Alec Steinhorn - English - Ms. Spiegel - 11/24/13
The Individual Versus His Environment in The Stranger and Grendel
Due to the multifaceted nature of literature, analysis thereof is prone to generalization. One of the most grievous generalizations oft encountered involves failing to distinguish between a character and the novel it inhabits. Take John Gardener’s Grendel and Albert Camus’s The Stranger, for instance. It’s far too easy, when analyzing for dominant ideologies, to slap them both with the label of existentialism and be done with it. However, closer scrutiny indicates that whilst both Meursault and Grendel are existential heroes, Grendel, unlike Meursault, exists in a solipsistic universe that runs contrary to his ideology and thusly never experiences the catharsis that Meursault does.
As put by Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay Existentialism is a Humanism, “The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself,” meaning that one’s existence is utterly dependent on the existence of others. We see the idea that the perceptions of others shape one’s self very clearly in The Stranger. Meursault requires “that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of [his] execution and that they greet [him] with cries of hate,” signifying that others’ physical expression of hatred (and thus separation) are necessary for Meursault to become truly alienated. Just as he is nothing before he defines himself, he is nothing without being defined by others. Thus, the existential crisis he experiences supports the ideology of existentialism throughout the novel.
Another important existentialist concept is that everyone is completely accountable for his or her actions. “We have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse,” writes Satre; “man is condemned to be free.” Camus uses the metaphor of the trial to represent humanistic culpability; that any action you take, you must also take complete responsibility for is an idea integral to existentialism and expressed through Meursault’s trial. Though it, Mersault is punished for every last social faux-pas he makes on or about the time of his mother’s funeral (the coffee he drinks, the cigarette he smokes, his refusal to see her corpse before she’s lowered down, to name a few), his refusal to cede to society as represented through acceptance of Christ, his tactless liaison with Marie just after Maman’s death, and of course his killing the Arab on that “sun-drenched Algerian beach.” The spectators laughed at Mersault’s feeble excuse for killing the Arab, that “it was because of the sun,” to show that all excuses are absurd under existentialism. The metaphor of the trial, and within it the strict cause/effect plot points and use of absurdity, promote existentialism in The Stranger as they force Meursault to face the responsibility of true freedom, as must any man with every decision he makes.
At a climactic...