Meursault and Gatsby: Dueling Existentialists

I wasn’t in class during the discussion on existentialism. However, just by being there in the following days, finishing The Stranger, and skimming the overviews on existentialism, I have been able to capture a vague idea of what it means to be an existentialist: seeing absurdity in your own existence and in the life you have worked so hard to create, realizing everyone’s ultimate fate is death, and living the rest of your life not according to societal expectations of people like you. You exit existence defiantly.

I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I only had to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

– Meursault, page 123

In The Stranger, we are never truly sure what causes Meursault to live his life the way he does. Maybe it’s when his mother moves into a home that he starts to see absurdity in trying so hard to succeed – his mother moves into a home because he can no longer financially support her, after all. All we truly know is that Meursault lives his life without a care, trying to find pleasure in being detached. As a result, he is easily manipulated, resulting in his downfall and existentialist realization that all humans have the same fate: death.

Another way I have grasped a small understanding of the concept of existentialism is by reading these blog posts. I have seen connections to Stephen King and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — which makes me recall reading Gatsby in AP Lang last year.

In the end, Gatsby lives an existential life, albeit different from Meursault’s: he inherits wealth, becomes a huge Mafia man, reunites with his first love, Daisy, and pretty much throws everything away in order to try and win her back. The focal point of all this is him buying a huge, ornate mansion right across from Daisy and her husband. Although Gatsby is a big man with lots of money and resources, it seems that Daisy is the only reason he exists. He wastes all of his money throwing huge parties in his mansion in order to attract Daisy, detached from the reality that they will not end up running off and starting a new life together – in fact, after Myrtle Wilson is killed, Daisy and Tom run off and Gatsby is shot by Mr. Wilson.

In The Stranger, we see existentialist parallels to Gatsby — Meursault finds pleasure in being detached and his only purpose is to follow the mundane orders of his peers — attend his mother’s funeral, agree to the idea of marrying his girlfriend (“Well, we could if she wanted to”), and ultimately, kill the two native Algerians, leading to his execution. It seems that all of Meursault’s angers with society come out when he is talking with the Chaplain the day before his execution:

What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers?

– Meursault, page 121

And while both learn to accept their fate, unlike Gatsby, Meursault dies with an overwhelming sense of pride in getting out what he truly thinks.

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