Hope and despair in modern European literature

We can see in the work of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus a certain preoccupation with issues surrounding death, mortality and the apparent meaninglessness of life. In Kafka’s The Trial and Camus’ The Outsider in particular, there is evident an exploration of the nature and meaning of life, the inevitability of death, and the futility of attempting to deny or change this harsh fact. However, the key difference in both authors’ treatment of such ideas lies in the way in which certain methods of dealing with these issues are presented. Whereas Kafka shows the insanity of refusing to accept the certainty of death and ultimate meaninglessness of life in The Trial, Camus shows us a positive and enlightening way to be at peace with this notion in The Outsider. The Outsider’s Mersault is freed by the insignificance of his life, and thus finds hope in this knowledge; The Trial’s Josef K., on the other hand, finds nothing but overwhelming despair at being at the mercy of his own existence. It would appear that both characters find themselves in very similar situations, yet choose to deal with their issues in wholly different ways. From this it would appear that Kafka and Camus are both attempting to convey the same message about death – primarily that it is beyond one’s control and therefore illogical to attempt to change – yet they choose to present opposite methods of dealing with this situation in order to present the importance of this message. Both concern themselves with the inevitability of death, and promote the acceptance of one’s own mortality.

With this in mind then, this essay will seek to identify the similarities in the message that Kafka and Camus are trying to convey in their work, albeit through taking wholly different approaches. From reading both The Trial and The Stranger, it becomes apparent that both Camus and Kafka are seeking to express the absurdity of hoping for something that is known to be impossible and the subsequent despair when this hope is not attained, albeit through presenting thoroughly different manifestations of this absurdity, as we shall see.

Despite this previously mentioned difference in conveying their respective messages, the link between the works of Kafka and Camus is indisputable.  René Dauvin, in his essay ‘The Trial: Its Meaning’ from Franz Kafka Today, states that ‘Josef K., like Camus’s The Stranger, has the experience of total gratuitousness. His arrest he regards as a “ridiculous nothingness.”’[1] This ‘ridiculous nothingness’[2] and lack of spiritual guidance, that pervades both The Outsider and The Trial, and makes them apt for an exploration of the nature of the absurd and the relevance of ‘the ratio of hope and despair’. In fact, Camus himself has noted certain issues that arise in the work of Kafka that can also be identified in his own work. In his essay ‘Hope and The Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka’, Camus describes The Trial’s Josef K. as man who:

‘lives and he is condemned…and if he tries to cope with this, he nonetheless does so without surprise. He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognised. The mind projects onto the concrete its spiritual tragedy’[3]

Here it seems that Camus is stating how Josef K. is apparently distinctly unaware of the universe’s sheer indifference to his situation, and assumes that there is a spiritual, higher authority to provide an answer to his questions. Despite this apparently not being the case, Josef K. absurdly continues to assume a higher authority, and endlessly searches for answers that he knows will never arrive.

In The Trial we see Josef K. attempting to prove his innocence to an unidentifiable court despite being unaware of the crime for which he has been arrested. As a result of the fruitlessness of this search, Josef K. grows increasingly frustrated and desperate at the lack of control he has over his situation. However, it seems that K.’s frustration is utterly absurd due to the fact that he is perpetually aware that he cannot be acquitted of his ‘crime’, and yet he continues to attempt to reach a satisfactory conclusion to his dilemma. Though its vague, allegorical nature does of course render The Trial capable of carrying a multitude of meanings, it seems that Kafka is attempting to convey the utter absurdity of trying to control that which one knows cannot be controlled, and the inevitable despair that arises from hoping for something that will never manifest. As Roy Pascal professes in Kafka’s Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches:

‘If the [hero] of The Trial…persist[s] in seeking some metaphysical authority, they never reach it nor find their hopes confirmed…But in every case the author does not triumph over their failure; in it he embodies his own grief and despair. The form of the parable enables him to express his persistent hope as well as its grievous disappointment.’[4]

It is from the exploration of this absurdity that we can discern a link between the work of Kafka and the overriding philosophies of Camus’ work. In his essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Camus suggests that ‘The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.’[5] This futile search for meaning and answers is parabolised in The Trial: Josef K. seeks a reason for his arrest and hopes for an acquittal, yet when he is confronted by the fact that this is an impossibility he refuses to accept his fate, and continues to seek the unreachable. Josef K.’s endless cycle of hope and despair throughout The Trial exists merely because he assumes that he should have something to hope for, despite this evidently not being the case.

