notebooks, 1942-1951 (Carnets: janvier 1942-mars 1951, 1964): ‘‘I loved my mother despairingly. I have always loved her despairingly.’’ Clearly, Camus was somewhat torn in his feelings for his mother, or at least ambivalent. The beginning of his most famous novel, The Stranger, reflects this sort of ambivalence; it begins with the character Meursault unemotionally explaining: ‘‘Today, mother died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: Mother dead. Funeral tomorrow. Sincere condolences. It doesn’t say anything. It could have been yesterday.’’
Tuberculosis and the Absurdity of Life. While in his early teens, Camus was an active sports enthusiast. He swam often and was an avid soccer player. However, Camus’s sports activities came to a halt when, at seventeen, he contracted tuberculosis in his right lung. The disease eventually spread to his left lung as well. With no method yet discovered of destroying the tubercle bacilli, Camus was to be afflicted with bouts of active tuberculosis on and off for the remainder of his life, making him a target for depression and respiratory illnesses. What emerged from Camus’s struggle with tuberculosis was his development of his theory of the absurd. For Camus, the word absurd described the disparity between a young consciousness, hungry for experience and crying out for meaning, and a body condemned to illness. Camus found it absurd that he should be so full of life and curiosity while knowing that his life could soon end. As an adult, Camus would explore the absurdity of life in such novels as The Stranger and The Fall (1956).
Politics: Camus’s Fight Against the Nazis. By 1942, Camus had moved to Paris, where he became a part of the French resistance movement against German occupation. (The Nazi Army had marched into Paris in the summer of 1940 after easily overwhelming the French military.) He was writing The Plague and The Rebel (1951), while simultaneously writing anti-Nazi pieces for the underground newspaper Combat at night. Authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were also on the Combat staff. At Combat, Camus wrote clandestinely under various pseudonyms. Despite his precautions, Camus barely escaped being caught by the Nazi Gestapo (the internal security organization of the Nazi regime) at least once.
In The Plague, Camus deals with the theme of revolt. Complementing his concept of the absurd, Camus believed in the necessity of each person to revolt against the common fate of humanity by seeking personal freedom. Dr. Rieux, the protagonist of The Plague, narrates the story of several men in the plague-ridden Algerian city of Oran. Throughout the novel, Camus parallels the conflicting philosophies of Rieux and Father Paneloux over how to deal with the plague: Rieux, a compassionate humanist who repudiates conventional religion, maintains that human action can best combat the disease; Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who views the plague as God’s retribution on the sinful people of Oran, holds that only through faith and divine intervention can the city be salvaged. Ultimately, the characters overcome their differences and unite to defeat the plague, at least temporarily, through scientific means. Many critics have interpreted The Plague as an allegory of the German occupation of France during World War II.
Nobel Prize Amidst Algerian Independence Controversy. Following the release of The Fall in 1956, Camus’s standing as a writer received a welcome boost when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1957, especially since it came in the midst of the battle over his refusal to publicly take a side in Algeria’s war for independence from France. Algeria’s struggle against colonial control by France was part of a widespread independence movement in Africa and Asia. Many parts of Africa and Asia, in the years following World War II, sought to free themselves from the political control of European countries that had dominated them for generations. Camus dedicated his Nobel acceptance speech to Louis Germain, his influential fifth-grade teacher, and in it, he attempted to explain his point of view on political struggles: ‘‘The artist fashions himself in that ceaseless oscillation from himself to others,’’ Camus said at the ceremonies, ‘‘midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community from which he cannot tear himself. This is why true artists scorn nothing. They force themselves to understand instead of judging.’’
Death in an Automobile Accident Camus had just emerged from a long-lasting writer’s block, full of ideas for future writings, when he died suddenly. On January 4, 1960, Camus was killed upon impact in an automobile crash. He was forty-six years old. ‘‘News of the death stunned the French literary world of which M. Camus was one of the brightest lights,’’ wrote the New York Times. In Francois Mauriac’s words, Camus’s death was ‘‘one of the greatest losses that could have affected French letters at the present time.’’ In general, newspapers commented that it was the absurd death of a man who recognized life as absurd.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Camus's famous contemporaries include:
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): Camus's friendship with this French Existentialist philosopher and novelist ended over political differences.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): Author of the landmark feminist work The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir is also classified as a French Existentialist.
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989): The work of this Irish playwright and poet continued and enhanced Camus's concept of the absurd.
Mohamed Ahmed Ben Bella (1918-): He is considered the father of the nation of Algeria.
Charles De Gaulle (1890-1970): De Gaulle was a leader of the Free French Forces and one of the leading Nazi resistors in France.
Works in Literary Context
Inspired to read widely and deeply by his high school teacher, philosopher Jean Grenier, Camus was well versed in the classics of Western philosophy, including the works of Plato, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche—all of whom influenced his work.
