Society strives for conformity. In "The Stranger
" by Albert Camus
, "No Exit
" by Jean-Paul Sartre
, and "The Birthday Party
" by Harold Pinter
, society rejects the protagonists because they have beliefs that conflict with those that are accepted by society. Meursault
in The Stranger
is the victim of a society which rejects and persecute
s him because of his absurdist
view of the world. The three protagonists in "No Exit
," Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are also the victim of social injustice
, but their punishment is not as evident because they are "both the victim and the executioner". Finally, in "The Birthday Party
," Stanley is the victim of society, but his torture is left very ambiguous. In all three pieces of writing, society feels that they must destroy the outsider for the best interests of everyone.
In all three of these stories, society acts in a why as to perform "social annihilation" upon the characters. When a society is empowered to choose the "correct" values and beliefs on behalf of its members, then no one can truly be safe. In order to protect our way of life, we must also protect the way of life of others, even those who we violently disagree with. Although we sometimes wish we didn't, every one of us judges others based on our own value system. By systematically persecuting people whose values seem misguided, we are in effect destroying entire societies inside our own.
The Stranger is a story about a man named Meursault who kills a total stranger for no reason other than that the sun was in his eyes. From the moment he was arrested, Meursault refused to defend himself. He is brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to die. He refuses religion and never chooses to lie about what happened, although he knows that it would save him.
It has been suggested that, "The sun is a symbol for feelings and emotions, which Monsieur Meursault cannot deal with."(Kelly) On the beach, it was the, "cymbals of sunlight,"(59) from the blade garnished by the Arab that presents Meursault with the "blinding truth"(Gluksburg) that finally pushes Meursault over the edge and allows him to murder. Kelly further suggests that the sweat that was pouring off Meursault during the long walk to bury his mother symbolizes his overflowing emotions evoked by the truth. As with Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, the truth forces Meursault to rethink his outlook on life. He concludes that life is absurd.
In order to understand Meursault's thinking, one must first understand the concept of absurdism. Absurdism is a form of existentialism. It is the belief that the world is absurd and that trying to use reason to define it is futile (Hackman). Through this belief, Meursault concludes that life is without meaning, death is inevitable, and therefore it pointless to waste energy trying to stay alive. "I have lived my life thus and did x," says Meursault at his trial, "but if I had done y or z instead, it wouldn't have mattered." Meursault is content in believing that none of his actions matter and that he was going to die anyway. "To fight against death," suggests Robert Clifton, "amounts to claiming that life has meaning." The murder is dismissed by Meursault to be just one more, "absurd happening in an absurd world"(Hackman). Meursault demonstrates a total detachment from the crime, for the same absurdest reason.
Society, in the form of the court system, performs a great injustice by killing Meursault. Most of their evidence was that he has no religion and did not mourn his mother's death. Since Meursault believes the world is absurd, it is not surprise that he is not shocked by death. Though it is true that he is not upset about his mother's death, it is irrelivant to whether is is guilty. The state, by arguing that Meursault's crime is worse because of his worldview, is practicing a form of social annihilation.
"No Exit" is very different in subject matter and plot from The Stranger. It concerns three people and their experience in hell together. Each of the three characters is in love with someone in the room. However, none of the feelings are consensual. As the title implies, there is no exit from the room, and all the members are forced to deal with their feelings on a very personal level.
Through the play, the author demonstrates how everyone must be constantly trying to improve himself. Each of the characters in "No Exit" refuses to adapt to the situation, and therefore it becomes hell for them. They try to stop speaking to each other, but it is futile. They were put together to torture each other.
Each of the characters in "No Exit" did some things in their life that society did not approve of. Garcin is shown to be a rebel against his government, who escaped from prison camp, then was tracked down and shot like a coward. He also admitted to have gotten drunk and beaten his wife on a regular basis. Estelle was an adulteress in her past life. When she had a baby from this relationship, she killed it to make sure her husband didn't find out. Finally, Inez was lesbian who drove her lover's husband to suicide so she could have her. These acts force the protagonists to become strangers in their societies, and therefor are punished in the afterlife.
