The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living English Literature Essay

The Outsider (1943) is a French philosophical novel which explores various philosophical schools of thought, including (most prominently and specifically) absurdism, as well as determinism, nihilism, and stoicism. A Doll’s House (1879), on the other hand, is a Norwegian play, which is often called the first true feminist play. The play is also an important work of the naturalist movement, in which real events and situations are depicted on stage in a departure from previous forms such as romanticism. The protagonists of these works live are shown in the world where they don’t belong. Both the works show a conflict between the protagonist and the society. This is because the individual philosophies, interests and beliefs of both of the protagonists clash with those of the society they live in.

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates had said this on his trial for heterodoxy. He used to encourage his students to doubt and challenge the accepted notions of the time, and think for themselves. Socrates was given a choice; he could either accept a sentence of death or stop teaching the students to challenge the beliefs and choose a life in prison. Socrates believed that this alternative would rob him of only thing that made his life useful: examining the world around him and trying to make the society better. For him, it was pointless to live an ‘unexamined’ life. So he wanted Athens to reward him for his service to society. The result, of course, is that they had no other alternative and were forced to vote for a punishment of death. The maxim’s applicability can be verified by extending to the case of Meursault and Nora.

Nora Helmer, the protagonist of the play A Doll’s House, lives in a society where woman were to be seen and not heard. She challenges the world breeding women, bearing a sacrificial role in the society. She leaves her husband in contempt. This characterises the political situation of the time when the drama was set, i.e. 1879. The first female “accomplishment” had taken place in 1871, provoked by a growing frustration in the female population. This was the time when women were making their way into the work in large numbers, while women’s priorities were not achieving a corresponding impact in the political sphere. Like Socrates, Nora had an alternative which was living with her husband with guilt and shame after ‘deceiving’ him; but she didn’t choose that way because this alternative would rob her of the same thing as Socrates.

On the other hand, the case of Meursault, the protagonist of The Outsider, can only be compared with the determination of Socrates to accept the punishment of death instead of trying to save himself. He displays his honesty, bravery and endurance in the story. But, there is a big difference between Meursault and Socrates of deeds for which they are punished. Meursault is punished for his inhuman behaviour and killing, whereas, Socrates in an attempt for the betterment of his society. He is shown as an apathetic person who laughs on his death sentence and is willing to shoot a man. The novel portrays the pre-independent French-Algerian colonial society, where the inhabitant Arabs had a hatred for the French. Like Socrates, Meursault also challenges the accepted beliefs, but in a very absurd way.

Before the repercussions of the introspection by Nora, she portrays a round-eyed lady who always would think of the good of her family and her husband. She can be considered docile to Torvald (her husband). Initially, Nora is a cheerful, gullible, naive, submissive and childish woman. She is an intelligent housewife, but when it comes to final decisions she is always suppressed. Yet, she happily accepts her life the way it is. Moreover, she emphasises how fantastic her life is when she talks with one of her friends:

“I feel so relieved and so happy, Christine! It will be splendid to have heaps of money and not need to have any anxiety, won’t it?”

She always tries to comfort herself by avoiding the realisation of the true nature of her marriage and of the society she’s living in.

Meursault is a man who completely dwells in a physical world. He is presented as a cold and unfeeling person with regard to his relationship with, and death of, his mother. He may seem to be emotionless to a reader, but he has emotions. But they are not sensuous! He does not show grief or sadness or happiness in many of the circumstances, in which one would observe strong reactions in other ordinary people. All what he thinks about is his physical comfort. The novel starts with the death of Meursault’s mother. An emotionless statement opens the novel:

