Existentialism In The Invisible Man And The
Stranger Essay, Research Paper
Existentialism is a concept that is often explored in works of literature as a way of displaying a character s interaction with society. Existentialism is defined as:
“an introspective humanism or theory of man that holds that human existence is not exhaustively describable or understandable in either scientific or idealistic terms and relies upon a phenomeno-logical approach that emphasizes the analysis of critical borderline situations in a man s life and especially of such intensely subjective phenomena as anxiety, suffering, and feelings of guilt in order to show the need for making decisive choices through a utilization of man s freedom in an uncertain, contingent, and apparently purposeless world.” 1
This definition, however vague, explains and emphasizes the idea that existentialism is merely an extreme societal interaction resulting from complete freedom in actions and choices, while simultaneously being engulfed in responsibility.
Both novels, Invisible Man and The Stranger depict characters taking existentialism to an extreme. Differing, however, are the lives of such characters as invisible man adopts an existential way of life to realize self-worth while Meursault s natural existentialism prevents him from realizing his mistakes until his execution day.
The concept of existentialism can be broken down into several correlating ideas:
1. Man has his own free will
2. With this free will he has the power to make decisions
3. Few of his decisions are without consequence
4. Some events in life are considered absurd without any explanation 2
Invisible Man begins with invisible man suffering from a complete lack of self-worth, constantly living life to conform to the wishes of others. He tries to be what people want him to be, act as they would like him to act, despite the warnings of his grandfather. He surrenders his own free will and his ability to make his own decisions. Throughout a multitude of absurd situations, including those with Mr. Norton and the confrontations with Dr. Bledsoe, he feels it his destiny to do as he is told, no matter how absurd the situation is, in order to fulfill his dreams. These absurdities spawn his existentialist approach to life. The shock treatments that he underwent marked a rebirth for him as it marks the threshold of the beginning of his quest for self-worth.
Perhaps I was catching up with myself and had put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed. Or was it, I thought, starting up the walk, that I was no longer afraid? I stopped, looking at the buildings down the bright street slanting with sun and shade. I was no longer afraid. Not of important men, not of trustees and such; for knowing now that there was nothing which I could expect from them, there was no reason to be afraid. 3
This marks the invisible man s beginning of his existential way of life, living for himself and experiencing complete free will. Meursault, however, is existential from the beginning. All decisions he makes are for himself and his search for pleasure. He shows little emotion, even in the face of love and death, not even at the loss of his freedom. Meursault contrasts invisible man in that he had an inborn sense of existentialism instead of developing one throughout his life.
The second existentialist concept is the necessity of making choices. Often, these choices will be impractical or absurd. By definition, existential choices are rarely without consequence. The invisible man beats a man nearly to death when he accidentally bumps into him, while Meursault agrees to write a letter for Raymond, an incident that comes back to haunt him and is used against him in his trail. The invisible man s decision to stand up to Lucius Brockway and defend himself resulted in serious injury when the gauge in the boiler room exploded. Choices made by the characters prove to have disastrous results as they both find themselves imprisoned. They considered the absurdity and impracticality of their decisions to be something beyond their control as their rationale for such decisions seemed reasonable in their own minds.
Differing from Meursault s imprisonment, the invisible man s incarceration was self-imposed, beginning on the night of the Harlem riots, when he falls into a sewer while running away from Ras the Exhorter and his allies. This act is the escape that Ellison provides for invisible man to reexamine his life-choices. This opportunity him to finally break away from a slavery that he had been imprisoned in socially throughout his life. He instead learns to break free of a life that society would consider “productive” for a black man. Rather, he takes an introspective look at himself. He commits himself to avoiding the wishes of others, while trying to learn who he is instead of what others wanted him to be. Ellison depicts this phase of enlightenment by showing invisible man installing 1369 light bulbs. Throughout the course of the book, this “light” becomes a mental state of spiritual enlightenment. Meursault’s prison, however, begins long before he is put in jail, as it is one of emotionless existence. His focus is on fulfilling carnal pleasures, the simplest life functions. As a result, he has never experienced any emotion that separates us from the animals, those of love, sorrow, loss or happiness. Unlike the invisible man, Meursault is not effected by his imprisonment. He fails to become upset mentally by what would have been a major crisis to anyone else. He quickly accepts his sentence and continues finding his pleasure in life by fulfilling his simple instinctive desires, eating and sleeping. At his trial he confesses as to having no remorse for what he had done.
Of course, I couldn’t help admitting that he was right. I didn’t feel much remorse for what I’d done I would have liked to have tried explaining to him cordially, almost affectionately, that I had never been able to truly feel remorse for
He is incapable of justifying his actions, even to the prosecutor who asked him to. Instead, he responds explaining that:
the prosecutor started talking about my soul.
He said that he had peered into it and that he had found nothing, gentlemen of the jury. He said the truth was that I didn t have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that govern men s hearts, was within my reach. 5
Here Meursault is shown as having no soul, and thus no humanness required to experience remorse. He falls deeper and deeper into a hole, and his experiences seem more and more absurd. Once the trial takes a turn for the worse, Meursault loses interest and turns to other things. To him, this makes sense, yet it appears to others as though he simply does not care.
Invisible man and Meursault differ in their forms of existentialism, as well as their individualism and quest for self worth. Their thinking differs greatly as Meursault is naturally independent and invisible man is not. Invisible man was willing to be a conformist in order to fulfill his ambitions of making himself someone in the world, where Meursault s views and ambitions were different. He strove to fulfill the simple pleasures in life to seek happiness. Invisible man, however, soon buckled under the false identities he had created for himself, realizing that he could never be someone by pretending to be someone he was not. Giving up, he turns to existentialism, hoping to find a place in society that fits him. This causes him to realize the necessity in crawling out of his hole:
My world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase – still it s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. 6
Meursault s realization does not begin until his confrontation with the chaplain. In being forced to face him, Meursault is made to confront his own death, face to face. Feeling no remorse for the mistakes of his life and for failing to learn anything from his experience, the only suitable punishment for him is death. This death prevented him from being able do undo any mistakes of the past and to learn from them.
Stylistically, the authors used different techniques to demonstrate different forms of existentialism . Invisible Man was written using very thoughtful language and narration, while The Stranger was written with very simple diction. The simple diction is reflective of the simplicity of the desires of Meursault, while the complexity of the narration of Invisible Man shows the thoughtfulness of invisible man and the greater complexity of his situation. While the innocence of both characters was very apparent, Ellison s character of invisible man fights to gain life experience and shed ignorance while Camus depicts Meursault as a character who was so simple and innocent that he even told his life story apathetically. Camus displays a man who is the epitome of existentialism as he fails to rely on others for their point of view simply because he is not aware that any thought other than his own could possibly exist.
Invisible man differs entirely from Meursault in the levels of passion he experiences about everything. Although he is assuming an existential lifestyle as he writes the novel, the invisible man narrator, as developed by Ellison, is not living in the present. Instead, events in his past are focused on for the purpose of pointing out their faults and meaningless points. Ellison, however, points out the necessity of preserving and taking advantage of every opportunity in your life while maintaining the responsibility that life has given you. In The Stranger, the emphasis is more self-centered. Meursault cannot understand or accept his selfishness because he knows no better. He fails to recognize the existence of anyone else and thus cannot justify making a decision that would better suit society or would more adequately fulfill a responsibility.
Meursault and invisible man led lives who s paths were similar in that the choices made were a direct result of an existential way of life. The main difference was invisible man s heightened level of responsibility which gave him a more human personality while Meursault s compulsive, instinctive nature made his character less believable.