Camus explores this futility in his essay by examining how existing in a godless, indifferent universe causes man a great deal of distress, primarily because all previous illusions and beliefs have been shattered, and yet we somehow still expect them to be true and give us comfort. Camus professes that:

‘in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.’[6]

It is this hopeless clinging on to past beliefs that causes Josef K. so much strife, as he assumes he can find the answer for why he has been arrested, and so endlessly pursues it. ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ closes with Camus suggesting that for Sisyphus ‘all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile…One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’[7] Drawing on this to examine The Trial, this unburdening realisation that the world is ‘neither sterile nor futile’[8] mercilessly evades Josef K., who assumes that the universe must indeed have a ‘master,’[9] that somebody must be held accountable for his arrest, that there is a knowable explanation for why he finds himself confronted with a situation beyond his control.

The absurdity of Josef K.’s continual hope and despair is highlighted by the notion that his arrest does not appear to alter his day-to-day existence: he is still free to go to work, to socialise, to do all the things that he was able to before he was ‘arrested’. The only change in his life comes from the mere knowledge of his impending and unavoidable conviction. From this we can see that the conditions of K.’s existence were already in place before he even realised himself – K. is even explicitly told as such when he is informed that ‘The court asks nothing of you. It receives you when you come and it releases you when you go.’[10] As Anthony Thorlby suggests in Kafka: A Study, ‘Kafka evidently thinks…that all men are in despair and anguish at their human condition no matter whether or not they realize it.’[11] K.’s ‘trial’ then appears to be a forced confrontation with this ‘despair and anguish at [his] human condition’[12], as the little effect that his arrest has on his daily life shows the absolute discrepancy between the two, and thus shows to K. that the ambition and routine that he has constructed in his daily life is utterly meaningless when compared to the ultimate and inevitable fate of his existence. As Maurice Friedman states in Problematic Rebel, ‘Joseph K. has successfully constructed…a life which excludes “hearing”. Between the meaningless routine of his work at the Bank…and the meaningless routine of his “bachelor pleasures,” there is no room for any kind of self-examination.’[13] Thus we see how  K.’s life is constructed in such a way to protect himself from the true, meaningless nature of his existence, to such an extent that when the ‘truth’ is explicitly revealed to him it is assumed that it is somehow wrong or invalid. It is from this sheer incompatibility between K.’s life and the revelations derived from his trial that his anguish appears to stem. His ultimate despair therefore lies in the fact that the values and customs of his life leave him unable to contend with issues that are beyond this scope. As René Dauvin suggests in ‘The Trial: Its Meaning’:

‘Joseph K. lives in an anguish that does not create new values because he is not able to discern its meaning clearly. He sinks into absolute nihilism, because he cannot find a remedy for this anguish either in religion or in the inoffensive world of day-to-day existence.’[14]

Here we see that K.’s anguish lies in his complete lack of control or understanding, there is no spiritual or moral guidance to help him find the answers he needs. Furthermore, this anguish comes not from the situation he is in, for he has no control over his Trial or its proceedings; rather, it comes from the utterly absurd and futile desire to comprehend that which he knows is incomprehensible.

This incompatibility between constructed protection and the true nature of existence is highlighted by the fact that throughout The Trial Josef K. is continually reminded of the conditions of his arrest and impeding judgement, and yet he still refuses to accept what he knows to be true. For example, shortly after K. is made aware of his arrest he begins to question the existence of any law which he could possibly have broken:

‘‘This law is unknown to me,’ said K. ‘All the worse for you,’ said the warder.  ‘It probably only exists in your heads,’ said K., who wanted to worm his way somehow into the warders’ minds, turn their thoughts to his advantage or entrench himself there.’[15]

Here we see the first significant instance of K.’s outright denial of what he knows to be true: he has been told categorically of the nature of his ‘trial’, and yet refuses to believe it solely because he does not want to accept it. It seems then that K.’s ‘trial’ is the forced confrontation with his own lack of acknowledgement of the human condition, and that he is ‘guilty’ of not being aware of the true nature of his existence. As Walter Herbert Sokel suggests in The Myth of Power and the Self: Essays on Franz Kafka:

‘The unknown guilt in K.’s trial is identical with his being…Whatever the accused the accused might discover would still come up against this silence [of the court]. In the face of it, any act or omission in one’s entire existence might be guilt.’[16]