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

This is a bleak statement which bluntly tells how less he cared about his own mother. The statement has an uneasy tone created through Meursault’s indifference at the death of his mother. Camus’ use of first-person narrative emphasizes the fact that Meausault’s indifferent reaction to his mother’s death is an honest one and not merely the assessment of an observer. Meursault’s mood and tone seem to be calm and normal, even though his mother had died. Camus uses short sentences mirroring the emotionless, uncaring wording in the telegram. Camus uses the narrative structure, for the reader to create and become the consciousness of Meursault. Utah Sate University Professor David Anderson notices that “Meursault takes the stance of simply reporting these impressions, without attempting to create a coherent story from them.” Micheline Tisson-Braun comments that Meursault “registers facts, but not their meanings; … is purely instantaneous; he lacks the principle of unity and continuity that characterizes man” (Willenberg)

Nora and Meaursault undergo several events which enlighten them about the absurdity of the world they live in. These events are essential for the reader to understand the reason behind the rebellion of these two characters. Nora realises how the marriage was a ‘playtime’ for Torvald. Reality begins to revive Nora’s senses when Torvald says:

“My dear, I have often seen it in the course of my life as a lawyer. Almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.”

To which Nora questions:

“Why do you only say- mother?”

When Torvald knows of how Nora had saved his life instead of understand and appreciating her efforts he diminishes her by saying that she is unfit to raise children. Nora finally realises how she had been always oppressed in her own house. She rebels against Torvald saying:

“I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as your else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which-I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman-just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so.

You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.”

Meausault awakens after he is arrested for killing an Arab. When he is sent to prison, he expressed a few bits of realization about his expression of emotions strike his mind. He is gradually sentenced to death as he did not want to lie in the court and follow his advocate’s instructions. However, his thinking begins to broaden once he is sentenced to death. The chaplain, who attended his mother’s funeral, visits the prison and tries to reform Meursault. But Meursault becomes aggressive towards him and refuses to improve, thinking he is correct. He thinks:

“From the depths of my future, throughout the whole absurd life I’d been leading I’d felt a vague breath drifting towards me across all the years that were still to come, and on its way this breath had evened out everything that was the being proposed to me in the equally unreal years I was living through.”

The novel consists of two parts. When moving from the first part to the second a significant change in the language used can be noted. This shows maturation in Meursault’s thinking. A frequent use of figurative language can be observed in the second part, for instance:

“When I entered the room, the echoing off the huge, bare walls and the harsh light pouring down out of the sky and reflecting off the windows made me feel rather dizzy.”

Self-realization is seen in both of the mentioned characters, but the realization is very distinct. Nora’s realisation made her leave her husband to pursue her own dreams and desires:

“Listen, Torvald. I have heard that when a wife deserts her husband’s house, as I am doing now, he is legally freed from all obligations towards her. In any case, I set you free from all your obligations. You are not to feel yourself bound in the slightest way, any more than I shall. There must be perfect freedom on both sides. See, here is your ring back. Give me mine.”

But in the case of Meursault, the realization makes him accept the irrationality of life. His realization mostly was, after saying absurd statements he would come to know that he should not have said that because of the awkward and unexpected reactions of the listeners.

I personally agree with the mentioned maxim of Socrates. But there seem to be a clash of perceptions in people’s mind about such a philosophy. People consider that finding faults and mistakes in the social dogmas is a sign of a rebellious person, as we can see in the case of Socrates. This feeling has been there from the age of Socrates till the present, and I do not completely consider it as wrong. Nora had done something in the end that cannot be considered as completely correct. She proves herself to be an idol for other women living under dominance; but at the personal level, I do not think her action will completely help her out of her problems. Turning back is not at all possible in her case; she can only cross it having the required will-power and optimism. About Meursault, I would like to say that, I actually appreciated the way he stayed happy in his world and never let emotionally drastic situations ever hurt him. But emotions are definitely required for better decision, and to live peacefully with all the people around you. Being happy in what you have is definitely a good thing to do, but at the same time the person should also be able to judge right or wrong in the world. Not like Meursault who concluded that people’s lives have no grand meaning or importance, and that their actions, their comings and goings, have no effect on the world!

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