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Choice is inescapable and inevitable to all who exist or have ever existed. When meeting a fork in the road, a decision is always made, even if no action is taken. Utterly paradoxical, even the act of no decision at all is stepping in one direction of a choice, always making a statement. It is around this ideology of constant choice that the philosophical theory of existentialism exists. It declares that each individual lives in the universe as a being of free-will, one that is capable of his own decision-making and actions. And that it is through these self-determined choices and actions that each individual distinguishes himself from every other member of the population while simultaneously defining himself. The existentialist theme presents itself in three divergent ways in the following works: Hunger, The Metamorphosis, and The Stranger. In each of these compositions, the protagonist is physically and mentally alienated from society, possesses a desire for something never obtained, and dies surrounded by a void that continues past their deaths and applies to others.
In Hunger, Bobby Sands experiences mental and physical alienation from his surroundings due to his hunger strike and subsequent placement in the hospital ward. While imprisonment itself creates separation between the imprisoned and society, Sands further experiences isolation even from other prisoners when he steps forward as the first to participate in a hunger strike. Sands’ hunger strike distances him from all non-participating prisoners; the tremendous mental fortitude required to overcome his hunger creates an alienation from other prisoners, some of whom are not involved in the hunger strike. In addition to the mental alienation that he experiences, Sands is also physically separated from other prisoners when his hunger strike intensifies and he is transported to the hospital wing. As Sands spends the remainder of his life in the prison hospital wing, maintaining his hunger strike and resisting the temptation of three meals each day, he is physically alienated from other prisoners. From the start of his hunger strike until his death, Sands experiences increasing mental and physical alienation from other prisoners.
Similarly, in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa experiences mental and physical alienation from those around him when he awakes one day as an insect and is then forced to become a prisoner in his room. Samsa’s transition to an insect brings him distinct mental differences compared to those around him, separating Samsa from his family. For example, he feels a liberating high when adhering to the walls and ceiling of his room: “He especially liked hanging from the ceiling; it was completely different from lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely; and in the almost happy absent-mindedness which Gregor felt up there, it could happen to his own surprise that he let go and plopped onto the floor” (30). He begins to adapt the feelings and emotions of an insect, continuously drifting away from his family. Additionally, he is physically imprisoned in his room out of disgust from his family and differences in his bodily appearance. The family who, at one point, had loved and cared for him cannot hide their true feelings of hatred toward him, banishing him to his room. It is clear to the reader that any territory outside of Samsa’s home is now forbidden to him through his father’s reaction when he dares to leave his space: “He had only the fixed idea that Gregor must return to his room as quickly as possible (…) when from behind, his father gave him a hard shove, which was truly his salvation, and bleeding profusely, he flew far into his room”(18-19). Both Hunger and The Metamorphosis encompass the physical imprisonment of the protagonist. Samsa reflects on his isolation, explicitly using the word “imprisonment”, after hearing new financial news discussed at a family meeting he hears from his room: “These explanations by his father were to some extent the first pleasant news Gregor had heard since his imprisonment” (25). Mentally, he is isolated through abnormal thoughts and feelings. Physically, his horrible appearance is unbearable by those around him, causing his family to banish him to his room.
Although Meursault in The Stranger also feels both physical and mental alienation, there are some differences between him and Samsa or Sands. Meursault’s situation differs in that his isolation is not evident to him until he is put in front of a jury. He recognizes nothing wrong with how he handles his mother’s death and does not recognize just how inhuman he is. It is established in The Stranger that Meursault does precisely as he pleases, unaffected by the thoughts or predetermined normalities set by society. An example of this is demonstrated when the thought of bread is dismissed in his mind as the effort of making a trip to the store is not worth the outcome: “I fixed myself some eggs and ate them out of the pan, without bread because I didn’t have any left and I didn’t feel like going downstairs to buy some” (21). This continuous behavior of mild interest and little enthusiasm carries through his life preceding his court date. He disregards his case as anything important. The gravity of taking another man’s life does not resonate with him and he treats the matter as if it is something of daily occurrence. He becomes aware of his physical isolation from society following the murder of the Arab, when put in front of a group of his peers in the courtroom. Up until this point, Meursault disregards the importance of himself. He is for once isolated out of a group and it is a foreign feeling to him: “I think that at first I hadn’t realized that all those people were crowding in to see me. Usually people didn’t pay much attention to me. It took some doing on my part to understand that I was the cause of all the excitement” (83). In addition to physically being isolated during his trial, Meursault is mentally trapped in his cell alone, prior to his execution. The lingering thoughts of a free man swirl in his head after his entrance into prison. It is at time when he feels these longings for freedom that he is truly alienated from society: “For example, I would suddenly have the urge to be on a beach and to walk down to the water. As I imagined the sound of the first waves under my feet, my body entering the water and the sense of relief it would give me, all of a sudden I would feel just how closed in I was by the walls of my cell” (76). Meursault’s alienation mirrors that of Samsa’s and Sands’ through the confining walls of imprisonment he resides in, yet differs mentally in the fact that Meursault does not realize his alienation until it unequivocally presented itself to him in the courtroom.