Later, as K.’s search becomes more desperate, he is informed by Titorelli, a court painter, that being acquitted is an apparent impossibility, and that the only option is to attempt to delay the inevitable guilty verdict. Upon receiving this information however, K. continues to ask for ways in which he may be acquitted, choosing to treat the painter’s words with a great deal of cynicism, despite them apparently being factually correct, as:

‘he had not time now to test everything the painter says for truth, or even to refute it; the most he could hope for was to persuade the painter to help him in some way, even if this help were not decisive.’[17]

From this statement we get the impression that Josef K. is wary of the painter’s advice not because he is unsure of its validity, but rather that it is not providing the hope of salvation that K. was anticipating. Ultimately, it seems apparent that K.’s anguish does not derive from a lack of answers, but from the fact that he is given answers that he does not wish to receive, and that are incongruent to his preconceived notions about the meaning and nature of his existence. In this sense, K. is so filled with despair because he assumes that there should be hope, when it is made plainly obvious – even to K. himself – that no such hope exists. In spite of this, K. decides to carry on regardless: and thus we see the manifestation of the absurd in The Trial.

In The Outsider, Albert Camus presents us with a similar awareness of the futility of attempting to maintain a certain assumption of hope and meaning in the wake of the impossibility of this very concept as Kafka presents us with in The Trial. However, unlike Kafka, Camus chooses to convey this by showing the potential freedom and calm of coming to terms with this absurdity, rather than the deep anguish of being distinctly unaware of it. Camus achieves this by presenting his protagonist, Mersault, as the polar opposite of Kafka’s Josef K., both in the sense of the characterisation, and also through the situations the both find themselves in. While Josef K. suffers from the illusionary comfort of his day-to-day existence being destroyed by forces beyond his understanding, Mersault is already freed from these illusions, yet is forced to confront them following his arrest. Unlike Josef K., Mersault is perpetually aware of the conditions of his own existence, and has thus reconciled himself with any such anguish that an existential crisis would catalyse. This key difference between K. and Mersault is echoed by Alba Amoia in Albert Camus, who suggests that ‘Mersault appears perfectly content with his own existence, his own truths, his own trivial pleasures; he lives in his own private world, indifferent to the opinions of others, without regard for social mechanisms.’[18]

Mersault’s indifference is freeing, as can be seen if we compare his attitude to work to that of Josef K.  Mersault’s  descriptions of his working life are apparently of little concern to him, dismissed in a sentence or two at the beginning of each of the opening chapters (‘I worked hard at the office today. My boss was kind,’[19]for example). Most tellingly, Mersault confesses regarding a potential promotion that ‘When I was a student I had plenty of that sort of ambition. But when I had to give up my studies, I very soon realized that none of it really mattered.’[20] Conversely, Josef K. dedicates a large amount of his time and energy into his working life, and seems to value his career with a great degree of importance. For example, we learn that his manager ‘valued his capacity for work and trustworthiness very highly,’[21] and that ‘he was in his in his office most days until nine o’clock’.[22] We can see, therefore, how Mersault and Josef K.’s respective outlook on their mundane day-to-day lives allows them to deal with such issues beyond their control, as encountered with their arrests. Mersault treats his existence with knowledge of its ultimate triviality, and is subsequently able to treat his arrest, trial and execution much in the same manner. Josef K., on the other hand, is deeply distraught upon his arrest, not least because of the fact that it is disconcerting to him that something so important could exist separate from his day-to-day life that he evidently values most highly.

It is perhaps because of Mersault’s liberated attitude that leads to him being questioned at his trial not because of the original crime that he was arrested for, but for his sheer indifference to the way in which the court expect him to be living his life. He has a different set of values to those he encounters at his trial, and as such it his very character that ends up being ‘on trial,’ rather than the murder that he has committed. It therefore seems that Mersault, as suggested by Philip Thody, is ‘sentenced to death primarily for his failure to observe the social convention of crying at his mother’s funeral.’[23]

The most effective way in which the difference between Josef K. and Mersault is highlighted is through the way in which their reaction to their respective arrests is conveyed. While Josef K. is at despair at not knowing what crime he has committed, Mersault has without doubt committed a serious crime for which he can be held accountable. Similarly, whereas K. is not physically, literally, incarcerated, Mersault certainly is, and yet is curiously infinitely more at peace with his situation than K. is with his. Mersault recognises that the difference between freedom and imprisonment is wholly insignificant, as can be seen when he mentions that:

‘I often thought in those days that even if I’d been made to live in a hollow tree trunk, with nothing to do but look up at the bit of sky overhead, I’d gradually have got used to it. I’d have looked forward to seeing birds fly past or clouds run together just as here I looked forward to seeing my lawyer’s curious ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait for Saturdays to embrace Marie’s body.’[24]

Here we see that Mersault realises that everything is a comforting illusion against the absence of meaning, and so therefore he can create for himself an artificial means of living within the four walls of his cell just as he had when he was ‘free’, just as Josef K. unwittingly does – although this artificiality is of course shattered for Josef K. when its artificiality is revealed to be just that.

