Absurdity in Kafka’s “The Trial” and Camus’ “The Stranger” Research Paper
‘The Trial’ by F. Kafka and ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus are must-read novels whose main idea revolves around the absurdity of man’s existence and the universe in which he exists. To illustrate this notion, the authors offer persuasive accounts that provide the readers with a deeper insight into the absurdity of life in the context of human existence and the meaning of life.
The Stranger by Albert Camus is a novel about a man named Meursault who is unable to outdo the absurdity of his daily existence in a peculiar world that is indifferent in terms of struggles by its human habitats. By forcing his absurd outlooks and visions about the meaning of life to the universe, the stranger is seen to be in a revolt with the universe. This rebellion leads to his eventual execution by the trial.
By carefully selecting the characters in the novel, Camus can develop a philosophy of absurdity by illustrating that the universe is marred with absurdity as demonstrated by the absurdist opinions of the protagonist, the judge, the jury, and the prosecution. Therefore, the events and characters represented in the story accurately define absurdity by illustrating its role in the universe, its significance, and its relationship with human existence. The Trial by F. Kafka is a novel about a man named Joseph who witnesses an absurd form of justice based on the lack of logic in the legal system that arrests and executes him.
According to Kafka, all persons are guilty of something. However, the absurdity of the justice system is that its punishments are not directly proportional to sin. In the novel, Kafka tries to unveil the absurdity surrounding the protagonist’s guilt and arrest in terms of the omissions and contradictions that follow his arrest and execution. This paper presents instances that demonstrate absurdity in the two novels.
Examples and Proofs of Absurdity
The absurdity of Meursault’s Actions in ‘The Stranger’
The opening lines in Camus “Maman died today…Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from home. ‘Mother is deceased. The funeral is tomorrow…Faithfully yours’…That does not mean anything…Maybe it was yesterday” (4) illustrate Meursault’s absurdity through his peculiar outlook of life as it is exemplified by his indifference and emotionless attitude towards his mother’s death. Meursault is uninterested and unaware of the day his mother passed on. He declares that such a notion means nothing to him. According to Camus, the society in which the narration is based on expects a man to cry at his mother’s funeral (1).
Therefore, Meursault who fails to adhere to this norm is automatically condemned to decapitation. Moreover, the novel demonstrates the protagonist’s isolation from the rest of society. The novel depicts the protagonist’s indifference towards his mother’s friends who were at the funeral, thus further displaying Meursault’s absurdity (Gnanasekaran 75).
The condemnation of Meursault is absurdly obvious since he does not play society’s game. For instance, he chooses to be truthful throughout the whole trial, something that costs him his life. Therefore, through the protagonist’s absurdity of being truthful to the police and the court, despite his knowledge that such an approach would get him killed, Camus portrays the main character as his existential absurd hero. Camus provides no sensible reason for the commission of the crime by Meursault (Just 897). Therefore, the killing of the Arab by the main character can only be regarded as one meddled with absurdity.
Paradoxically, at one point, the author indicates that the main character intended to shoot and kill the Arab. However, in the same scene, the author contradicts such a notion by demonstrating that the shooting of the Arab was not of the protagonist’s will but an act that resulted from him being nervous and horrified to the level of causing him to stiffen his grasp to wound the Arab. For instance, Meursault says, “I looked at him in the eye, felt the revolver in my hand and lifted it to his face which twisted in horror. I pulled the trigger and shot him dead” (Lea 3). This first example demonstrates the protagonist’s intention to fire and execute the Arab. However, Camus contradicts this case in the following example:
“The sun was shining directly in my eyes blinding me. There was a noise as if someone had opened the door and was walking into the room. I stuck out my arm to stop whoever had entered from walking into me but my hand had knocked against a heavy object on the shelf. A loud bang filled the room…I had knocked Raymond’s gun to the floor and the impact it had discharged, shooting the Arab” (Lea 3).
Contrary to the first example, this second excerpt demonstrates that Meursault killed the Arab by accident. It would be inaccurate to assert that he fired the gun. All he did was to knock it to the ground (Gnanasekaran 84). The capital offense committed by Meursault is unreal and absurd. He shoots the Arab, despite him (the Arab) being innocent of murder, as portrayed in the second example.
Moreover, from his trial, the reader finds that he is condemned to death, not because of the accusations leveled against him, of killing a fellow man, but because of not grieving at his mother’s funeral. Camus intends to portray the protagonist as an existential hero by swaying the reader from the absurd murder. He directs the reader’s attention to the ridiculous reason for his condemnation to death – his absurdity, which conflicts with the society’s way of living (Gnanasekaran 84).
