The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Changing Moral View - Reasons for Change
Kem Stone - July 2006
Now that we have made this comparison we can conclude that Camus’ ethical outlook does undergo some major
changes between
The Stranger and The Fall.  Before considering what may have influenced these changes, we
must first consider the major influences on Camus’ thinking even before
The Stranger.  We have already
discussed the influence of Christian doctrine.  In studying theologians such as St. Augustine and Pascal Camus
develops a fascination with Christianity, though he ultimately rejects it due to his problems with the concept of
salvation and damnation.  It is disturbing to him that some people should be saved and some damned, and that
God’s judgment seems rather arbitrary.  In his work, he endeavours to “cater to the damned”.  

But his other major influences are writers associated  with existentialism.  Like Kierkegaard, Camus’ primary
concern is with individual human existence.  Like Nietzsche, Camus believes in the lack of any objective good or
evil, and that we must be the creators of our own values.  Like Heidegger, Camus examines the centrality of death
to human experience.  And like Sartre, Camus believes that existence is absurd and devoid of any meaning
outside of those we attach to it ourselves.  These influences are most apparent towards the end of
The Stranger,
when Meursault lashes out against the chaplain and pours out his heart in what is perhaps the most poetic passage
of the novel:

    Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew why….Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark
    wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future…and as it passed, this wind
    levelled whatever was offered to me at the time….What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s
    love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect
    matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him
    who also called themselves my brothers?  (Camus, Stranger, 121)

It is in this passage that we get our only glimpse into Meursault’s outlook on life, one which is undeniably
existential.

The effect of existentialism on Camus is clear, but what conclusions of his can be attributed to it?  “Meursault’s
view can be understood to mean: ‘Because of death’s finality, the way one lives and the choices one makes lack
importance beyond the interests of individual human beings’” (Kamber, 40).  Camus is attempting to show us that
we ought not to regard our moral beliefs as infallible and justified by divine reason.

    All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or
    cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered
    calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons, but there are no
    guilty ones, in its opinion.  (Camus, Myth, 50)

This passage expresses the heart of Camus’ central moral outlook during his absurdist phase, and can arguably
read as the “moral” of
The Stranger.

The “moral” of
The Fall is quite different.  Instead of there being no guilty people, there are only guilty people.  
Camus condemns all of humanity as guilty, saying we are in need of judgment but our primary concern is avoiding
it.  But the only way to truly avoid judgment is to judge one’s self.  “The more I accuse myself, the more I have a
right to judge you.  Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much of the
burden” (Camus,
Fall, 140).  Camus sees himself sharing a burden of guilt with his fellow man which can never be
relieved.  It can only be diluted by confessing to others, and thus extending judgment upon them.

What is the cause of his change in thinking?  How does everyone go from innocent to guilty?  Why is “we ought
not to condemn” replaced by “we ought to be condemned”?  Camus’ purpose in writing
The Fall is clear,
expressed through Clamence himself.  By creating a character who condemns himself, Camus is forcing his
audience to condemn themselves.  But who is he condemning and why?  It is impossible to answer these questions
with any degree of certainty, but a look at the events that took place in Camus’ life during the fourteen years
between the publication of
The Stranger in 1942 and The Fall in 1956 offers a number of possibilities.

As we have seen in our discussion of
Letters to a German Friend and The Rebel, World War II and the Nazi
occupation of France most certainly left an impact on Camus.  As a member of the French resistance, he might
have looked at his fellow Frenchmen who chose not to resist this evil with disdain.  It is easy to see how this may
have lead him to condemning humans as selfish, not
unable to change but unwilling.  Clamence’s failure to save
the drowning woman could represent the failure of the French people to gain enough strength to defeat the Nazis
on their own.

