Existentialism in Camus and Kafka
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Albert Camus’ The Outsider, both feature protagonists in situations out of which arise existentialist values. Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts. In The Metamorphosis the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, realizes his existentialism towards the end of the novella.
In contrast, Monsieur Meursault, the protagonist in The Outsider, knows of his existentialism, only realizing his life’s lack of meaning moments after he is sentenced to death.
Despite the somewhat absurd nature of The Metamorphosis, and the realistic nature of The Outsider, similar values are communicated to the reader. The easiest to pick out being that it is up to the individual to create his/her own life, and that the inhuman behaviour presented by both protagonists will eventually lead to very bad things; namely death in both novellas.
These deaths are, however, very different, as are the methods through which Kafka and Camus have made each novel nothing but `a philosophy put into images’. Meursault (the narrator) in The Stranger only sees and only wants to see the absolute truth in society. The reader’s first encounter with him… Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. ” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday. … immediately gives an impression of a lack of emotion towards the demise of his mother.
This lack of emotion highlights the existentialist ideal that we all die, so it doesn’t matter what life we have while we are alive. We simply exist, as did Meursault. It becomes apparent, as the novella unfolds, that Meursault has acquired an animal like indifference towards society. His interactions with his neighbour Raymond are an example of his indifferences. It never dawns upon Meursault that society does not condone his interactions with the pimp, avoided by his community. Meursault simply acts to fill his time.
Being a single man, he has a lot of time to fill, and finds the weekends passing particularly slowly. While the scene passes slowly before Meursault, Camus’ text flows quickly. He uses short sharp sentences to convey an atmosphere devoid of emotion or feeling. This is especially effective between pages 21 and 24, at the end of chapter two, when Meursault is giving a descriptive narrative of the life outside his window on a typical Sunday. He ends the chapter saying `… one more Sunday was over… nothing had changed. ‘ Existentialism is present in nearly all of Meursault’s interactions with society.
One such piece of evidence supporting Meursault’s existentialism is his interaction with Marie. His association is merely sexual and physical. Meursault uses Marie to help him pass his time: he spends an entire Saturday with her. When questioned about love and marriage, Meursault’s replies show indifference through their nothingness. Meursault is existentialist to the extent that he couldn’t care less about the path his life (or lack of one) takes. The reader is constantly bombarded with short phrases revealing ever more Meursault’s worthless outlook on a worthless existence.
Examples of this come in the form of Meursault confining himself to only one room in his apartment, his ignorance to social expectations, his mindless identification with old Salamano and his dog, and most importantly his disregard for human life and the consequences for the removal of it. As mentioned in the above definition of existentialism, it stresses the responsibility for ones own actions. When Meursault comes to trial for killing the Arab, he finally realises that he can’t take the responsibility. This is the main turning point as far as existentialism is concerned in The Outsider.
Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is equally as philosophical. The novella is written as a metaphor, with a very strong sense of vivid realism. The metaphor is for any situation in which someone tries to break free form a social norm, only to fall; failing to convince the society that his/her action is just. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, brought society against him when he questioned his life as a travelling salesperson. Social expectations had put him in his place, but he decided, although the reader may assume quite subconsciously, that it was not the place for him.
His wish to remove all social burdens from his shoulders is first illustrated to him through his transformation into a `monstrous vermin. ‘ The protagonist was the narrator in The Outsider, a man who told the story of his demise from existentialism, only to find he needed a life just before his chances were taken away. The Metamorphosis, on the other hand, is narrated on the third person, where the reader receives an unbiased view of Gregor Samsa’s attempts to become existentialist.
Where Camus used short `to the point’ statements to show existentialism, Kafka has filled his novella with colourful descriptive literal language, in an attempt to point out the depth in any situation, such as Gregor’s many squirming legs, his visualisation of his room becoming ever smaller and ever more bland, and the descriptive nature with which the fatal apple becomes lodged in Gregor’s back and eventually allows him to die. The Outsider’s Meursault is existentialist, finding a need for a meaning to life only when his is about to be taken.
In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, on the other hand, has a meaning to his life, and wishes it away. The gradual move towards existentialism in Kafka’s novella runs throughout, from the moment Gregor wakes up as a bug; until the moment he breaths no more. Gregor shows that he knows his life has meaning when at the beginning of the novella he is more concerned about how he will fulfil his social purpose than what he will do about being a bug. Albert Camus said that `we get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.
In that race which daily hastens us towards death, the body maintains its irreparable lead. ?In The Metamorphosis, Gregor thinks about his position, throwing his body into dismay, eventually leading to his death. As Gregor is further shunned by society for not conforming, represented in the novella quite dramatically by Gregor being a dung beetle among humans, he starts to forget any shred of meaning his life can have. He searches beyond his room for a meaning to life, but the further he ponders, the harder society hits him.
`You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. ?Gregor realized his existentialism taking him over, as he gave his life to the destiny he had for it created. Having read both novellas, a reader could come to the conclusion that both feature a definite theme of existentialism, while The Outsider is centred on a protagonist who recognises the need to change from existentialism, and The Metamorphosis around one that recognises existentialism’s presence in society.
At the end of each, the protagonist either dies or is awaiting death. The deaths are brought about by a destiny the Meursault thought he couldn’t change, and Gregor brought upon himself. Meursault realised too late that he wouldn’t be able to take responsibility for his actions. It was only when he was forced by the trial to delve into his memory (something that he had little use for as an existentialist) that he recognised how he had shaped his own end. Life did have meaning to him then, and his was: … only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
Gregor Samsa allowed his life to end upon realising that he was free from society, but also that existentialism rendered him useless. Before his death, his `indifference to everything was much too deep for him to have gotten on his back and scrubbed himself clean… ?From Gregor’s point of view, Franz Kafka was correct in saying `A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die. ‘ The end of The Outsider sees a man ready to start again, but ready too late.
The conclusion of The Metamorphosis, however, serves not only to allow the Samsa family a chance to start again, but also to highlight that even following Gregor’s horrific ordeal his family will put Gregor’s sister through the same process that lead Gregor to his death. Gregor’s sister’s life is given a meaning, and the reader often hopes that she recognises it and respects it. The Metamorphosis highlights that one must engage in social interaction to have a meaning in life, while portraying the grim hopelessness of a life determined by social interaction.
The Outsider, on the other hand, follows an idea that quietly not conforming will only hurt oneself. An existentialist might argue that to hurt oneself would not matter, in hurting oneself (especially the way in which Meursault did by killing the Arab); one is giving one’s life a meaning. Even if that meaning is sufferance, the agony will still end one day, as it is destined to, removing all meaning from all life. The two novellas give an honest outline of existentialism, and give, in both cases, existentialism the negative property that it leads to death.
The authors were both highly regarded by their respective peers. Camus was existentialist, and Camus referred to Kafka as an absurdist-existentialist. Both have produced works bringing to light the grim reality of existentialism, yet neither has created an advertisement for it. It could even be said that the novellas where written to give meaning to the lives of the authors, and to stop society taking the roads of the protagonists. After all, who wants their indifference to change only when they’re threatened with lawful murder? And who wants to die a worthless bug? words:1668.
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