The Struggle of Sisyphus: Absurdity and Ethics in the work of Albert Camus
Changing Moral View - The Stranger and The Fall
Kem Stone - July 2006
We have already examined the reasons behind the enormous difficulty of justifying an ethical claim without
appealing to religious doctrine. If morality is not dictated by a divine power, then who is to say what is right and
what is wrong? One may be able to appeal to the interests of society, but Camus’ primary concern is with the
individual human being rather than human beings as a whole. He does not want to claim that the interests of a
society takes precedence over the interests of an individual because he believes there are many instances in which
society is wrong. But without appealing to divine law or social contract, what justification can he have for
endorsing one point of view over another?
Despite his talent for raising intriguing ethical questions, Camus never really gives definitive answers to these
questions, and his entire ethical outlook undergoes some drastic changes throughout his career. Between the
publication of his first novel The Stranger in 1942 and his last novel The Fall in 1956, many key elements of
Camus’ perspective change completely. Though he always maintains the view that life is essentially absurd and
morality comes from human beings rather than God, his mind changes about how we as human beings ought to
live in this absurd world.
Camus first examines the ethical implications of an absurd existence in The Stranger, one of the most widely read
and influential books of the twentieth century. Written in short, self-contained sentences to give the text more of
an absurd quality, The Stranger is told from the perspective of Meursault, a young man living in Algiers. From
the very beginning we can see that this is a peculiar man. In the opening line of the novel, the narrator mentions
the death of his mother, but expresses more concern with remembering which day it actually happened than his
emotions regarding it. It would seem that Meursault either has no emotions, or emotions very different than those
The first section of the novel describes a period of five days during which we learn about Meursault and his
eccentricities. The essential aspect of his personality is his complete lack of concern with matters that people
normally find important. One of the clearest examples comes through a conversation with his girlfriend:
That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said it didn’t make
any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I
answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t
love her. ‘So why marry me, then?’ she said. I explained to her that it didn’t really matter and that if
she wanted to, we could get married….Then she pointed out that marriage was a serious thing. I
said, ‘No.’ (Camus, Stranger, 41)
It seems that nothing is important to Meursault, even the way he lives his own life. In making decisions he does
not look for the right path but merely the path of least resistance, and most of the circumstances in his life are
controlled by chance.
It is by chance that he meets Raymond, who gets him involved in a conflict which leads to Meursault’s killing of an
Arab on the beach at the end of the first section. No clear reason is ever given in the narrative for why Meursault
shoots the Arab; the only explanation offered is the overwhelming heat of the sun. In Part Two, Meursault is tried
and convicted of the crime, but his conviction has more to do with his personality than with his crime. Most of the
philosophical content is found in the find chapter, in which Meursault, awaiting his execution, is provoked by the
prison chaplain’s attempts to convert him.
Who is Meursault supposed to represent? He is clearly not a representation of the average human being, and
indeed it almost seems that no such person could really exist. In fact, he is the embodiement of the absurd as
Camus envisions the concept in The Myth of Sisyphus.
What, in fact, is the Absurd Man? He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal. Not that
nostalgia is foreign to him. But he prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live
without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his
temporally limited freedom, of his revolt devoid of future, and of his mortal consciousness, he lives
out his adventure within the span of his lifetime. That is his field, that is his action, which he shields
from any judgment but his own. A greater life for him cannot mean another life. (Camus, Myth, 49)
Meursault is the absurd hero, living only from moment to moment and performing only the basic functions of life.
The past and the future do not matter to him. He is not concerned with an afterlife, and has no interest in God. It
may be that life is important to him, but it makes no difference to him how one lives.
These are Meursault’s views, which do not represent the views of Camus. If Camus did not think that how one
lives is important, he would not have devoted so much energy struggling with ethical dilemmas. The message is
not in Meursault himself but in how the rest of the world reacts to him. “The stranger he wants to portray is
precisely one of those terrible innocents who chock society by not accepting the rules of its game” (Sartre, CCE,
111). By having him sentenced to death, Camus makes a political point; the only solution society has for such a
person is to get rid of him.
Meursault represents a real threat. Although he is certainly neither a hardened criminal nor the
Antichrist, he is an incarnation of the absurd hero. What is ‘monstrous’ about this man is not his
propensity to commit crimes or do evil; it is, rather, his indifference to the hopes, faith, and ideals by
which most people live. By not caring about God, his own future, or what respectable people think
about him, Meursault has become a dangerous man, a rebel. (Kamber, 35)
It is clear that Camus is not advocating Meursault’s way of thought. Camus does not want us to give up our
values and live with indifference toward the world, but rather for us to accept the indifference of the world toward
us and our values. In confronting the absurd, we should not immediately dismiss it because it threatens our
values. It only forces us to see that our values come only from ourselves.
