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Existentialism embodies the philosophy that accentuates the unique isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe. It attempts to give reason to human existence and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Albert Camus' The Stranger, both paint a picture of the protagonists indifference while ultimately reaching a realization on the validity of existentialism. In The Metamorphosis the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, looks to existentialism towards the end of the novella. In contrast, Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger, relies on existentialism, only realizing his life's lack of meaning mere moments after he is sentenced to death. Despite the somewhat absurd nature of The Metamorphosis, and the realistic nature of The Stranger, similar values are communicated to the reader. The most obvious of these values being that it is up to the individual to create his or her own life, and that the inhuman behavior exhibited by both characters will lead to deadly consequences. These deaths are, however, very different, as are the methods through which Kafka and Camus have crafted each novel. Kafka and Camus contrasting styles respectively weave tales filled with indifference and ultimately reveal the redeeming while morbid qualities of existentialism within each work s protagonist.
In The Stranger, Meursault only wants to see the absolute truth in society, Maman 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 (Camus 3). This 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. We simply exist, as does Meursault. It becomes apparent, as the novel unfolds, that Meursault has a large indifference towards society. For example, his interactions with his neighbor Raymond, frowned upon by society, yet Meursault obliviously fraternizes with the man. 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 method is effective in such lines as Meursault s, one more Sunday was over nothing had changed (Camus 24). Existentialism is present in nearly all Meursault's interactions with society. Another example of Meursault's existentialism is in his interactions with Marie, his girlfriend. Their association is almost entirely sexual and physical. Meursault uses Marie to help him pass his time and he spends entire Saturdays with her. When questioned about love and marriage, Meursault's replies strictly show indifference, it [love] didn t mean anything (Camus 35). Meursault is existentialist to such an extent that even love is meaningless. When Meursault comes to trial for killing the Arab, he finally realizes that he can't take the responsibility and this is the main existential turning point in Camus s novel.
The Metamorphosis also has a large amount of philosophical depth. The novella is written as a metaphor, with a very strong sense of vivid realism. This metaphor compares Gregor
to a roach or vermin both literally and physically to criticize society s judgment of those brave enough to attempt individuality. Gregor brought society against him when he questioned, although presumably subconsciously, his life of normalcy as a traveling salesperson. The social burdens he attempts to dispose of are aggressively countered by society through his transformation into a monstrous vermin (Kafka 1). Also, while the protagonist was the narrator in The Stranger, 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 is narrated in the third person, so the reader may acquire an unbiased view of Gregor Samsa's attempts to become existentialist. Where Camus used short, quick statements to show existentialism, Kafka filled his novella with colorful descriptive language, in an attempt to point out the depth of a given situation, such as Gregor s visualization of his room becoming ever smaller and ever more bland, his many squirming legs, and the descriptive nature with which the fatal apple becomes lodged in Gregor's back and eventually aids in his demise.
In The Stranger, Meursault is existentialist, finding a need for a meaning to life only when his is about to be taken. In The Metamorphosis, on the other hand, Gregor Samsa lives a meaningful life and wishes it away. The gradual move towards existentialism in Kafka's novella runs throughout, while Meursault s existentialism is almost instantaneous. Gregor shows that he knows his life has meaning when at the beginning of the novella he is more concerned about how he will fulfill his social purpose than what he will do about being a vermin. Albert Camus once said, 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 vermin among humans, he starts to forget any shred of meaning his life has. He searches beyond his room for a meaning to life, but the further he ponders, the harder society hits him, and this relates to yet another of Camus sayings, 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 and Meursault realized their existentialism taking over them, as they gave their life to the destiny they had created for it.
The Metamorphosis highlights how 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 Stranger, 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 novels give an honest outline of existentialism, and give, in both cases, associate existentialism with the negative property that leads to death. The authors were both highly regarded by their respective peers. Camus was existentialist, and 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 novels 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 are threatened with lawful murder? And who wants to die a worthless vermin?