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Albert Camus and Kurt Vonnegut’s Portrayal of Existentialism

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International Baccalaureate Extended Essay

How are Albert Camus and Kurt Vonnegut both similar and different in portraying existentialism in their novels ‘The Outsider’ and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five?

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION 3

BACKGROUND 3

CONTEXT ON ‘THE OUTSIDER’ BY ALBERT CAMUS 3

CONTEXT ON ‘SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE’ BY KURT VONNEGUT 3

MAIN BODY 4

THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF EXISTENCE 4

THE IRRATIONALITY OF THE UNIVERSE 5

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD 6

CONCLUSION 7

BIBLIOGRAPHY (HARVARD REFERENCING) 8

Introduction

The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast the existential crisis portrayed in two novels by examining the question: ‘How are Albert Camus and Kurt Vonnegut both similar and different in portraying existentialism in their novels ‘The Outsider’ and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’?’. Hence, the scope of research in this essay encompasses the two mentioned works of literature expanding into the philosophy of existentialism. This essay finds the heroes of existentialism in each novel and aids readers with an analytical and critical understanding of the ugly truth of society.

BACKGROUND

In ancient Greece the two greatest figures of western philosophy, Plato and Aristotle believed the idea that everything, including humans, has an essence; everything has a set of fixed core properties that are necessary to their identity and function, meaning if those specific attributes were absent, they would be a different thing. Given that our essences exist before our existence, in the eyes of Plato and Aristotle, essence gives humans a purpose because we are inherently born to be a certain thing. People standardized this perception of the universe until Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher, challenged it in the 19th century. Sartre questioned if we could exist before our essence; if it was possible for humans to be born without a purpose and make sense of what our essence is through existing rather than it being predetermined. This is the principal concept that has formulated the framework of our current knowledge on existentialist philosophy: “Existence precedes essence.”. Consequently, existential philosophy refers to three main themes: the irrationality of the universe, the meaninglessness of existence and the importance of the physical world. It highlights that, despite existing in an irrational universe, humans are liberated from determinism and are independent from external influences in order to define their significance in life by having the responsibility of making rational decisions that ultimately direct and develop their path through it.

CONTEXT ON ‘THE OUTSIDER’ BY ALBERT CAMUS

In Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ (1942), the protagonist Meursault demonstrates issues through the lens of his existence, and incongruity in terms of society’s essence. Although Meursault appears to be psychologically unrestricted, social conventions hinder him from the ultimate freedom as implied by his trial, which further contradicts social essence against freedom from the individual in existentialism. Due to his non-conformity to social norms and codes, the judicial system executes him with the illusion of judging the character’s innocence, when in truth it reveals an assurance of conformity to society. Therefore, the social essence as presented by Camus, suspends the acceptance of harmony because it exclusively agrees with uniformity at the sacrifice of the freedom of an individual. Owing to the fact that Meursault is an existential character, socio-economic influences seem to have a minimum impact on him as he proceeds with the execution. Although, they do incline to his absurdity, which forces him to face alienation when he experiences a loss in faith towards the essences of society, or in other words, the external influences.

CONTEXT ON ’SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE’ BY KURT VONNEGUT

Written by Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) similarly explores the existentialist perspective of life. Though it transports the reader through a blend of space fantasies and time travel with historical episodes from the novelist’s life. The negation of society’s common perception of life; a series of linear experiences, is complimented by fragmented characterization and structure in the novel overall. This unified theme of segmentation diverts the

Main Body
 
THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF EXISTENCE

Part of Camus’ philosophy states that human life has no inherent, redeeming meaning or purpose and that the only certainty we have in life is that we all die. This is reflected throughout the novel, ‘The Outsider’, as the protagonist provides absolutely no explanation for any of his emotions, thoughts or actions. To recognize this, it is helpful to look at the dialogue. When Meursault has an exchange in conversation, the author presents it as if it is a reported indirect speech. Embedding the dialogue into the narration gives no real sense of the other voice, which outlines his relationships with almost every character in the novel: distinctly abnormal, lacking in emotive attachment and plainly physical. “ The warden went on talking, but I didn’t pay much attention. Finally he said: ‘Now, I suppose you’d like to see your mother?’ I rose without replying, and he led the way to the door.” (Camus, 5). As we continue to read, we get an in depth understanding of Meursault’s apathetic nature and struggle to maintain social coherence. For example, when he is offered a promotion he simply denies it by saying: “I saw no reason for ‘changing my life’.”. It corresponds to the mentality that if death is inevitable and if there is no meaning to life, efforts to change it are futile.

