The Antithesis of Absurdity

55

The Antithesis of Absurdity through the Characters’ Characterization in Albert Camus’ The Stranger
F.X. Lilik Dwi Mardjianto and Dewi Widyastuti
Abstract
The Stranger is a philosophical novel elaborating the author’s thoughts through the intrinsic elements contained within it. Meursault, the main character seems to be the representation of the author in the way he thinks and does things. Nonetheless, the novel contains ideas opposed to the author’s own concept of life. These kinds of ideas are closely related to Camus’ concept of absurdity, meaning that these opposing ideas (expressed through the characters and their characterization) seem to be the antithesis of Camus’ concept. Those characters, through their speech, way of thinking and ideas represent different types of ideas. Starting from that idea, it is relevant to analyse the novel by focusing on those opposing ideas in the light of the antithesis of absurdity theory. Keywords: antithesis, absurdity

Introduction
Philosophy in many books tends to be the subject that deals with the concept of life. People try to know more about the philosophers’ concept of mind and way of thinking, of course from the perspective of their own considerations, reasons, and consciousness. Some say that philosophers actually convey interesting messages about what the universe really is. This is what becomes the writer’s first background of study: curiosity about what philosophers, especially Albert Camus with his concept of Absurdity, actually try to say, since this concept is greatly concerned with how we ought to face life. Indeed, the writer is interested in Camus because he was not only a philosopher but also a novelist. Through his novel The Stranger, the writer makes certain points expressing ideas that are the opposite of absurdity. The exploration of the ideas will eventually form the second background of this study. Starting from this point, the writer is confident to raise the issue revealed in this study; the antithesis of absurdity. The study is an urgent
Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

56

F.X. Lilik Dwi Mardjianto & Dewi Widyastuti

one since it puts the attention on the author’s antithesis of his own theory, not only on the description of the theory. Moreover, it does not only explore the main character like other ordinary studies usually do, but also pays great attention to the minor characters. This study tries to reveal how the characters are characterized and how the characterization becomes the antithesis of Camus’ idea of absurdity.

Identification of Related Theories
The Stranger is the story about a man named Meursault who lives in Algiers and faces so many unpredictable and uncertain events. Firstly he is faced with the death of his mother within the experience of which he finds so many things (sad atmosphere, people’s point of view, etc.) that are different from his own philosophical views. Then, he finds himself as a stranger in his own social life. His relationship with his girlfriend Marie and with other characters really brings him to a point of deep concern and confusion; his confusion about the meaning of existence and absurdity. As the plot rises, he really gets into trouble; he becomes a murderer and faces trial. In order to have stronger grounds for exploring the idea of absurdity and its antithesis, the writers try to describe the theory of both absurdity and antithesis. 1. Absurdity Talking about absurdity means talking about Camus’ idea of life. Here the writers will entirely use Camus’ theory of absurdity since the main point explored in this thesis is the antithesis of Camus’ personal concept. The idea of absurdity begins with the idea that life is not worth living; that this world is peopled with such irrationals (Camus, 1955: 20). Camus in his book entitled The Myth of Sisyphus states that one of the examples of these irrationals is the monotonous life we face each day (Camus, 1955: 10). This inexplicable and irrational condition supports the fact that life is purposeless. Without any purpose means there are no moral values that are recognised as the standards people expect to attain. Starting from this point, God who is known as the highest moral value in any society is nothing. Camus insists on arguing that there are two possibilities related to the existence of God; either God has the power or we are the ones who have the power. For in the presence of God, there is less a problem of freedom than a problem of evil. You know the alternative: either we are

Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

The Antithesis of Absurdity

57

not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful (1955: 42). The confrontation between the human desire for a clear explanation of this life and the inexplicable condition of the world produces the idea of absurdity (Camus, 1955: 21). Human needs the clarity and justification of this irrational condition, but on the contrary, the world remains silent without any explanation. Thus, the concept of absurdity itself depends on men and the world entirely. Since there is no clear explanation and solution for this absurdity, death is the best way to end all of this uncertainty. Camus illustrates life as a journey of which the end is death. Men will realize that everything is useless when they are near to death. It is all the matter of killing time, waiting for death and by then the absurdity is over (Camus, 1955: 23). Death is different from committing suicide. Suicide is not categorized as a solution for it does not have the essential values of revolt and seems like the attempt to give up. Therefore, the main point is revolt. This means that we should stay alive and keep the absurd alive; we should accept absurdity. Dealing with absurdity means facing the confrontation between humanity and obscurity (Camus, 1955: 40). 2. Antithesis According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the word antithesis means the exact opposite; contrast; opposition. While another source, A Glossary of Literary Terms, states that the word means a contrast or opposition in the meaning contiguous phrases or clauses that are emphasized by parallelism- that is, a similar order and structure in the syntax. An example of this explanation is in Samuel Johnson’s prose fiction Rasselas, “marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures” The writer, in this case, tends to use the first definition since it meets the requirements raised in this study that the word antithesis here is used merely as an ordinary daily word not as a term in certain subjects only.

Analysis
Talking about Camus’ idea means talking about the way we face this life. His idea is firstly started through the concept of absurdity that finally ends in the idea of human existentialism. The idea of absurdity itself starts with the idea that life and the world is have no worth, no orientation (absurd), and will be stopped by death. Here, in this case, death is so important in stopping the absurdity and is not a thing to cry about. Having no orientation means having no standard from which to justify something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; everything depends on the human struggle and the revolt toward absurdity. Starting from this point, Camus stated that God,
Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

58

F.X. Lilik Dwi Mardjianto & Dewi Widyastuti

the standard of moral values by which we justify the quality of things is nothing. Those reviews reveal certain key concepts about absurdity, namely life (related to human existence, purpose and orientation), death, judgement, (whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’) and religion (about God’s existence). Having analysed the novel and these key concepts of absurdity, the writer found that there is a movement towards antithesis of absurdity theory through characters and characterization. This study of antithesis will be based on those key concepts for both main and minor characters. 1. Main Character The story is built from first person point of view. The main character, Meursault plays an important role in bringing the reader into a deep understanding of the atmosphere. Through his use of the word I, it seems that the main character knows everything around him. Furthermore, through his description of what is happening, Camus’ idea of absurdity is well developed though there are some weaknesses, or in other words: antitheses, which will be discussed in the next part. Mostly, the main character is characterized through his deeds, speech and thoughts and sometimes through other characters’ judgment and appreciation of him. It is told in the story that one day Meursault, the main character, is swimming together with his girlfriend, Marie. After swimming they go to the movies and stay in Meursault’s apartment afterwards. When he wakes up, Meursault realizes that Marie has gone. After that, he stays in his apartment doing only what he wants. We then know that he is a lazy person by his speech: “I don’t like Sunday. So I rolled over, tried to find the salty smell Marie’s hair had left on the pillow, and slept until ten. Then I smoked a few cigarettes, still in bed, till noon” (p.21) Also, we will recognize that he is an atheist and at the same time the representation of Absurdity when he says: “He wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I only had a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God” (p.120). Meursault, the main character, is undoubtedly the depiction and representation of Albert Camus’ idea. Most of his deeds, speeches and thoughts are closely connected to Camus’ idea of absurdity. Despite this clear depiction, there is also something about Meursault that contrasts

Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

The Antithesis of Absurdity

59

with Camus. We can understand this contrast as Camus’ denial of his own theory. a. Life Facing life means having the opportunity to live by focusing great attention on ‘now’ not on ‘tomorrow’ or ‘the day after tomorrow’. It means that life is today and we should not have any hope for the future. Life is absurd, and there is no absolute value or purpose that we can rely on. As stated by Camus, this absurd world is peopled with men who accept Absurdity and who have ceased to hope (Camus, 1955: 68). On the contrary, Meursault emphasises that there is the possibility of alteration, meaning that he hopes that there will be a better situation replacing his unpleasant life in prison. “In fact, I wasn’t really in prison those first few days: I was sort of waiting for something to happen” (p.72). This act of hoping shows that Meursault, in some ways denies Camus’ theory that one should not have any hope. b. Death Death is the only thing, according to Camus, that can stop this absurdity. This uncertain and inexplicable world will finally end when humans die. Hence, death is a normal process in this life. Meursault is the representation of this idea, meaning that he was not sad at the death of his mother. Nevertheless, he once says something different from those concepts; he is sad and he wishes that all those things had not happened. His first reaction to death supports the theory of Absurdity. However, we know that Meursault eventually regrets his mother’s death. “What I can say for certain is that I would rather Maman hadn’t died” (p. 65). This final reaction or wish that his mother is still alive is evidence of the antithesis of Absurdity. It is possible that this denial is derived from his conscience or from the pressure of society, represented by the court in this case. As we know Meursault is eventually brought to court and condemned to death for killing an Arab. c. Judgement The main issue under discussion is related to the justification of the belief that one has the right to judge the quality of someone or something. Since it is the expression of each person’s human freedom to face absurdity in his or her own way and since there is no absolute standard of

Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

60

F.X. Lilik Dwi Mardjianto & Dewi Widyastuti

moral value, a person may not judge someone else by her or his own standards. Everyone is special and cannot be blamed; they are the masters of their own lives (Camus, 1955: 87). Meursault experiences social pressure which excludes him and makes him feel estranged and because of this he turns against those who criticised him for ignoring his mother. This action of blaming others is in opposition to Camus’ concept. “Then he said, very quickly and with an embarrassed look, that he realized some people in the neighbourhood thought badly of me for having sent Maman to the home…” (p. 45) From this quotation, we learn that Meursault’s action is opposed to Camus’ theory. Therefore it becomes the antithesis of the theory. 2. Minor characters Despite the main character’s importance in establishing the atmosphere and Camus’ hidden message, the minor characters are also given, more or less equal status since there is enough exploration of and attention paid to them. This exploration and attention are closely connected to the way the author characterizes them. They are characterized by both their own actions and by other characters, especially Meursault’s description of them. Say for example we will recognize that Marie, Meursault’s girlfriend, as a loving person with an optimistic view of the future. She keeps on arguing that life is so worthwhile because of its purpose, which is marriage. We will know later that this characteristic is the antithesis of Camus’ view on Absurdity. In his theory, he says that life is purposeless since humans should put the attention on “today”, the present and should not have any hope for the future.
“ Then she pointed out that marriage was a serious thing…so she took my arm with a smile and said she wanted to marry me”. (p.42)

Raymond Sintes, his neighbour is also characterized as a cheerful person when he, together with Meursault and Marie are in Meursault’s room (p.47). This description shows other characters’ significance in drawing out one’s characteristics. a. Life The antithesis of Camus’ concept of life is mostly related to the understanding of the purpose of life and the counter argument from society indicating that Meursault is a stranger because of his extraordinary thoughts. This opposing idea is clearly represented by Salamano (his neighbour), Marie (his girlfriend), and the prosecutor.

Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

The Antithesis of Absurdity

61

Salamano represents the reality that most people have their own purpose and ambition which will influence the final destination of their lives. Here in the novel, Salamano is characterized as a person whose entire life has been dedicated to his dog since the death of his wife. Obviously, the dog has become Salamano’s sole purpose and destination in life. It is an obvious contradiction of Camus’ concept of absurd life in which we cannot find any hope.
“I asked him in and he told me that his dog was lost … I told Salamano that he could get another dog, but he was right to point out to me that he was used to this one.” (p. 44)