Another possibility is that Clamence is meant to attack his fellow intellectuals by parodying their hypocrisy.  After
his critique of Marxism in
The Rebel, Sartre had written a devastating personal attack on Camus.  The Fall can
be read as Camus’ counter-attack.  But while Sartre’s attack is on philosophical grounds, Camus responds on
literary grounds.  He creates in Clamence a character representing the flaws of the intellectuals.  He is a man
absorbed in his own sense of superiority, and creates an ethical system which he wants to impose upon others.  
He pretends to be acting out of a humanitarian interest when in reality he is only helping himself.  Basically,
Clamence is guilty of every accusation Sartre makes against Camus.  But instead of denying anything, he admits
his own guilt and condemns himself.  If
The Fall is in fact an attack on Sartre, it is sneaky one.  It is Clamence
who reveals the secret of the attack: by slowly shifting the focus of judgment from “I” to “we”, anyone who judges
him is also judging himself.  By condemning a character that represents not only himself but Sartre as well, Camus
makes Sartre guilty of his own accusations.

One final explanation for Camus’ moral outlook in
The Fall is the turmoil that took place in his homeland shortly
before its publication.  In October of 1954, a revolutionary organization by the name of the National Liberation
Front (FLN) began to attack European Algerians.  The French military retaliated in 1955 with a policy of
“collective responsibility”—meaning the indiscriminate bloodshed of anyone even associated with the FLN.  Torn
between his abhorrence of the racism that made second-class citizens of eight million native Algerians and his
disgust with the violence of the FLN, Camus campaigned for a civilian truce that would endorse Algerian authority
within a French federation.  He went to Algeria in search of support, but “when neither side found his views
realistic, he lapsed into silence for two years” (Kamber, 4).  It is easy to see how such events may have lowered
Camus’ opinion of people as a whole.  Even if they were not the
source of his conviction that all men are guilty, it
is likely to have supported it.  It is also quite possible that Camus’ inability to help resolve this conflict may have
been behind some of Clamence’s guilt.

Whatever the influences may have been,
The Fall certainly paints a very grim picture of humanity.  But Camus’
message is not merely that we are all horrible people.  As a moralist, the purpose behind Camus’ writing is to
influence people to behave a certain way.  In
The Fall he takes three steps to deliver his message.  First, by
condemning the selfishness of Clamence, particularly in regards to his neglect of the drowning woman, he is
claiming we ought not to be selfish and that we ought to always act to prevent a great tragedy.  Second, by
confronting us with Clamence’s extreme selfishness in order to make us recognize our own, we can see that
Camus wants us to recognize that we are selfish.  Finally, once we have accepted that it is wrong to be selfish and
we are guilty of selfishness, we are told how we ought to deal with it.

    I was wrong, after all, to tell you that the essential was to avoid judgment.  The essential is being able
    to permit oneself everything, even if, from time to time, one has to profess vociferously one’s own
    infamy.  I permit myself everything again, and without the laughter this time.  I haven’t changed my
    way of life; I continue to love myself and to make use of others.  Only, the confession of my crimes
    allows me to begin again lighter in heart and to taste a double enjoyment, first of my nature and
    secondly of a charming repentance.  (Camus, Fall, 141)

Camus is urging us to be open about our flaws.   In recognizing our guilt we ought to also recognize the guilt of
others.  This can be done by confessing our crimes to fellow men and urging them to do the same, rather than
confessing to a God who may not exist.  Confessing to other people may not earn us
forgiveness—from an
absurdist standpoint this is a rather empty concept—but it will help us achieve
understanding.  And by ending his
novel on an interrogative note (Clamence wonders what he would do if given another chance to save the woman)  
Camus suggest that perhaps through understanding the flaws we all share, we may eventually be able to rise above
them.

Thus we see that the main difference between the novels and the issue over which Camus’ opinions change most
drastically is in regards to the guilt of humanity.  
The Stranger introduces us to a character who is just as empty of
values as the world he lives in, and this is the basis of his innocence.  In
The Fall we have a character who is full
of guilt and condemnation for the rest of humanity whom he believes shares in his guilt.  From the innocent struggle
of the individual struggling to lead a meaningful life in an absurd world we arrive at the condemnation of the self-
serving natures of people within society.  From the condemnation of the empty values imposed by authority we
finally end up with a desperate plea to bring
more values to a world devoid of them.