UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Aspects of the absurd in modern fiction, with special reference to Under the Volcano and Catch-22 Atkins, Shirley Elizabeth


This thesis acknowledges the presence of a clear note of affirmation in some novels of the mid-Twentieth Century. Finding a similar affirmation in Albert Camus' essays, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, it attempts to demonstrate a basic agreement between the essays and a limited selection of such novels. It then attempts to support this conclusion by examination of two novels in some detail. It considers that this relationship arises naturally from the artists' mutual perception of man's perilous condition in the modern world, and that it does not imply the necessity of conscious imitation of Camus' thoughts on the absurd. Nevertheless, since this thesis intends to show that the affirmation in the novels arises from an attitude that Camus termed "absurdist" and inheres in a way of life that he termed "absurd," such novels, for the purpose of this study, are called "Absurd." Chapter One attempts to explain man's existential anxiety as a spiritual state germane to his condition as an intelligent being in an obscure universe, and to describe how this natural anxiety, painfully intensified in a godless, materialistic age, has resulted in spiritual sterility and paralysis of creative action. Of this condition, such novelists as Malcolm Lowry, Joseph Heller, William Golding, Lawrence Durrell and William Styron seem acutely aware. In addition, it attempts to define Camus' uses of the term "absurd," and to explain the nature of the absurd life—the life of absurd rebellion—that he advances as the only-positive answer to the challenge of the times. While recognizing that the diversity evident among these novels attests to their nature as independent creations, Chapter One attempts to establish their basic agreement with Camus' ideas of the absurd, and to trace the existence among them of broad similarities. Finally, by examination of values implied, it notes that these authors seem to arrive at Camus' conclusion that "everything is permitted," limited, as Camus limits it, by the necessity of individual responsibility. Chapters two and three, detailed examinations of the absurd in two novels, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, attempt to clarify the nature of the authors' protest by pointing out what forces, both external and internal, are attacked. As this process involves an analysis of the nature and results of destructive escapism, whether individual escape into alcoholism or mass escape into meaningless conformity or excessive rationalism, it suggests also the urgency of the individual struggle for the "lucid awareness" that Camus demands. In particular, these chapters hope to clarify the affirmation implied by the individual liberation from illusion and anxiety to defiant joy in conscious living. The Conclusion restates the fundamental agreement between the controlling themes of these novels and the tenets of the absurd delineated by Camus. Also, it demonstrates the diversity of method and approach by which the two novels deal with common themes and arrive at affirmative conclusions. Finally, it warns against the interpretation of this fiction as the expression of a doctrine for universal salvation. The Absurd Novel is not, therefore, what Camus would call disparagingly a "thesis-novel" ; at most, like The Myth of Sisyphus, it issues a positive challenge to the individual in the modem world.

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