Revolution and Literature in Camus’s The Stranger and Joyce’s Dubliners

Teodros Kiros





Herbert Marcuse was critical of Marxist Aesthetics.  In One Dimensional Man and The Aesthetic Dimension, Marcuse develops original categories of understanding the idea of Revolution.  On Marcuse’s reading, Marxist Aesthetics does not pay service to the role of literature in the transformation of consciousness and its revolutionary consequences.

In this paper I will attempt to demonstrate that The Stranger and Dubliners are both revolutionary texts, which seek to establish New Concrete Universals by disestablishing reality and challenging our consciousness to imagine a new society populated by new human beings who think, feel, imagine in hitherto untested reality principles. This vision is in full accord with the emancipatory project of One Dimensional Man.

By using certain Marcusean categories I will engage the characters of these two modernist writings and show the way by which literature indirectly participates in the creation of a new world, thereby by concretely showing the revolutionary function of the novel as well as the short story as vehicles of radical change and the construction of originary consciousness.

In this way, I will argue that literature can play an indirect role of cultivating new subjectivity by highly effective ethics and aesthetics which relentlessly challenges one dimensionality by envisioning a multidimensional society of happy and free new subjects who respond to the writers call for the articulation of unrestrained inner lives- to which liberated citizens respond affirmatively.

I will now develop this argument in four parts.  Part I summarizes Marx’ theory of alienation and shows how Marcuse applies it to the Aesthetic Dimension; part II, argues that The Stranger is inhabited by alienated characters and finally, part III, shows the complex sense in which Dubliners is also afflicted by paralysis, a profound form of alienation. Part IV concludes with a reflection on the birth of New Subjectivities, following the critical agendas fully articulated in One Dimensional Man.


Part I

Herbert Marcuse, the author of the world famous Reason and Revolution, was a great admirer of  Karl Marx’ Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in which the young Marx, closely following Hegel, like Marcuse after him, developed his splendid  theory of Alienation, in which Marx identifies five fundamental ways in which the human self is alienated.  Herbert Marcuse was a devoted student of Hegel and a brilliant interpreter of the Hegelian comportment in Marx’ early work: The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, (EPM) a book that looms large in Marcuse’s critical theory of society.

In EPM, Marx compellingly argues that Capitalism has subjected us all to be alienated, (a) from our very self, (b) from the laboring activity itself, (c) from the products of our labor, (d) from our fellow laborers and finally, (e) from our species nature, our universal connection with other human beings.

In The Aesthetic Dimension, Marcuse directly applies these five forms of alienation, in the understanding of Art and most particularly in literature.

For Marcuse, authentic works of Art are drawn from the inner resources of individuals and not as vulgar Marxists think from their class backgrounds.  That class definitely influences the artist’s productions but it certainly does not determine the fate of the laboring artist.  Indeed, under capitalism, Marcuse argues,  the artist is alienated from the self, from the product of labor, from the laboring process, other fellow laborers, and the human species. As Marcuse puts it, “ Liberating subjectivity constitutes itself in the inner history of the individuals- their own history, which is not identical with their social existence”1(Herbert Marcuse (The Aesthetic Dimension, Boston, Beacon Press, p, 7).

However, when the artist consciously produces for a future society under the condition of freedom, a delineated society of happy individuals is a definite possibility.  Only in art is this possibility manifest.  Only in art is social existence transcended by autonomy, by the inner sources of the passions and imaginary horizons of the conscious individual who realizes his/her species by producing universally under the self-imposed condition of freedom. The dealienated artist of a future society can escape his/her fate by transcending alienation in all its forms, and that alienation is not a permanent feature of existence, as some existentialists might contend.

Again, Marcuse writes, “ The critical function of Art, its contribution to the struggle of liberation, resides in the Aesthetic form 2(Ibid, p,8).