The social injustice in "No Exit" is committed by the person who chose to group the three protagonists together. When Inez enters the room, Garcin says, "Who do you suppose I am?"(8), and Inez responds, "Why, the torturer of course."(8). "While Garcin protests, we feel that Ines, almost instinctively, has hit the nail on the head."("Works") Inez knows from the beginning that the time spent in the room will cause her great suffering far worse than any physical torture. This is turns out to be because all three must suffer forever with strong unrequited feelings for another, and those same feelings will keep them from leaving. The nature of this injustice is profoundly different from that in The Stranger because instead of being outright aggressive persecution, the injustice in "No Exit" is deliberately designed, yet hidden from view. Only Inez instinctively knew what was going on from the beginning (Robe).
In addition, each of the protagonists commits a social injustice against the others by trying to objectify themselves and by questioning their actions when they were alive. Due to the fact that there are no mirrors, each forces the others to act as one, forcing them to reflect back not only physical information, but in the case of Garcin, information about character. Exposing someone to this for an extended period to time turns out to be an extreme form or torture.
"The Birthday Party" centers on Stanley who lives in a boarding house. One day, two strangers, Goldberg and McCann appear and assist in throwing a birthday party for Stanley. During the party, the lights go out and Stanley screams. Moments later, Stanley is taken away by the visitors, "reduced to a cipher" (Robe, 52)
Critics have suggested several interpretations of "The Birthday Party." It is so ambiguous that there are many explainations for its meaning. Kinly Robe suggests that the visitors do not actually exist, but are "forces in the mind of Stanley [that] promise [him] a new birth." Robe suggests that these forces are brought upon Stanley by Meg who continually mothers him even though he fights it.
Some have suggested that "The Birthday Party" has racial implications. "Here the Jew and the Irishman become instruments of vengeance upon the Englishman!"(Robe, 55). During their attack, Goldberg and McCann force their culture upon Stanley. We see "...Stanley turned into a renegade Jew just as McCann accuses him of the same crime in Irish terms, betrayal of the IRA,"(Robe, 55). Since the party dramatically changes Stanley and makes him a man, it could be considered a Bar Mitzvah (Robe, 55).
Another interpretation of "The Birthday Party" is that McCann and Goldberg, "...stand for all the principals of state and social conformism."(Robe, 54). Using this explanation one can conclude that the visitors, like the state in The Stranger, are performing an injustice by punishing someone just because he doesn't conform. In "The Birthday Party," the persecution took the form of forcing Stanley out of the make-believe world of the boarding house and into the real world. Though it is not as great a punishment as death, the motives of Goldberg and McCann compare closely to those of the prosecution in The Stranger: to attack those who do not comply with the social norm. They too are guilty of social annihilation.
In all three works, society enters a stable situation, and through its practices of social persecution and forced conformity, shatters that stability. In each, the protagonists commit crimes, but in each case, the punishment assigned is far more severe than one might think is deserved. Finally, all three authors project through their characters a strong belief in absurdism.
Society has been and always will be afraid of people who do not abide by its rules and beliefs. Nearly every character present in these works is a stranger to their society and are punished accordingly. Punishing people for their beliefs is dangerous, and will always lead to problems.
- Camus, Albert The Stranger Vintage Books, New York: 1988
- Clifton, Robert Jay, "Albert Camus" Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 2, 1991 ed. 100.
- Hackman, William J. "Nihilism and the Absurd" Computer Software: Netscape. Address: http://www.rit.edu/~wjh3421/camus/paper.html
- Kelly, Nicholas, "The Sun as a Symbol/Motif in Albert Camus's The Stranger" Computer Software: Netscape. Address: http://cityhonors.buffalo.k12.ny.us/city/reference/English/camkel.html
- Pinter, Harold "The Birthday Party," Methuen & Co, London:1965
- Robe, Kinly "Harold Pinter," Twayne Publishers, Boston: 1981 52-55
- Sartre, Jean-Paul "No Exit," Vintage Books, New York: 1989
I wrote this a few years ago for AP English 12. Please don't steal it. Thanks.