It could be argued that, taking these two novels side-by-side, it is not Mersault but Josef K. who most resembles an ‘outsider’: he exists outside of the realm of truth and enlightenment, where his fragile existence comforts itself from the crushing meaninglessness of life. Mersault, meanwhile, lives in a world where he is surrounded by Josef Ks: he is seen as ‘The Outsider’ not because he exists outside a true realisation of the nature of the human condition, but because his ideas are so inconceivable to those who assume the existence of redemption. Perhaps the biggest ‘Josef K.’ that Mersault encounters in The Outsider is the examining magistrate who interrogates Mersault, especially in the following exchange, which follows the examining magistrate asking if Mersault believed in God:

‘I said no…He told me that it was impossible, that all men believed in God, even those who wouldn’t face up to Him. That was his belief, and if he should ever doubt it, his life would become meaningless. ‘Do you want my life to become meaningless?’ he cried.’[25]

It seems implied that the examining magistrate’s life would become meaningless not if God did not exist, but if his belief in God did not exist, and that there is very little difference between something being true and merely believing it to be true to give life an artificial, comforting semblance of purpose or importance. As with his trial, Mersault does not anger those around him by actively provoking their beliefs and values, but rather his indifference to those values. Mersault does not seek out to be provocative then but merely encourages in those around him a great deal of consternation and incredulity, much in the same why that Josef K. endlessly pesters those around him for possible answers. As Frantz Favre suggests, in discussing a similar disagreement with the chaplain in his essay ‘L’Etranger and ‘Metaphysical Anxiety’’, Mersault:

‘revolts less against Christianity than against the chaplain’s will to impose his own belief. Without the awkward insistence of priest, Mersault would probably have been satisfied with only his refusal to waste the little time he had left with God. But such indifference is undoubtedly more provocative than any hostility.’[26]

Perhaps if Mersault were to push this further, rather than saying ‘as far as I was concerned, it had nothing to do with me’[27], he would cause a crisis in the examining magistrate much in the same way that the unknowable authorities cause a crisis in Josef K., creating despair through the assumption of hope. Thus, the ‘ratio of hope and despair’ is entirely dependent on whether one acknowledges whether there is even such a thing as hope and despair.

The contrasting styles in which Camus and Kafka choose to write their respective works also highlights a key difference in the perception of the nature of hope and despair that they wish to convey. By writing The Trial in a somewhat parabolic manner, Kafka does not explicitly state the meaning that he is trying to convey, and as such the reader is left to endlessly ponder the true meaning of the work, much in the same way that Josef K. is forced to within the novel. Roy Pascal suggests that perhaps Kafka’s allegorical style:

‘invites us to read these parables as we would ancient parables, with the same expectation of a simple moral lesson that will illuminate the meaning of the events related. In fact the reader finds his expectations cheated, for there is no formulated moral and the conclusion of the incident is obscure and ambiguous, leaving the reader baffled and distressed.’[28]

The fact that the work remains unfinished further compounds this feeling, as – again much like Josef K. – the reader absurdly tries to dissect the trial, despite knowing that a conclusive answer can never be found. This then allows the reader to experience the same endless cycle of hope and despair that Josef K. experiences. The reader becomes Josef K., and it is not satisfying; a desire to enjoy the work without worrying about its meaning emerges, and the reader – a desire, perhaps, to become more like Mersault. In The Outsider, on the other hand, Camus allows us to experience the entire novel through the eyes and mind of Mersault due to the strict first-person narration. Therefore the reader experiences the same indifference and inner calm as Mersault, and as such becomes aware of the tranquillity of discarding with the search for meaning in meaninglessness we experience in reading Kafka. As Patrick McCarthy suggests in Camus: A Critical Study of his Life and Work:

‘Mersault tells a story that he cannot understand. So the point of view from which the novel is written reveals the frustration of humans trapped in an incomplete universe…[Camus] succeeded in writing from the viewpoint of this emptiness instead of merely writing about it.’[29]

Yet, despite this emptiness, Mersault’s indifferent reaction to it allows the reader in turn to experience indifference, and consequently to become aware of the absurdity of any feeling other than indifference. Thus we see that Kafka is indeed promoting the same ideas as Camus in regards to the absurdity of ‘the ratio of hope and despair’. The key difference lies in the fact that Camus shows the positivity of discarding with that needless worry, whereas Kafka demonstrates the negativity of being trapped in this cycle of hope and despair.

