The protagonists Meursault and Oedipus in The Outsider and Oedipus the King are presented in their respective works as characters with flaws – flaws that are fairly minor initially, but develop progressively into catalysts for their eventual demise. Ostensibly, these two characters are significantly different, yet comparisons can be drawn between the two: Meursault’s self indulgent characteristics can be seen in Oedipus’ arrogance, Meursault’s apathy – or emotional blindness also images Oedipus’ figurative blindness, and Oedipus’ ego, or his stubbornness in standing by his morals, is comparable to Meursault’s complete lack of morals. Finally, both characters experience a fall from grace as a direct result of their flaws.
One generally overlooked flaw of Meursault is his self indulgent characteristics, which plays a rather pivotal role in Camus’ The Outsider, only ever apparent during the scene where Meursault kills the Arab for no discernible reason. ‘I realized that I’d destroyed the balance of the day and the perfect silence of the beach where I’d been happy’. This is Meursault’s response after killing someone; subsequently, he fires four more shots into the dead body out of anger as the killing has ‘destroyed the balance of the day’, neither worried, nor concerned he had taken a man’s life. This incident reveals his self-indulgent character.
Oedipus, on the other hand, shares a similar yet also different flaw – arrogance, a flaw which suggests some degree of self indulgence. In the opening scene of the play, the people of Thebes ‘carry branches wound in wool and lay them on the altar’, an offering usually reserved for the Gods, but the ‘branches wound in wool’ are instead offered to Oedipus, suggesting his demi God status. This consequently results in his extreme hubris. Shortly after, Oedipus makes an extremely arrogant response, ‘Here I am myself – you all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus.’ His arrogance is not necessarily his own fault; the people of Thebes feed his arrogance, and thus reinforce his other flaws – blindness and egotism. His demise is not brought upon solely by himself, but also by the people.
Through the use of dramatic foil, Sophocles effectively brings his arrogance and blindness in the limelight. This is apparent in the scene where Oedipus confronts Tiresias, the Prophet. ‘You’ve lost your power, stone-blind, stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone’. Oedipus’ constant insults and mockery of Tiresias’ blindness not only reveals his arrogance but also his unawareness of the obvious truth which Tiresias constantly refers to. The image is reinforced through the repetition of the word ‘stone’. Tiresias’ dramatic irony ‘I pity you, flinging at me the very insults each man here will fling at you so soon’, once again highlights Oedipus’ blindness, in that Tiresias is physically blind – yet he is able to see what Oedipus cannot. Oedipus however ignores Tiresias’ statement and continues to mock Tiresias, who finally puts it bluntly, ‘You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life’.
Meursault’s apathy is comparable to Oedipus’ blindness. Meursault is emotionally blind due to his apathetic character whereas Oedipus is figuratively blind. Meursault is unable to attach emotion to events, nor is he able to recognise the emotional significance of such events. Meursault’s apathetic and indifferent character is profoundly revealed in Meursault’s own words shortly after his mother passed away: ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’. It is also reflected on how Meursault spends the day: he then awakens, goes down to the port, meets a woman and ends up in bed with her. He describes the day in the usual blank and indifferent tone, ending with ‘I realized that I’d managed to get through another Sunday, that mother was now buried, that I was going to go back to work and that, after all, nothing had changed’.
Oedipus’ ego is inseparable with his arrogance. His ego is revealed in his response to Tiresias during their confrontation, ‘…when did you ever prove yourself a prophet? … No, but I came by, Oedipus the ignorant, I stopped the sphinx!’. His ego is constantly nurtured by the Chorus: ’The omens were good that day you brought us joy – be the same man today!’. This constant encouragement, enhanced by the offering of the ‘branches wound in wool’, creates a set of standards and expectations upon which Oedipus feels he has to live up to. Gradually, the sense of standing on moral high ground results in clouded judgement and blindness to the truth as he only wants to hear what pleases him.
Meursault, on the other hand, can be seen as the opposite. He lacks any sort of morals due to his apathy, resulting in the lack of judgement which society deems necessary. ‘My whole being went tense and I tightened the grip on the gun. The trigger gave in, I felt the sharp but deafening noise, that it all started’.This is exactly how Meursault narrated his killing. What Meursault brings up as a reason for the murder is his disgust and discontent with the sun as it was making him feel hot and uneasy; this is, of course, unacceptable to society, but somewhat a reason due to Meursault’s blatant lack of morals which cloud his judgement.
It is undeniable that Oedipus’ and Meursault’s fall from grace are direct results of their flaws. They are, however, presented differently. Oedipus becomes a tragic hero due to his hamartia. This is especially apparent in the final scene: ‘Dark, horror of darkness my darkness, drowning, swirling around and crashing wave on wave – unspeakable, irresistible headwind, fatal harbour!…Oh again the misery, all at once, over and over the stabbing of daggers, stab of memory…’ This image is hugely reinforced and emphasised through the alliteration of the letter ‘D’, creating a sharp sound – amplifying the sinister imagery created by the syntax of Sophocles, the constant use of verbs to create a sinister atmosphere ‘drowning, swirling, crashing, stabbing’. The Chorus responds, ‘Pitiful, you suffer so, you understand so much… I wish you had never known’. Even the Chorus, a group which usually maintains no bias, has sympathy for Oedipus because he was a King who cared for Thebes. This caring is deem as a positive attribute and thus sympathy is ultimately evoked. It is truly tragic to see a caring King fall from grace, and Sophocles successfully presents Oedipus as a character empathised by the audience and thus a tragedy is created. This idea of a tragic hero is reinforced and emphasised through his redemption, his bearing of the pain to gouge out his own eyes – another positive attribute – as he promised to do so. When his tragedy and his ‘pains on pains’ – denoting physical and emotional pain, could have ended quickly through death, yet Oedipus chooses to live with it in exile.
In contrast, no sympathy whatsoever is evoked for Meursault when he reaches the point of demise. This is due to his absurd character and his social ineptitude. Throughout the novel Meursault intentionally distances himself from people, he does not seem aware nor does he care about what people felt about him, yet on the final pages he makes a spontaneous transformation. ‘For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my final wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.’ Why does Meursault suddenly care of people’s perception of him? Why is he welcoming a crowd? The ridiculousness of Meursault’s demise is emphasised by his absurd emotional attachment to the sun, he was angered by the sun which resulted in him killing the Arab, something which he mentions in his trial – a completely illogical reason by social norm.
The significance of flaws is that it resonates and relates to the readers and the audience; it is something real. For both characters, their flaws mingle and reinforce each other, and finally led to their eventual demise. Oedipus becomes a tragic hero as sympathy is evoked for him because his flaws are accompanying with positive attributes which redeem him to an extent. Meursault, however, is socially inept and absurd, and most of all he has no positive attributes that society can identify. No sympathy, therefore, is evoked. Camus thus raises the notion that not being ‘normal’ in society can result in heavy persecution. Meursault was ultimately not executed for killing the Arab, but for his apathy and indifference.