What pushes Sands to starve himself to death is the constant longing for an Ireland free from the United Kingdom. This constant hunger for political liberation is the driving force of what pushes Sands to kill himself in such an inhumane way. Following Sands’ death, some demands are met. However, the forlornness of the situation is that Sands never experiences the freedom nor the satisfaction of triumph. He was constantly striving for something out of reach and it took his death and the death of seven others for the government to step in. In his lifetime, he never achieved his goals. He was only ever fighting for something that he was unable to obtain. This burning desire for something that will never be achieved is similarly shown in The Metamorphosis through Samsa’s fantasies of leading a normal life again. He longs for his body to return to how it was before he went to bed, an impossible request after his transformation. An example of just how driven Samsa is to return his life to its normal state is his dismissal of the entire situation when he first wakes. His focus is solely pinned on arriving to his workplace, as if it was just another weekday: “The next train left at seven o’clock; to make it, he would have to hurry like a madman, and the line of samples wasn’t packed yet, and he himself didn’t feel especially fresh and ready to march around”(5). Furthermore, throughout the novella, Samsa maintains this conscious effort to stay alive, hoping for an alteration that makes him human again. He does not give in to the notion that he should remove himself from the family even when his sister, who up until this point has been loyal, finally believes that the family should rid themselves of his presence. His desire to continue living and become human again is an unrealistic objective and without his permission, he is taken from the world: “Then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last weak breath” (51). Throughout the entire novella, Samsa yearns for a goal that he can never achieve. As those around him begin to dismiss him as a member of the family, this hunger for change does not falter.
Meursault faces the constant challenge of achieving a feeling he has not experienced: love. Following the death of his mother, he does not exhibit the symptoms of a normal grieving man. Rather than partake in the five stages of grief, he jumps the gun, immediately accepting what has happened. He did not truly love his mother, for he would have been depressed or mourning. His lack of love is also demonstrated in how little attention he pays to the details of his own mother’s death, even unsure of the exact day she passed away: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know”(3). Moreover, he is constantly convincing himself that he and his mother have tight rapport, through his continuous use of the word Maman, a childish synonym of Mother. He tries to love his mother, but he cannot or will not feel that love. He makes mild attempts to be close with Maman and maintain a loving relationship, but he feels nothing and only goes through the motions. His search for love continues after Maman’s passing when he flirts with Marie: “I asked her if she wanted to go to the movies that evening. She laughed again and told me there was a Fernandel movie she’d like to see” (20). His sudden jump between his recently deceased mother to a new young woman is a part of his endless attempt to find love. He feels no real connection between either individual. Maman dies, and he goes out to find someone to take her spot; but still, he finds no one he loves. He and Marie go through the motions of a couple, but he does not feel an attraction of love toward Marie: “Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her” (41). He first attempts to love his mother. When she passes away, he turns to Marie. He continuously looks for a love that he will never find.
Sands surrounds himself with the ongoing pain of famine through the last sixty-six days of his life, a void in it of itself. However, he is also constantly surrounded by his strong feelings about the United Kingdom and Ireland. A void is created for Bobby Sands and fellow members of the Irish Republican Army through their strong feelings between the separation of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It is seemingly inescapable and they feel they have a responsibility to affect the outcome of the situation. With the thoughts of Ireland’s future in mind, Sands patiently awaits his death in a state of extreme hunger. He dies from self-starvation while surrounded by not only the void of hunger, but also lack of political freedom, which continues without him until seven more have killed themselves.
Much like in Sands, Samsa is surrounded by two voids. Although he does have the void of his metamorphosis, he is trapped in another void as well, which was established before his first awakening as an insect. His responsibility to provide for his family at a young age to work off the debt to his father’s name when he should be getting married and starting a family of his own is a void that seems endless. It becomes clear to the reader that he abhors his career as a traveling salesman, only working because of the obligation he feels to provide for his family: “If I didn’t hold back for my parents’ sake, I would have quit long ago, I would have marched up to the boss and spoken my piece from the bottom of my heart(…) Well, I haven’t given up hope completely; once I’ve gotten the money together to pay off my parents’ debt to him – that will probably take another five or six year s- I’m going to do it without fail”(4). Gregor is relieved from this duty through his metamorphosis, the death of his human self and the birth of a different animal. It is through that process of death that he escapes the void his parents have created for him. However, although Gregor has died, his sister, Grete, is soon to be sucked into the void of her parent’s expectations. This is demonstrated through the bleak and darkly ironic ending, following Gregor’s death: “While they were talking in this vein, it occurred almost simultaneously to Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, as they watched their daughter getting livelier and livelier, that lately, in spite of all the troubles which had turned her cheeks pale, she had blossomed into a good-looking, shapely girl. Growing quieter and communicating almost unconsciously through glances, they thought that it would soon be time, too, to find her a good husband” (55). The void continues past Gregor’s death as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa think about expectations to be set for their next child, Grete.
Finally, in The Stranger, Meursault finds himself lost in the void of life. He spirals through aimlessly, uninterested in what the world has to offer. He participates in only a small amount of activities and does not feel compelled to go above and beyond in any way. If he does not feel the desire or need to do something, he simply won’t do it. He does socialize with friends and is romantically involved with Marie, but he does not love her. Meursault feels unimportant to the world, someone that will soon be gone and leave without a trace. He floats through the void of life, waiting for it to discontinue. He is certain that his death will come and his pessimistic view of life is translated through to his lack of feelings when something as important as his mother’s death takes place: “Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why(…) Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across the years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was leaving” (121). It is for this reason he never over-achieves and is merely mildly interested in most things. He becomes offended when someone, like the chaplain, regards him as someone of significance:”Then, I don’t know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me(…) But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me”(120). Meursault finds comfort in the fact that death is certain and that he will eventually face it one of these days, taking him from the void of life. However, even with his passing, the void continues; life will go on for others living in the world and Meursault is one of billions who inhabit the Earth. He believes his effects and contributions as a human are indeterminable.
In all three works, each subject struggles with isolation from society, mentally and physically, wrestles with a longing for something they never achieve, and escapes a void that pertains not solely them, but continues past death. An existential crisis for each individual, they react in different ways. Each man identifies who he is and sets himself apart from the remaining population. Through each action, each protagonist establishes his identity and shapes the opinions of others around him, dividing himself from his peers.
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