Albert Camus’ the Plague

1 January 2017

Can God possibly exist in a world full of madness and injustice? Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett address these questions in The Plague and Waiting for Godot. Though their thinking follows the ideals of existentialism, their conclusions are different. Camus did not believe in God, nor did he agree with the vast majority of the historical beliefs of the Christian religion.

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His stance on Christianity is summed up most simply by his remark that “in its essence, Christianity (and this is its paradoxical greatness) is a doctrine of injustice. It is founded on the sacrifice of the innocent and the acceptance of this sacrifice” (Bree 49). Camus felt that Jesus Christ was an innocent man who was unjustly killed. This does conflicts with all of Camus’ values. However, Camus did not believe that Jesus was the son of God.

Camus’ inability to accept Christian theology is voiced in The Plague by Riex and juxtaposed against the beliefs preached by Father Paneloux (Rhein 42). Paneloux’s attitude toward the plague contrasts sharply with Rieux’s. In his first sermon, he preaches that the plague is divine in origin and punitive in its purpose. He attempts to put aside his desires for a rational explanation and simply accepts God’s will. In this way he is not revolting and therefore falls victim to the plague.

Father Paneloux’s belief that there are no innocent victims is shaken as he watches a young boy die of the plague. Camus purposefully describes a long, painful death to achieve the greatest effect on Paneloux: “When the spasms had passed, utterly exhausted, tensing his thin legs and arms, on which, within forty-eight hours, the flesh had wasted to the bone, the child lay flat, in a grotesque parody of crucifixion” (215). Paneloux cannot deny that the child was an innocent victim and is forced to rethink his ideas.

During his second sermon, a change is seen in Father Paneloux. He now uses the pronoun “we” instead of “you,” and he has adopted a new policy in which he tells people to believe “all or nothing” (224). Father Paneloux, as a Christian, is faced with a decision: either he accepts that God is the ultimate ruler and brings goodness out of the evil that afflicts men, or he sides with Rieux and denies God. The conclusion formed by Camus is that because this is a world in which innocent people are tortured, there is no God.

Samuel Beckett does not necessarily deny the existence of God in Waiting for Godot. If God does exist, then He contributes to the chaos by remaining silent. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted the arbitrariness of life and that the universe works based on percentages. He advocated using such arbitrariness to one’s advantage, including believing in God. If He does not exist, nobody would care in the end, but if He does, a believer is on the safe side all along, so one cannot lose. In this play, either God does not exist, or He does not care.

Whichever is the case, chance and arbitrariness determine human life in the absence of a divine power. This ties in with the two tramps’ chances for salvation. As one critic observes, “For just as man cannot live by bread alone, he now realizes that he cannot live by mere thinking or hanging on in vain to a thread of salvation which does not seem to exist” (Lumley 203). This explains Vladimir and Estragon’s contemplation of suicide after Godot remains absent for yet another day. One could also argue, in the absurd sense, that each man has a fifty-fifty chance of salvation.

One of the two prisoners who were crucified with Jesus was given salvation. This element of chance for salvation can also be extended to Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot. When they come across the two tramps, Pozzo is on his way to sell Lucky because he claims that Lucky has grown old and only hinders him. In this way Pozzo is trying to draw that fifty-fifty chance of salvation for himself. One of the ways in which Lucky hinders him is that Lucky could be the one to be redeemed, leaving Pozzo to be damned. Even Lucky’s speech is concerned with salvation:

Given the existence… of a personal God… outside time without who from the heights of divine apathia divide athambia divide apaia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown… and suffers… with those who for reasons unknown are plunged in torment. (28) After removing all of Lucky’s nonsensical meanderings, the gist of his speech is that God does not communicate with humans and condemns them for unknown reasons. His silence causes the real hopelessness, and this is what makes Waiting for Godot a tragedy

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