The Absurdity of Irony as used in ‘The Stranger’
Camus has used the technique of irony to convey the absurdity of ideology and behavior as portrayed during Meursault’s trial. As Rossi reveals, the entire trial is muddled with ironical phrases and circumstances that qualify it to be a parody of absurdity (399). In the first place, Meursault is arrested for shooting and killing the Arab. However, Meursault’s trial fails to try him for the commission of murder, as it would be expected.
Ironically and absurdly, the jury, the prosecutor, and most of the society represented in the context of the novel are more interested in his incongruous actions and existential beliefs and sentiments, rather than his offense. This case demonstrates the lack of impartiality or justice in the whole trial. Moreover, Camus uses Meursault’s lawyer to acknowledge a great deal of absurdity throughout the trial when he enquires whether his customer is being examined for having buried his maternal parent or for murdering a male person (Payne 36).
During the trial in prison, Meursault is seen to make several ironical statements. His statements are sarcastic in the sense that they are about the occurrences that will transpire, but which are illogical in the entire situation. For instance, Meursault says, “I realized that this cell was my last home, a dead end, so to speak; after all, it would be a shocking thing for the court to be trying the wrong man” (Payne 36). Camus uses such statements through the main character to demonstrate the irony and absurdity of the society and justice system during his time.
Camus’ use of the phrase “the brilliant sunshine day” (Payne 36) conveys the time of starting the trial as that conveying optimism and hope is ironic and bizarre. Meursault is expected to be sentenced to death for his absurd character that existed long before he committed the offense of killing the Arab. While in prison, Meursault asserts irony in his imprisonment by saying, “this aversion of prison has no real substance” (Payne 37).
This statement illustrates his lack of understanding of the purpose of prison as that of reforming someone. His imprisonment has no real impact on his existential philosophy of life. As a result, it strengthens his absurd sentiments. Thus, his imprisonment is one that is characterized by absurdity (Payne 37). Another obvious irony within the scope of the novel involves representing Meursault as a murderer of life. In a paradox, Meursault is a representation of the desire for life by man. Meursault is represented as lacking any genuine concern for his victim’s death, yet his desire to live is to be cut short by the universe. This paradoxical idea is not only ironic but also absurd (Payne 37).
The absurdity of irony is also illustrated through Meursault’s revolt against the society and/or universe. In this context, Camus displays the lack of tranquility and happiness in Meursault in his homeland or universe when he says, “happy silence in the tranquil homeland of the universe” (Payne 37).
This case leaves death to be the only answer that can allow Meursault to represent ‘man’ in a universe that is muddled with absurdity. Ironically, when man riots against his universe, as seen by Meursault, he cannot obtain happiness, unless he accepts to live according to the norms of his absurd world, which ironically would only leave him hopeless. According to Camus, rebelling is only but a natural state of a man living in an absurd universe (12). As a result, Camus indicates that due to man’s revolt against his universe, he can attain neither happiness nor peace but may only survive it (Payne 38).
The absurdity of Joseph’s Guilt and Arrest in ‘The Trial’
According to Pinsker, The Trial can be viewed as a figurative depiction of the author’s recognition of the insensible world, which is seen to indict, test, and denounce his rational environment (466). This absurdity of the conscious versus the unconscious occurs when the protagonist experiences condemnatory accusations by his inner voice as represented by Franz, the police officer. Franz’s statement, “you are under arrest, certainly but that need not hinder you from going about your business. You won’t be hampered in carrying on the ordinary course of life” (Azizmohammadi, Kohzadi, and Makki 1262) is an indication that the law enforcement supervisor is unable to verify that Joseph has been charged with a definite crime. He fails to know whether he is being accused of any particular offense. Peculiarly, Joseph is advised to ignore his intruders or what he is about to face. Instead, he thinks about himself and/or what is about to transpire to him.
In the first chapter, Kafka establishes a correlation of absurdity between Joseph’s conscious state and mysterious forces that emanate from the responsive unconscious state. He says, “In fact, as far as I know, them, as said by one of the warders…one should never go hunting for a crime in the populace, but as the law decrees and draws towards the guilty” (Azizmohammadi, Kohzadi, and Makki 1263).
Such assertions by the warders raise several questions regarding the absurdity of Joseph’s guilt (Pinsker 467). Is he guilty? Is he guilty based on the law? Who is his judge? These queries by the reader are similar to the ones that Joseph asks and endeavors to answer. However, due to the absurd nature surrounding his guilt and the bizarre nature of his arrest, he is unable to arrive at a concrete and reasonable answer (Azizmohammadi, Kohzadi, and Makki 1263).