Camus makes the same point fourteen years later in his last completed novel, The Fall, but in a very different way
and with a different overall ethical outlook. The narrative is in the form of a one-sided conversation between the
narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, and an anonymous man he meets in a bar in Amsterdam. Clamence calls
himself a “judge-penitent” but does not reveal the nature of this title until the final chapter of the book. Except for
an occasional change in setting, nothing happens in the novel other than Clamence’s account of his life and his
thoughts regarding it. We learn that he had been a successful lawyer in Paris until something happened which
caused him to give up his former life and become a judge-penitent in Amsterdam.
In Paris, Clamence had built himself an image as a champion of those in need by defending clients he saw as
“noble” criminals. Well-known and respected for his chivalrousness and generosity, he had always done his best
to help others whenever possible. However, he is not hesitant to reveal that all of his “selfless” acts were actually
motivated by selfishness, as a means of raising himself above others to grander heights.
My profession satisfied most happily that vocation for summits. It cleansed me of all bitterness
toward my neighbour, whom I always obligated without ever owing him anything. It set me above
the judge whom I judged in turn, above the defendant whom I forced to gratitude. Just weigh this,
cher monsieur, I lived with impunity. (Camus, Fall, 25)
Despite being perfectly aware of his selfishness, Clamence makes no attempt to overcome it. Yet the defining
incident of his life is one in which his own selfishness horrifies him. He describes seeing a woman on a bridge
while walking the streets of Paris late one night and then hearing her fall into the water. Instead of diving in to save
her or call for help, he walks away and tells nobody. He resumes his normal life but some years later hears
laughter behind him in the streets and is unable to tell where it is coming from. He forms the idea that others are
laughing at him because they know he is not who he pretends to be. From then on he is haunted by the laughter
and obsessed with the notions of judgment and forgiveness. The rest of Clamence’s life is spent trying to escape
the laughter, and he does so by inventing and assuming the role of judge-penitent. Clamence sees the self-created
occupation of judge-penitent as a necessity that arises out of two aspects of absurdity: death and freedom.
Clamence has become convinced that one cannot die without confessing all of one’s sins. “Otherwise, were there
but one lie hidden in a life, death made it definitive” (Camus, Fall, 90). This is an expression of Sartre’s belief that
a man sacrifices his identity to others at the moment he dies. A man ceases to exist as he sees himself and exists
solely as others see him. If a man lives his entire life pretending to be someone else and dies without telling
anyone, he ceases to exist. Because there is no God to know the truth, and nobody has any awareness of the
person he really was, only the person he had pretended to be continues to exist in some form. Clamence had
been afraid that this was the fate in store for him.
A much more difficult problem for Clamence is freedom. Like death, his view of freedom is also related to Sartre’
s in that there is no determinism, and human beings are free to act however they choose in any situation. The only
limiting factors are the physical laws of the universe, one’s body, one’s past, and the will of others. Sartre
believes that freedom causes anguish because we cannot escape the need to make decisions. Clamence admits
that he used to celebrate freedom, but has since changed his mind.
I didn’t know that freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne….It’s
a chore, on the contrary, and a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting….Alone in a
forbidding room, alone in the prisoner’s box before the judges, and alone to decide in face of oneself
or in the face of other’s judgment. At the end of all freedom is a court sentence; that’s why freedom
is too heavy to bear, especially when you’re down with a fever, or are distressed, or love nobody.
(Camus, Fall, 133)
Because humans have free will, it means we are responsible for all of our actions. With responsibility comes guilt,
and Clamence has much to feel guilty about. Anguished by his freedom and frightened by his awareness of death,
Clamence finds a solution to both problems by becoming a judge-penitent.
What he does is hang around a seedy bar in Amsterdam looking for intelligent people who may serve his
purposes. He talks to them for days and confesses everything about himself, reveals to them all of his vices and
misdeeds, then waits for them to do the same. This serves to alleviate Clamence’s worries about death. By
letting others know the truth about himself, he no longer needs to worry about any of his lies being made
definitive. One the other hand, the burden of freedom and the guilt we possess as a result of it can never be
eliminated, although it can be lightened. Judgment can not be escaped but it can be shared:
Is not the great thing that stands in the way of our escaping it [judgment] the fact that we are the first
to condemn ourselves? Therefore it is essential to begin by extending the condemnation to all,
without distinction, in order to thin it out at the start. (Camus, Fall, 131)
In confessing he is not asking for forgiveness, nor is he offering it. He is concerned only with understanding. He
wants people to understand that they are not different from him. By judging himself he forces others to judge
themselves, thus spreading the burden of freedom and alleviating his guilt.