The dealinated artist indicts the existing forms of the capitalist market, which seeks to impose the commodity form of producing art for the alienating market.  The critically conscious artist says no to the commodity form and yes to the genuine aesthetic whole of a future society by activating “ aesthetic sublimation” For Marx, such artist produces for a “Universal class” and not merely the proletariat, as vulgar Marxists contend.   The universally conscious artist produces for the human species, and thus transcends the limiting conditions of social existence, fully aware that “ The inexorable entanglement of joy and sorrow, celebration and despair, Eros and Thanatos cannot be dissolved into problems of class struggle” 3(Ibid, p, 7). The critical writer of a future society transcends the distorted grammar of social existence by an affirmative rearticulating of repressed human powers of happiness but also despair, and disappointment from the depth of his/her imaginary powers.

Fiction in particular, as I will show below, is guided by the revolutionary principle of a new concrete universal that ascends to the founding of a new establishment,  a new reality principle that activates the hidden potentialities of humans to see, hear, touch and smell in new ways, by expanding their horizons, by embracing and cultivating new ways of being human. The artist’s task is to expose the alienating features of the distorted forms of commodification.

The writers task is only to show by the literary forms of the novel the alienated styles of the existing reality principle, which naturalizes alienation, as if alienation cannot be transcended by new subjectivities, new possibilities.

The novel and short stories can do this task and have done this task, as I will seek to show below.  I have chosen The Stranger and Dubliners as representative works of fiction, which articulate completely our present human condition by inviting readers to participate in the world that the characters open.


Part II

Camus’ The Stranger.

The Stranger, begins with the notorious existential proposition,

“Mother died today. Or, may be yesterday; I can’t be sure”

Many a reader has responded to this proposition with a legion of feelings. Some are simply shocked by the clarity of the declaration; other are deeply offended by the coldness of the report; many politically conscious readers empathize with the alienation of Meursault, the character; a few express awe at the utter cruelty of life and the meaninglessness of existence, which is widely understood as Camus’ own commitment to existentialism as a way of life.

Indeed the proposition is shocking in all of the above senses.  But it is also considerably more.

Meursault is a modern worker.  He works at dead end jobs, which he did not choose.  He must make a living, however.  His social existence is influenced by his material condition.  Like most us, he wakes up, goes to work, and returns home at the end of the day.  This is life. This is existence under capitalism. That we must work is a truism. That we work under conditions that we did not choose requires analysis, a quest for a transformation from the monotony of the everyday towards the sunlight of freedom.  This sunlight can be released only by the activities of a revolutionary moral subject.  It is an activity of the reason of literature, of the birth of new subjectivity.

Meursault does not think of alternatives to the alienation, which characterizes his life.  Meursault describes the real with an arresting objectivity, of precision, of presentation of things as they are.

He cannot even grieve his mother’s death. He is numbed to the pitfalls of capitalism.  Death is another day, a day of the absence of life for someone, somewhere and all the time.

His mother died, just like his mother was once alive. Meursault is alive now. One day, he too will die.  There is no need to grieve about the inevitable.  He is more worried that his life is going to be inconvenienced by the fact of death, than he is about the inevitability of dying.   That he must live to  work, asks his boss for permission, travel to and back.  He finds these dimensions of existence annoying. The last thing in his mind is his mother’s death. It is simply a fact like many other natural facts.

He was not close to his mother  anyway. She was born, lived and died. That is it. That is all that matters.  She was there very much like physical objects: chairs, tables and desks. The only difference is that they do not speak. Human beings can speak, can choose but they do not necessarily do so. His mother did not speak.  He did not know her.  That is why she always watched him, without speaking to him.

What is true about death is also true about love.  Neither death nor love constitutes a meaning. They are simply part of the fabric of the meaninglessness of existence.  Love simply happens to us, exactly like death.  We are not always in love. Sometimes, we fall in what people call love. We are ourselves do not always recognize being in love, until others point it out to us.  Then we say, “ Oh. That is what others call love”. Then we begin to designate the feeling by giving it a name. That name is love.