Thus we see then that ‘the ratio of hope and despair’ lies wholly in the attitude that one takes to the existence of such notions as ‘hope’ and ‘despair.’ Mersault is at peace because he is aware that the actual nature of the human condition is ultimately devoid of meaning, and that to hope for anything different is utterly absurd. With the knowledge of this, the non-existence of hope also negates the possibility of despair, as Mersault accepts the conditions of his existence as neither positive nor negative: they just are, and he is at peace with this. Conversely, Josef K. is unaware of the true nature of his existence prior to the knowledge of his trial, and is wilfully ignorant after his arrest as a desperate means of maintaining the status quo of what he assumes his life is. As a result he is still under the assumption that there is a hope for reprieve; the fact that this non-existent hope never arrives leads forever to overwhelming despair. Thus we see that where hope lies, despair soon follows: one inevitably causes the other, and that the only way to be free of both is to open up and become aware of the true meaninglessness of life – a concept that Mersault comes to terms with, while Josef K. is completely unaware of it.

As Kafka writes in the penultimate paragraph of The Trial, ‘Logic is of course unshakeable, but it cannot hold out against a man who wants to live.’[30] This is the ultimate downfall of Josef K.: he is unable to process that his fate was always to die at the hands of the court, yet could not accept its inevitability. Contrast this with Mersault’s dying thoughts in The Outsider:

‘As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy.’[31]

We see that the very thoughts that cause Josef K. so much turmoil are a great comfort for Mersault, primarily because he purges himself of any notion of hope or despair, leaving him without unrest, at peace and reconciliation with the vast indifference of the universe and the unburdening meaninglessness of life. Here we see then that Kafka and Camus are both in agreement as to the destructively cyclical nature of the concepts of hope and despair. While Kafka shows the turmoil of acknowledging the futility of hoping for existential meaning and the despair when this inevitably does not arrive, Camus shows us the contented bliss of accepting the fallacy of this cycle and embracing the freedom that this rejection allows.

[1] René Dauvin ‘The Trial and its Meaning’ in Franz Kafka Today, ed. by Angel Flores and Homer Swander (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1958), pp.145-60, p.151

[2] Ibid.

[3] Albert Camus, ‘Hope and The Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka’ from The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. by Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1955), pp.100-110,  p.101

[4] Roy Pascal, Kafka’s Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p.152

[5] Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ from The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. by Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1955), pp.9-99,  p.29

[6] Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, p.13

[7] Ibid., p.99

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Franz Kafka, The Trial, trans. by Idris Parry (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p.173

[11] Anthony Thorlby, Kafka: Study, (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1972), p.61

[12] Ibid.

[13] Maurice Friedman, Problematic Rebel: Melville, Dostoievsky, Kafka, Camus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p.350

[14]  René Dauvin ‘The Trial and its Meaning’ in Franz Kafka Today, p.159

[15] Franz Kafka, The Trial, p.5

[16] Walter Herbert Sokel, The Myth of Power and the Self: Essays on Franz Kafka (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), p.231

[17] Franz Kafka, The Trial, p.121

[18] Alba Amoia, Albert Camus (New York: Continuum, 1989), p.39

[19] Albert Camus, The Outsider, trans. by Joseph Laredo (London: Penguin, 1983), p.29

[20] Ibid., p.44

[21] Franz Kafka, The Trial, p.13

[22] Ibid.

[23] Philip Thody, Albert Camus (London: MacMillan Publishing, 1989), p.41

[24] Albert Camus, The Outsider, p.75

[25] Ibid., p.68

[26] Frantz Favre, ‘L’Etranger and ‘Metaphysical Anxiety’’ in Camus’s L’Etranger: Fifty Years On, ed. by Adele King (London: MacMillan Press, 1992), pp.36-46, p.40

[27] Albert Camus, The Outsider, p.68

[28] Roy Pascal, Kafka’s Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches, p.145

[29] Patrick McCarthy, Camus: A Critical Study of His Life and Work (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982), p.155

[30] Franz Kafka, The Trial, p.178

[31] Albert Camus, The Outsider, p.117