The three encounters of death experienced by Meursault include the death of his mother, the murder of the Arab and finally his own execution. Taking the example of his trial towards the end of the novel, he refuses to comply with the court’s stipulations to defend himself for the murder of the Arab. Meursault’s constant denial to the opportunity of proving himself innocent infuriates both the court and the chaplain, which shifts the primary focus of the crime to his non-conformity and atheism. This ultimately shows that no one is willing to accept that Meursault offers no latent explanation. The outcome of society’s reaction forces an unassuming and unpretentious man to be a mortal victim of death, though not due to a refusal to tell the truth, but because he denied lying. However, Meursault’s death does not prove unfortunate to him as he strangely becomes content with the realization that mortality is all there is. This teaches us that since the totality of human existence is unchangeable, we should accept the inevitability of death and embrace the meaninglessness.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, the Tralfamadorians become the catalysts to induce Billy Pilgrim into their existentialist philosophy. He is confronted to the absurd and then finally adheres to the tragedy that death and war is inescapable: “‘How does the universe end?’ said Billy. ‘We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian pilot presses a starter button, and the whole universe disappears.’ So it goes. ‘If you know this’, said Billy, ‘isn’t there some way you could prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?’ ‘He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him, and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.’ ‘So,’ said Billy gropingly, ‘I suppose the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid, too.’” (Vonnegut, 55). This conversation reshapes Billy Pilgrim’s construct of the purpose in life and determinism as he is forced into a state of the absurd. Although in both ‘The Outsider’ and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ each protagonist accepts the painful truth of life, Meursault comes to a realization that it is a chain of eternal moments. The difference in this is that it gives an explanation to the meaninglessness of human existence, which is not explored in ‘The Outsider’. The impact of this is that

THE IRRATIONALITY OF THE UNIVERSE

It is important to understand that Camus’ belief and perspective on the irrationality of the universe is this that life has a nugatory value. His novel contains this exact philosophical position whereby individual lives have no order or purpose. However since this is a concept that is difficult for society to emotionally and intellectually reconcile themselves to, they continuously attempt to construct some sort of rational reason to their lives. The irrationality of the universe refers to this process of trying to establish meaning to life when none exists. This theme pierces the novel from start to the end.

The narration and point of view in ‘The Outsider’ is presented through an interior monologue of Meursault, the protagonist and narrator. This chosen style of stream of consciousness is used as a device for readers to enter Meursault’s mind so that they can respond more sympathetically to his outlook on life. Although it limits the perspective from which characters and events are presented, this writing style has a strong effect, in that it personalizes the experience and message conveyed of the existential philosophy. Meursault’s context appears to be dynamic however his character is static. This is explained by his simplistic impression on his initial introduction to the reader by having no unusual or preposterous attributes, opinions, profession and home, among other things. It can be said that it is Meursault’s interminable mundane life in shortage of any remarkable traits and interaction with society that makes his identity paradoxically astounding. This could possibly the premise for the narrative being set forth like an observatory report because it lacks any supplementary or emotional factor, similar to Meursault’s lifestyle and persona. This accentuates to the reader that embellishing details are unnecessary just like adding reason to life; it is ultimately meaningless. 

Camus displays this idea through the form of the text; for example, sentences are clipped short and are direct. Readers are exposed to this succinct manner of language from the start of the novel: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.” (Camus, 1). It gives an insight to the protagonist’s way of thinking effectively as it demonstrates his withdrawal to elaborate on imagery or emotion. This is indicative of the amorality and immense logical attitude he holds towards death as an emotion and part of life, especially since the death is of his mother.

In ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, Vonnegut approaches the narration in an omniscient point of view and designates the narrator to be present within and above the progress of the plot. In order to give the reader information about the occurrences on both Earth and Tralfamadore at any given moment, the narrator’s position has access to theoretically look into the minds of all characters, going beyond their limited awareness. This technique permits a more extensive scope on space and time in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, unlike ‘The Outsider’. It is in the second chapter where the narrator declares that “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (Vonnegut, 1). This concept refers to the character’s inability to live life daily, but rather from moment to moment in no particular order. He is rapidly introduced by a chronological series of biographical scenes from his life, which heavily contrasts to him leaping back and forth during 1944 in a German forest, becoming ‘unstuck in time’. The spastic jumps from time frame to time frame lead to an emotional and logical instability in the story adding to the troubles that Billy goes through to make sense of his life. This is an essential factor in the novel that differentiates itself from ‘The Outsider’ on the subject of characters. This is because for Meursault, the cycle of life is a fixed perception; it goes on with or without you, unless you are a part of a great social sphere. Despite this, and a brief moment of grief, life will continue. The role of death is insignificant to the reality of this whole world and therefore needs to be recognized, as it will forever remain this way.