The omission of the reason for his arrest and/or what he is guilty of is absurd in the sense that it leaves many questions unanswered. To answer this question, Feuerlicht believes that Joseph’s guilt emanates from his existence (342). Thus, his guilt may be religious or trans-ethical about a human’s sinful nature or original sin. This form of existential guilt is absurd to the extent that human existence is characterized by horror, disturbance, prejudice, bad health, and faults with constant intimidation by death to which one’s existence has to face in the end.
Hence, any man should not regard himself as guilty on the mere basis of his existence because his subsistence is not part of his willful act but a chance. No one wills to exist. Thus, in this context, all human beings will be guilty by their existence. Hence, they deserve to be punished. Such kind of guilt will generally be regarded as an absurd idea since everybody in the novel will have to be condemned to death as it happened to Joseph
Another absurd form of guilt that can be suggested and that answers the question of what the protagonist was responsible for is the general guilt. General guilt in the life of Joseph can be seen to emanate from his impersonal existence, rather than his existence. The protagonist’s general guilt can result from his lack of true love, friendship, or other expected human feelings that define man’s existence (Feuerlicht 342).
Therefore, by alienating from real duties, values, pains, and joys, Joseph’s guilt leads to his punishment. Nevertheless, the punishment by death due to lack of friendship or love is absurd since it only implies that the rest of his people in the novel, including the priest, court officials, and judges are full of warmth, love, and friendship. However, these characters are completely cut off from the reality of life to the extent that they deserve to be punished just like Joseph (Feuerlicht 343).
Summary and Conclusion
Absurdity regarding the meaning of life and human existence in the universe has been widely and accurately represented in the novels, ‘The Trial’ by F. Kafka and ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus. In ‘The Stranger’, the reader is introduced to Meursault, the protagonist, whose outlook of life is absurd. In his absurdity, Meursault does not seem to care about the death of his mother as he indicates in the opening lines of the story.
According to the writer, Meursault is absurd since his views on life’s meaning and actions are antagonistic to the universe. The society expects a man to weep during the burial of his maternal parent, instead of taking snacks, some foods, and/or mind-stimulating drugs such as alcohol. Shedding of tears is done as a sign of respect and love that the person had on the deceased. Any person behaving contrary to this norm is deemed to be demonstrating disrespect to the departed soul. Such absurd actions and ideas of the protagonists are seen to be the eventual cause of his execution.
Hence, by fully embracing the absurdity of life, one’s existence is exposed to risk. Absurdly, his execution is not because of his murder but his absurd outlook of life. Also, the trial that provides the final judgment to the protagonist’s case is also absurd. Despite the protagonist being arrested due to his offense of committing murder, his trial is diverted to focus on his past absurd actions and existential sentiments regarding the meaning of life and in particular that of his mother’s death.
The Trial may be viewed as a symbolic representation of absurdity between the conscious and the insensible world. The unconscious world of the main character has been used to condemn the conscious world. This spectacle occurs when the protagonist’s inner voice, as represented by the police officer, condemns him as illustrated through his arrest. His arrest is absurd since the officer who arrests him does not indicate what he is guilty of. Throughout the novel, the reason for his arrest is omitted, hence indicating the absurdity of his guilt and punishment because of his guilt.
Azizmohammadi, Fatemah, HamedrezaKohzadi, and Seyed-Makki. “A Study of Franz Kafka’S The Trial”. Journal of Basic and Applied Scientific Research 2.2 (2012): 1262-1266. Print.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger, New York, 1989. Print.
Feuerlicht, Ignace. “Omissions and Contradictions in Kafka’s Trial.” The German Quarterly 40.3 (1967): 339-350. Print.
Gnanasekaran, Richard. “Psychological Interpretation of the Novel the Stranger by Camus”. International Journal of English Literature and Culture 2.6 (2014): 73-86. Print.
Just, Daniel. “From Guilt to Shame: Albert Camus and Literature’s Ethical Response to Politics.” MLN 125.4 (2010): 895-912. Print.
Lea, Simon. Human Nature and the Absurd in the Stranger, Caligula and Cross Purpose, New York, NY: Wiley, 2010. Print.
Payne, Melissa. Discussion of the Absurd in Albert Camus’ Novels Essays and Journals, 1992. Web.
Pinsker, Sanford. “Guilt as Comic Idea: Franz Kafka and the Postures of American-Jewish Writing.” Journal of Modern Literature 6.3 (1977): 466-471. Print.
Rossi, Louis. “Albert Camus: The Plague of Absurdity.” The Kenyon Review 20.3 (1958): 399-422. Print.
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