Existentialist Principles Embodied Through The Protagonists

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Both Albert Camus' The Outsider and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis address prevalent issues in the field of existentialism. Existentialism is concerned about redirecting philosophy toward the simpler, humanist questions about existence: eschewing the objective reality of scientific philosophy concerned about the "big" questions, existentialism sought to re-introduce a human philosophy; in the words of Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus: "Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy" [1] . The great difficulties experienced by humanity during the Second World War, in many ways pre-empted this crisis of worth and the birth of concerns over existence itself. Existentialist philosophers are keen to explore words such as "alienation", "despair", "indifference" and "absurdity", noting that, without the underpinnings of a grand scheme or religious system to define humanity, life is in itself absurd. Camus stresses that life is absurd. In the words of Steven Earnshaw: "Camus asks for permanent personal revolt. By this he means that we must live the absurd, and to live fully is to accept the absurd, it is to accept that there is no meaning" [2] . Similarly, read metaphorically, Kafka's Metamorphosis is concerned with similar issues of despair and alienation in the face of being human; Gregor Samsa is in fact so alienated from his own humanity that he actually ceases to be human, but is still prisoner to the anxieties that plague the human being.

"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday" [3] .

The opening of Camus' novel sets the scene for the rest of the novel, which is about how Meursault is eventually condemned to death for his indifference toward 'playing the game'. This indifference is highlighted in this quotation which immediately sets the scene for Meursault's existentialist position: he cares not about his mother's death, and instead is concerned about the specific time of the death. This subversion of expectation that Meursault should be more concerned about mortality rather than the arrival of the letter that tells him of the death highlights the absurdities of living. It also immediately sets out to humanize Meursault's concerns; he is concerned about the time when the letter arrived rather than the more universal tragedy of a loved one's death. This position is automatically seen as subversive; in the context of the Second World War's recent occurrence, the absurdity of a fear of death (being one of the chief components of an existentialist philosophy concerned, in Camus' world, with whether suicide is valid) was well developed. As such, Meursault is subversive to the bourgeois tradition of adhering to social norms and, ultimately, is condemned for his indifference to them.

"One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been transformed into a monstrous verminous bug.


Gregor's glance then turned to the window. The dreary weather made him quite melancholy. 'Why don't I keep sleeping for a little while longer and forget all this foolishness?,' he thought. But this was entirely practical, for he was used to sleeping on his right side, and in his present state he could not get himself into this position." [4] 

Similar to Camus, Kafka's initial gambit combines the profound with a focus upon the relatively mundane, thus drawing attention to what the quandaries of man are in comparison to the extraordinary events that have occurred within the narrative of the story. Despite being transformed into a repulsive insect, Gregor Samsa is more concerned about his sleeplessness, about the rain outside, and about failing to meet his train connections; as such, he his alienated from his own condition through the demands and the structures of the society in which he is positioned: this echoes the existentialist concern with the self, in which existence (what one does) precedes essence (what one is). Samsa's concerns with his job in the face of the horror of being transformed into an insect is both absurdist, tragic and comedic in tone: the juxtaposition of the horrific and the banal is the linchpin upon which the dramatic narrative of the story unfolds: "'O God,' he thought, 'What a demanding job I've chosen! Day in, day out on the road" [5] . This highlights Kafka's proto-existentialist concern about the banality of everyday existence in the face of a trauma that is, in many ways, impossible to fully articulate.

Both Kafka and Camus are concerned about their respective society's reaction to the transgression; in Camus's novel the transgression is Meursault's indifference to his mother's death, whereas in Kafka's prose, the concern is about his transformation into an insect: in both instances, however, society chooses to kill the protagonist for their perceived crimes against the sensibilities of the age. In Camus' novel, Meursault's crime is one of indifference: he ultimately refuses to play the game of pretending to be affected by his mother's death: "Has he even expressed any regrets? Never, gentlemen. Not once in front of the examining magistrate did he show any emotion with regard to his abominable crime." [6] Camus is careful here to ensure that we are not left certain about the exact nature of his crime, and whether the prosecutor is referring to the murder of the Arab, or the crime of indifference toward the death of his mother. In the eyes of the society and the justice system portrayed by Camus, both are essentially the same thing. This echoes Meursault's existential position, where it is not the act that is being tried, but the man himself: in Camus's afterword, he extrapolates his central position, namely that Meursault "refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn't true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels." [7] Naturally, this refusal to lie about his basic position places him in the position of being an existential anti-hero, and by stressing the position that all men have to lie in order to survive in a society places emphasis upon the prescient notion in existential philosophy that society condemns the man who doesn't play the game. The treatment of society as a game, and the treatment of outcasts less as criminals, but more as purveyors of truth reverses the usual lines down which society is defined.

Kafka is also condemning of the bourgeois values of the society that surround him, who are more concerned about the use-value (to use Marxist terminology) of Samsa rather than his humanity. Eventually he is killed for being without use, and, Kafka argues with a masterful degree of subtlety, that a society in which anybody has no existential use is eventually ostracised and forced to live on the margins: the gradual encroachment of ignorance toward Samsa is both deeply tragic and, in the tenets of existentialism, completely true: because people are defined by their existential, rather than their essential presence in society, Samsa's exemption from society as an outcast seems inevitable. Again, Gregor's own views are espoused, and it is the human, introspective elements of his humanity that are drawn attention to rather than the objective concerns of society: "the sister, shaken by her crying fit, pounded on the table with her tiny fists, and Gregor hissed at all this, angry that no-one had thought of shutting the door and sparing him the sight of this commotion" [8] Of course, here Gregor's alienation from society is developed into a need for him to construct his own reality based upon the conditions in which he finds himself: instead of showing concern about him being left out of discussions, he is instead concerned about not having to witness these things from afar; the focus is therefore placed on Gregor's extraordinary position, and as such is reflective of his compounding of his own alienation rather than of his essential desire to be a part of a society in which he feels ostracised.

Overall, both Camus and Kafka reflect the existentialist position in slightly different ways. Camus is concerned about what happens to a character when he fails to lie about his own heart: in essence, he subverts the principle that the essence of man is to feel certain universal things: because he should have an emotional response toward his mother's death, or at least should pretend that he does so, he is condemned to death himself and treated as a monster. Of course, the question is left hanging in Camus's work as to whether society is monstrous or Meursault himself is. However, as Camus stresses, his condemnation comes as a result of his inability to lie; as such, Meursault's position is precisely the position that existentialist philosophy suggests that all human beings have. In a more spectacular sense, Kafka, by utilising the supernatural, and then attacking this in societal, realist terms, attacks the same existential principles; as existence (or use-value) precedes essence (basic, objective values, standards of decency et al.), Meusault and Samsa are condemned for failing to adequately demonstrate their societal use.