An Exploration in Existentialism


Kierkegaard once said that man is not his own creator in this world (Huxley 198). Manipulating this observation are two prominent writers and philosophers of the post-war era, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. As authors of fictional works, Sartre and Camus exercise their power over the world of the characters in their respective novels Iron in the Soul and The Plague to express their views on existentialist themes. Although both are considered influential teachers of existentialist philosophy, the manner in which they express their views regarding the themes of existentialism do not always share a parallel perspective. Both authors share views concerning the freedom of man and his responsibility to the choices made under such freedom, as well as the precedence of the existence over the essence of life. They differ, however, in their analytical developments of alienation and the concept of death.


Existentialism dictates that freedom is not only offered to every man and woman, but it is also an inevitable presence in life. Each person is free whether or not such freedom is desired, because “each encounter is primary and demands a new choice” (Caute viii). Freedom is the power of choice, but it comes with a price: responsibility for one’s own actions. In their portrayal of freedom, Sartre and Camus parallel their perspectives through the characters of Mathieu and Dr. Rieux.


Mathieu, the protagonist of Iron in the Soul, is an educated and upright man. In his dying moments, he shoulders the consequences of his life decisions. As the sole survivor of his platoon, he is seen firing upon Germans below; in these moments, Sartre demonstrates a unique model of man’s contention with freedom. “Each one of his shots avenged some ancient scruple”, but these scruples do not concern Mathieu’s misdeeds (Sartre 245). Instead, they represent his life regrets. “One [shot] for Lola whom I dared not rob; […and] one for Odette whom I didn’t want to kiss. This for the books I never dared to write, this for the journeys I never made, this for everybody in general whom I wanted to hate and tried to understand” (Sartre 245). Sartre implies that Mathieu is ultimately responsible for all of his own regrets: when the opportunities presented themselves, the choice to act was his alone to make.


Likewise, Camus uses Rieux to demonstrate this existentialist value of choice and commitment. Rieux, a doctor tending to plague victims, is confronted by his friend Tarrou. Tarrou mentions to Rieux that the victory of his great efforts will be short-lived because it will be impossible for him and his medical teams to defeat death’s devastation. Yet Rieux replies that this is not a good enough reason for him, or anyone else, to stop fighting the plague. Rieux realizes his choice is a “never ending defeat”, but justifies his actions by expressing his commitment to his decision: “That’s how it is, […] and there’s nothing to be done about it” (Camus 118 and 189). Here, Camus’ character chooses to act according to his abilities and talents, to aid the town through all possible methods (Judt xi). Ultimately, Rieux accepts the outcome of his decisions gracefully.


Sartre and Camus share the belief that with universal freedom, dutiful commitment must follow choice. This common ground is modelled by characters in their novels, who also demonstrate the existentialist principle of precedence of existence over essence.


The idea that existence precedes essence, originally stated by Sartre, is the foundation of existentialist philosophy. Longin’s companions from Iron in the Soul and Dr. Rieux’s staff from The Plague share this attitude of living for the present rather than for the future.


Longin is one of the many defeated French soldiers. As they await the arrival of German troops, he pleads with his comrades to look ahead at what is to come: “We got to learn to see further than our noses. We got to think about the Europe of the future,” to which the men respond, “Is the Europe of the future going to put food in my belly?” (Sartre 89). While Longin is concerned with life beyond Nazism, the men are concerned only with their immediate survival. Through their choice, Sartre communicates that if one does not live to satisfy his physical needs, future