Billy Pilgrim on the other hand contemplates his role in life and the purpose of all that happens in his surroundings. For instance, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him from Earth, he inquires on why him of everyone else is specifically chosen, which stimulates further questioning on the causes and outcome of the situation. Unlike Meursault, Billy Pilgrim considers matters of his life to be involved in a wider matrix on a basis of decisions that affect the next, giving all incidences a reason for their happening.  This mentality insinuates that the protagonist is fully convinced by the following ideologies: free will, destiny and justification for life, however, this is challenged by the principles of his abductors. When Billy Pilgrim acquaints with the Tralfamadorians, he comes to learn that on earth, time is orderly, though on the planet Tralfamadore, all events of time exist simultaneously and are seen as on entity. The Tralfamadorians philosophy asserts that things exist and occur, and will always remain this way, as nothing that can alter them or their fate. An example revealing this is when Billy Pilgrim questions his selection by the Tralfamadorians: “’Why me?’ That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because the moment simply is.” (Vonnegut, 37). At this point in the novel, Pilgrim represents society in Camus’ belief on the irrationality of the universe. This is because he illustrates the human tendency to seek for meaning in life through his curiosity to obtain an understanding of intrinsic value of things. While Pilgrim plays this role, the Tralfamadorians are the epiphany to revealing the truth to him: “The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.” (Vonnegut, 16).

Zooming out into a wider perspective, Not only does Vonnegut display the theme of irrationality of the universe, the insanity of war is highly stressed.

Insanity of war is explained by the irrationality of the universe.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD

The material world is another crucial feature emphasized in existentialist philosophy. It indicates that if transcendent meaning beyond our current life is illusive, then all that remains is the matter and substance of the physical world that humans occupy. The narrative in ‘The Outsider’ is set forth like an observatory report lacking in any emotional factor towards other characters. Although, an interesting feature Camus incorporates in it is excessive detail on insignificant elements of the material world. For instance, taking into account the structure and setup of the relationship between Meursault and Marie Cordana, his girlfriend, it is created from a sort of attraction that is not particularly mutual in all ways. This is because Meursault views Marie as a person of somatic desire rather than a being with sentiments: “She had a very pretty dress, with red and white stripes, and leather sandals, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. One could see the outline of her firm little breasts, and her sun-tanned face was like a velvety brown flower.” (Camus, 24). This is a typical of Meursault, as his daily stimulus seems to come from gratification of materialistic aspects of the world instead of inner development. 

In ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, Vonnegut’s style of writing is minimalist in terms of describing the physical world because he lacks in descriptors and the text is mostly formed up of dialogue and actions: “The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes. The idea was to hasten the end of war.”. However, it is the briefness of the description that creates an overall exaggeration to the scene. Over the destructiveness and confusion of the war Vonnegut is able to display multiple emotions such as rage, sorrow and frustration. Despite the fact that he captures chaotic and emotionally dense scenes, elements of the physical world are difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps Vonnegut is trying to communicate this tragedy that humans are annihilating the world and there is nothing that can be done.

Bibliography

 

  • Babi, N. and Chebli, A. (2016). An Existential Theoretical Approach to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. [ebook] pp.38-47. Available at: https://dspace.univ-ouargla.dz/jspui/bitstream/123456789/15507/1/BABI-CHEBLI.pdf [Accessed 3 Jul. 2019].
  • Cresswell, M. (n.d.). Essence and existence in Plato and Aristotle. [online] Philpapers.org. Available at: https://philpapers.org/rec/CREEAE [Accessed 2 Jul. 2019].
  • Crowell, S. (2017). Existentialism. [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=existentialism [Accessed 7 Jul. 2019].
  • Davis, M. (2003). RE-EXAMINING VONNEGUT:EXISTENTIAL AND NATURALISTICINFLUENCES ON THE AU THOR’S WORK. [ebook] pp.52-67. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/3892058/Re-examining_Vonnegut_Existential_and_Naturalistic_Influences_on_the_Authors_Work [Accessed 4 Jul. 2019].
  • Philosophy: Its Essence and Meaning in the Ancient World. (1947). The Philosophical Review, [online] 56, p.19. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2182056?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [Accessed 2 Jul. 2019].

 

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