Existentialism and the Absurd. One of Camus’s most famous concepts is the idea that life is absurd, an idea that one can see prominently in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus’s meditations on the ‘‘absurdity’’ of life sounded like ‘‘Existentialism’’ to many of his contemporaries. Existentialism is basically the belief that life in itself is meaningless and that it is only as valuable or meaningful as one makes it. Although Camus became known as an existentialist and as a philosopher, he himself rejected both labels. In Actuelles I he wrote, ‘‘I have little liking for the too famous existential philosophy, and to speak frankly, I think its conclusions are false.’’ He further asserted in Actuelles II, ‘‘I am not a philosopher and never claimed to be one.’’ Instead, he viewed himself as a moralist, by his own definition, ‘‘a man with a passion for the human heart.’’ But even above being a moralist, Camus perceived himself as an artist with a responsibility to mankind. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Camus said, ‘‘In my eyes, art is not a solitary pleasure. It is a means of moving the greatest number of men by offering them a privileged image of common sufferings and common joys.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
What does it mean to be human? Does life have value or meaning in and of itself, or is life ''absurd'' in the sense Camus believes it to be? These questions have always plagued writers. Thinkers from the world's leading religions try to answer them, often asserting that the meaning of life has to do with one's faith, with one's religion. Other secular writers have also tried to answer such questions in these works:
The Republic (360 B.C.E.), by Plato. Plato recounts the pursuit of the good life according to Socrates, particularly as it relates to rationality and the joy one can experience by living a rational life.
Beyond Good and Evil (1886), by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche attempts to establish the meaning of life outside of the realm of traditional, religious morality.
The Pursuit of Happiness (1930), by Bertrand Russell. Russell, like Socrates, tries to introduce a way of making one's life meaningful by following reason; however, the two thinkers reach very different conclusions.
Works in Critical Context
Camus was widely acclaimed in his short lifetime, and almost all of his work—especially The Stranger and The Plague received critical praise. His philosophical work The Myth of Sisyphus was dismissed as amateurish by some critics, but it remains popular with readers.
The Stranger. When The Stranger first appeared in print, Jean-Paul Sartre predicted it would become a classic. Often required reading for literature classes, The Stranger has been viewed as ‘‘one of the first modern books—perhaps the very first—in which the Absurdist awareness of the absence of any settled moral truth is worked into all the details of the story.’’ To Henri Peyre, ‘‘the romantic condemnation of a bourgeois society whose judges sentence a murder too harshly is a little facile. But the young Camus had thus to begin by setting himself against the world as he found it; before he could discover how to change it or how to rethink it, he had to depict it as unsatisfactory.’’ R. Barton Palmer examined the form of the novel, noting in International Fiction Review that Camus rejects the cause-and-effect plotting typical of conventional narratives and instead presents ‘‘a slice of the daily routine, devoid of intention and plot as it must be, a procession of events linked only by chronology. Event succeeds event, perception replaces perception, without any values by which the process may be interpreted.’’
The Plague. The Plague has been viewed as Camus’s ‘‘most anti-Christian’’ novel. To the scholar Rima Drell Reck, Camus ‘‘suggests that faith is questionable, that man’s torments are unjustifiable, that religion offers no answers to the travail of quotidian existence.’’ Although it is clear that the text is metaphorical and, indeed, intended to be allegorical, Sartre and social commentator Roland Barthes identified a flaw in Camus’s allegory, observed biographer Patrick McCarthy. ‘‘Camus had asserted the need to act but he had not treated the more difficult problems of which action one chooses.... [T]he occupation was far from nonhuman [unlike Camus’s fictional plague] and it involved agonizing choices.’’ Nonetheless, many agree with Philip Thoddy that The Plague is Camus’s ‘‘most complex and probably his most satisfying work.’’
The Myth of Sisyphus While many readers who first encounter The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe) (1942) are impressed by Camus as a thinker, his standing among professional philosophers and intellectuals was from the beginning much lower than his reputation among literary critics. Disparaging remarks made by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir—the chief proponents of French existentialism— later contributed to the trend. Perhaps anticipating future criticism as well as defending himself against contemporary attacks, Camus often said that he was an artist or a moralist, not a philosopher. Left-wing intellectuals have not ceased attacking The Myth of Sisyphus, in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987), Hayden White mocked Camus for ‘‘opposing ‘totalitarianism’ and holding up the prospect of an amiable anarchy as a desirable alternative.’’ Nonetheless, selections from The Myth of Sisyphus were included in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956), a major mid-century anthology edited by Walter Kaufmann.
Responses to Literature
1. Research the definition and etymology of the word ‘‘sociopathy’’ using your library and the Internet. Considering Camus’s view of absurdity, write a definitional essay in which you argue whether Meursault should or should not be considered a sociopath.
2. Epicurus argues that, while life is not meaningful in itself, there is no reason why it cannot be enjoyable. In Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus discusses how the most important—the most meaningful—aspect of life is happiness and that one should pursue those activities that bring one the most happiness. Epicurus especially advocated the appreciation of food as a way to happiness. Script a conversation among Epicurus, Camus, and Meursault in which each person argues against the other people’s philosophies of life.
3. Camus always writes in the first-person point of view. What effect does the use of the first person point of view have on the text? How would Camus’s work be different if he used a different point of view?
Akeroyd, Richard H. Camus and Sartre: Crisis and Commitment. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Portals Press, 1976.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Albert Camus. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
Bronner, Stephen Eric. Albert Camus: The Thinker, the Artist, the Man. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
Brosman, Catharine Savage. Albert Camus. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Judt, Tony. The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Rhein, Phillip H. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne, 1989.