What is true of love also applies to marriage. Meursault reports that his girlfriend Marie” asked if I loved her. I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I did not.4 (Albert Camus, The Stranger, New York: Vintage Books, 1942), p, and 44

Love like death is meaningless. They are both things, which happen to humans.  We make much too much of the meaningless of conventions.  Just because something is conventionally true, it does not mean that it is true. It is true only to the precise extent that we can identify the designation. The designation makes sense. We understand it. We know how it is used in the grammar of social existence.

The same is true about marriage.  When Marie asked him if he could marry her, he e simply said only if she wants to. He knows the sense in which the designation functions in a system of language, as a sign, a symbol, a meaning.  That is all he knows, which he could know.

The same is true about killing someone, like the Arab that he killed.  Meursault did not know why he did it.  Again, it happened that he killed a man.  That the senselessness of the action proves the larger senseless of social existence.  His action is not dictated by his material condition as in vulgar Marxism.  His fate is determined by the meaningless of life under the only social system that Meursault knows.

As Meursault put it in court, “ I had rather lost the habit of noting my feelings…I could truthfully say I had been  quiet fond of Mother, but really that did not mean much .  All normal people, I added as after thought, had more or less desired the death of those they loved, as some time or another 5 (Ibid, p, 40)

There are those who admire Meursault for articulating what many secretly feel.  That Meursault speaks the unspeakable, that he admits what we all deny.  Meursault is courageous, honest and transparent.

Fiction does not preach. It shows.  The Stranger shows us a way of life. The writer does not take a direct position.  He invites the reader to participate in the analyses of the propositions, which Meursault spits out. It is we, the readers, who must think when the writers turn us inside out.  He holds the mirror to the intimacy of our lives, of the way we live, perhaps inexorably.

Each of us must make up our minds.  The stranger does indict the established reality directly.  Art, as we learned from Marcuse, does not indict directly. It only shows the real, which must be changed. But the writer does not show us another reality. He describes the established reality with skill, precision, honesty and infectious realism.  His method of indictment  is realism, but not the realism of Marxism.  His realism is drawn from passion blended with keen observation.

It is we the infected readers who must go beyond the real to the possible, from the real to the suprareal.

Fiction as an aesthetic whole can only consummate in the presentation of what is, and very subtly, of what can be, but never declares what ought to be.  The latter is outside of the horizon of the novel, the short story, the sketch of life.

The Stranger is a revolutionary work not because it is guided by the prism of vision but rather consecrates the presentation of the mundane, the everyday, the conventions of social existence with a brilliant literary form, which is simultaneously a content, or through a content, which has become form.


Part III

The commanding principle of Dubliners is the idea of paralysis. This theme is most prominent in two stories, in Eveline and The Dead. Like The Stranger, Dubliners does not preach. It shows through the organizing principle of social existence and paralysis.

Eveline encounters a boy who can change her life from the dread, anguish and poverty in which she was drowning for years in the hands of an alcoholic father and dead mother.

Eveline opens with the following passage, “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaning against the window curtains and in her nostrils the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired”6 ( James Joyce, Dubliners, (Bantine Books, 1990), p, 24

Eveline is drenched in poverty.  She is bored and marked by boredom. Dusty cretonne is her food.  However, life is full of surprises, when we listen to its counsels, smell its promises, and see its gifts.

Eveline’s life was to be changed when a young man, Frank came to her life.  With him she was to explore her possibilities and escape the trap of paralysis, the permanent condition of

changelessness.  Eveline was listening to the silent voice of change, nor seeing the invisible invitation to escape, the cretonne, the boredom, the familiar old furniture, and the smell of her father’s alcoholism.

Time is running out on Eveline but “ she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne”7 (ibid, p, 27)

Eveline is paralyzed. Time is asking her to escape, to release herself from the trap of tradition, the weight of established reality. Her life is indicting paralysis. A voice is asking her to escape, reminding her that she is trapped in the wings of tradition.  Eveline is terrorized as she is contemplating to leave her father and for the first  time live her own life, travel on her own path.