Like Salamano, Marie is a clear contradiction of Meursault’s idea in facing life. She is very much interested in marriage and she considers it an important thing that she should experience in the future (p. 42) The last one person to stand in contradiction to Meursault is the prosecutor. He emphasises the fact that Meursault is alienated because of his way of thinking.
“He stated that I had no place in a society whose most fundamental rules I ignored and that could not appeal to the same human heart whose elementary response I knew nothing of.” (p. 102)

From the quotation, we learn that the prosecutor implicitly states that society with its fundamental rules opposes Meursault’s concept of mind. The prosecutor, in this case is the antithesis of Absurdity since he, on behalf of society blames Meursault for ignoring society’s fundamental rules. b. Death The exploration of this subject is more or less the comparison between the concept of death according to Absurdity and the reality of death. People see death as desperation, meaning that one will be sad if he or she is faced with the death of friends or the things he or she loves. One of the representations of this concept is the woman who is crying before Meursault’s mother’s body. She is very sad because she was a close friend of his mother (p. 10). Crying over a dead body indicates the antithesis of Absurdity since Absurdity itself teaches us to accept death as a normal process of life. c. Judgement Raymond Sintes is the one who represents the concept that is in direct opposition to Camus’ idea. By exploring Sintes’ hatred of his girl for cheating him (p. 30), we are taught to be aware of the reality that there are a lot of judgements of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in our society. It brings us a direct antithesis of Camus’ concept, because, according to the theory of
Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

62

F.X. Lilik Dwi Mardjianto & Dewi Widyastuti

Absurdity, one has no right to judge others’ quality since everyone is free and cannot be blamed. d. Religion The main topic related to religion is the existence of God. Camus’ denial of God is broken solely by the chaplain’s statement indicating that God is trusted by society; His existence is absolute for everyone. Absurdity believes that God, the highest moral value on earth is nothing because He is unable to handle the irrational.
“Then God can help you…Everyman I have known in your position has turned to Him.” (p. 16)

The antithesis related to this key concept (religion) is not found in Meursault, the main character since he is the only one who does not believe in God.

Conclusion
Philosophy has been a challenging field of study for years. One thing that makes it challenging is that philosophy seems to be difficult since it analyses and explores how people think. At a certain stage, this way of thinking will influence how people act. Sometimes the way a philosopher acts and thinks is commonly considered as freakish and abnormal. They usually think and act on the basis of their own principles, which are different from public opinion. Camus lives his life according to his own principles. He, through the novel’s main character, feels like a stranger because his extraordinary thoughts lead him to a state of alienation. Camus’ way in characterizing the characters is mainly dedicated to conveying his concept of absurdity. The ideas are represented by the characters’ deeds, thoughts, speech and feelings. Apart from the facts previously stated, the writer recognizes Camus’ awareness of being a stranger through his exploration of opposing ideas coming from society. This exploration is also visualized within characters and their characterization. Having compared the characters’ characterization with Camus’ concept of Absurdity, the writer separates the antithesis of Absurdity into four groups, namely life, death, judgement and religion. In each successive group, the characters represent opposing ideas to Absurdity. Some characters insist on arguing that life is worthy and is dedicated to a final goal at the end, others feel regret over death, judge other’s qualities and totally believe in God. These opposing ideas known as the antithesis obviously express Camus’ awareness of social pressure and his evaluation of his own theory. In brief, we may say that characters and characterization in Albert Camus’ The Stranger are both imitation and antithesis of his theory.

Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

The Antithesis of Absurdity

63

References
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981. ___________. The Mirror and The Lamp: Romantic Theory and The Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. ___________. The Stranger. trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. Collins, James. The Existentialists, A Critical Study. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952 Guerin, Wilfred. et al. A Hand Book of Critical Approaches to Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, Publisher, 1979. Hornby, A.S. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Klarer, Mario. An Introduction to Literary Studies. London: Routledge, 1998. Murphy, M.J. Understanding Unseen: An Introduction to English Poetry and the English Novel for the Overseas student. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972. O’Brien, Conor Cruise Ed, Frank Kermode. Camus. London: Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.,1970.

Vol. 9 No. 1 – June 2005

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful