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This assignment intends to do a comparative study of the theme of existentialism in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis and Albert Camus' The Stranger. .Both the protagonists in the concerned books undergo certain situations in life forcing them to take Existentialist view.
Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes on the isolation of individual in an indifferent world, it terms human existence as unexplainable and there is no higher meaning to human's existence to the universe. Existentialists have no objectives, no rational basis for their decisions. All they stress upon is the importance of individualism while deciding on questions of truth and morality. Existentialism has many themes but the most important of theme is the freedom of choice, the other themes are anxiety, absurdity, nothingness and focus on concrete existence.
Franz Kafka's “The Metamorphosis”, and Albert Camus' “The Stranger” both have common theme i.e. existentialism. “The metamorphosis” and “The Stranger” both feature protagonists- Meursault and Gregor Samsa respectively, who are existentialist in nature. In The Metamorphosis the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, realizes his existentialism view towards the world at the end of the novel. In contrast, Monsieur Meursault, the protagonist in The Stranger, knows of his existentialist view of the world from the beginning of the novel and he dies knowing this. The state of meaninglessness which the protagonists feel eventually leads them to freedom i.e. by ‘death'.
The protagonist Gregor samsa is quite existential in nature. For him his work leads him from dehumanization to death, and Death is another existential theme. Gregor samsa works as a salesman; he does not like his job but he works hard, making his job his life. He works to remove the burden of debt which his father owes to his boss. He gets up at 4 am every morning to travel different places to sell products, and he doesn't have time or the opportunity to make lasting friendships or relationships. He is just too busy in his work. He doesn't talk with his family member also and has no social life. One day when he gets up he finds himself as a bug. Still he keeps on thinking about how he is going to go to work and not how it happened or what he can do about it. Kafka uses the existential idea that “man's fate is sometimes beyond man's control.” In Gregor samsa's case his destiny rule's his life. He could not control his metamorphosis as his fate is not in his control. But certainly his fate was somewhat decided by him as he was a recluse which might have turned him into a vermin. A human needs humankind in order to be alive. After turning into a bug, Gregor was completely an outsider, his family members abandoned him.
Gregor's world lacked rationality and meaning. Gregor's only mean of living which was his job which was now gone due to his transformation. His only objective of life which was to help his family was also gone. His life was completely meaningless. As Jean-Paul Sartre said that ‘Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of Weakness, and dies by chance'. This meaningless life is what Gregor is victim to. As Albert Camus says ‘Human relationships always help us to carry on because they always presuppose further developments, a future- and also because we live as if our only task was precisely to have relationships with other people'. What Gregor actually needed was meaning through human relations which he failed making in his life time. Everyone must devise Meaning for one's own existence. As Gregor failed to find the meaning of his existence, the only solution to his life was to wait for his death. Death is the ultimate truth. Kafka says, ‘A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die', this is completely true from Gregor's point of view.
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know.That doesn't meanAnything. Maybe it was yesterday.” (Camus, 03)
From the above lines we can clearly notice that Meursault didn't show any feeling or emotions towards the death of his mother.He was more concerned about the time of death of his mother rather than the thought that he has lost his mother. His lack of emotions conveys the existential ideal that “that we all are going to die, so it doesn't matter what life we have or we are while we are alive”. Furthermore, he didn't cry or mourn at his mother's funeral and didn't behave in which society expected him to behave. This clearly shows that he is unmoved and unaffected by the world around and he accepts life and death without seeking any deeper meaning.
Meursault relations with Marie and Raymond are another example of his indifference to the world.
“He asked me again if I wanted to be pals. ... I said it was fine with me: he seemed pleased.” (Camus, 29)
His relations with Marie were just sexual and physical; there was no emotional tie between them.
“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.” (Camus, 41)
He just believed on concrete physical things that he could touch. He didn't believe in abstract things like love for Marie or sorrow for his mother death. This portrays the existentialist ideal, “Existentialist thinkers focus on the question of concrete human existence and the conditions of this existence rather than hypothesizing a human essence.”
Meursault is a character who is amoral and who believes that life is absurd and meaningless and it has no purpose. The murder of Arab by Meursault is yet another example of existentialism in the text. When Meursault meets the Arab, the Arab holds his knife and holds it up to Meursault. But this is not what seems to truly bother him, but it is the intense heat from the sun that irritates him and brings anxiety in him.
“My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver” (Camus, 59)
Meursault's action has no conscious motive in killing the Arab but he kills him just due to physical discomfort.
Meursault was detached and atheist. In jail, everyone is shocked by his behavior and actions. Meursault doesn't feel guilty about what he had done. When he was told to put faith in god by the magistrate, he replied that he doesn't believe in god. At the end of the book Meursault says
"I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world" (Camus, 122).
By this he delimns that he is giving up his caring nature and is becoming as indifferent as the rest of the world. But the implications of the line is much greater than this, it actually suggests that our existence has no intrinsic meaning; world is meaninglessness and you have to find a meaning to live in a world. The last implicit meaning is the death is the ultimate truth. Death is inevitable, and whether you die young or live and die of old age doesn't matter. With this thought in his mind Meursault is happy to die and he only hopes that there are lot of people to greet him with cries of hate.
Both the texts in the context of the theme of existentialism then seem to paint a very painful and un-livable picture of life. The rejection of human society, and the meaning accredited to human existence seems to also portray a very pessimistic view of life. The text then seems to be implicitly raising a question as to why does the world continue to exist and why doesn't everyone commit suicide? On yet another plane a reader may also want to reject existentialist view of life as a very constricting one. Life is not so bad after all.
Albert Camus, 1946. The Stranger. Unites States of America: Vintage International.