Franks seizes her hand at the station and says, “ come”. And she, “ Set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her face gave him no sign of love or farwell or recognition” 8( Ibid, p, 28)

Paralysis! Paralysis! shouts tradition. Change. A New Reality Principle responds the future.  Eveline chose paralysis against freedom, brutal facticity against the sunlight of transcendence.  In a perfectly crafted short story, James Joyce introduces us to the revolutionary principle of hope, of change, of new subjectivity, and new imaginary.

The Dead, a work of the mature Joyce is also populated by a plethora of characters that are already paralyzed, infact dead, except that they do not know it.  They live like the dead, that is to say that they are not alive. Whereas Eveline was fully aware that she is dying, but she chose death to life; in The Dead, the characters are dying in the paralyzed city of Dublin, the background to the monotonous and frozen lives of its citizens.

Everyday life is the same. The characters go to the balls, eat dinner, discuss Irish politics, speak inauthentically, afraid that if they spoke the truth, that others would be offended.  The humor, generosity, humanity and hospitality of the old generation are lost to the new generation, declares Gabriel8 (Ibid, p, 156).  The new generation is being indicted by the standards of the old generation.  The greed, cruelty and selfishness of modern capitalism are engulfing Dubliners and the critical gaze of Joyce is leading the new song.  Like Camus, Joyce does not preach, does articulate an alternative.  That is not the work of fiction.  Joyce lifts the mirror to Dubliners by sketching their lives, painting them on the walls of Dublin, as Dubliners are suffering from paralysis.

No one is living his/her life.

The last three lines of The Dead say it all,

“ His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” 9(Ibid, 182)


Part IV- New Subjectivities

I agree with Douglas Kellner that

There is widespread agreement today that we need the discourse of subjectivity and agency for ethics, for politics, and for the positive reconstruction of self and society. Within this context, I have argued that Marcuse’s perspectives on subjectivity stand up to at least aspects of the poststructuralist and other critiques of the subject, as well as providing resources for reconstructing the concept of subjectivity in the contemporary era. It is important to note that for Marcuse the reconstruction of subjectivity, the creation of eroticized rationality, and the development of a free creative self, can only take place through practice and the transformation of social relations and activity. Marcuse argued that the existing society is organized precisely to prevent such a reconstruction of subjectivity and new social relations, prescribing instead a regime of domination, authority, repression, manipulative desublimation, and submission. Especially in One- Dimensional Man (hereafter ODM), but throughout his work, Marcuse presents a critique of hegemonic forms of subjectivity and domination and a challenge to overcome the one-dimensional, conformist, and normalized subjectivity of the advanced technological society.10 (Douglas Kellner, Dogma, 2000)

In the Aesthetic Dimension, the new radical subjectivity of ODM is that of artists, the creative spirits who consciously indict the established reality of the music industry and dogmatic literature.  Young artist are increasingly critical of their place in the music industry. Males are protesting against being treated as thoughtless producers of music, which does not reflect what they truly want.  That they write lyrics that sell, against their wishes, so that they can pay off their loans after they graduate from expensive schools. They are aware that they are selling their souls by lending their bodies to the powers to be.  They are internally saying no and only externally doing what they must do- to survive, to merely live.

Young women in particular are sick of being background music and exhibiting their “ butts” to the male gaze.  They too have just begun saying no. They are slowly but surely engaging in the Great Refusal of Critical Theory.

The new artists are striving to sculpt new souls.  They are thinkers. They are creators who think and whose creativity is guided by the standards of artistic autonomy and the idea of beauty, of form having become content. Their songs and literature consciously escape the menacing snares of hegemonic ideology, which they reject by the new subjectivity of self-controlled and self-propelled art. They are conscious of what they produce and how they produce it.