31 January 2021
**Connections and Isolation in *The Outsider* and *Hamlet***
“Survival, in fact, is about the connections between things.” So said Edward Said in 1993, earning him a reputation as one of the most prominent cultural critics of the 20th century. He argues that one’s survival is entirely dependant on the meaningful connections he/she makes with his/her environment. Then, it makes sense that Hamlet’s (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) disconnection from his environment led to his tragic demise. Hamlet’s character embodies the intellectual struggle of Shakespeare’s age, addressing the epistemological and metaphysical mysteries of human existence. In Hamlet, an early prototype of existentialist thought is visible, driving him to isolation. Like Shakespeare, French novelist Albert Camus was influenced by the philosophical revolution (existentialism) of his era. The Outsider follows the protagonist Meursault as he develops existentialist views that disconnect him from society. The Outsider and Hamlet came into being three and a half centuries apart, yet their protagonists contain striking similarities. Meursault—the novel’s protagonist—faces his demise at the end, like Hamlet, because of his disconnection from society. Meursault and Hamlet embody existentialist principles, causing them to be alienated from society—and, as a result, they ultimately succeed as existential heroes.
Both Hamlet and Meursault embody existential principles. Hamlet seems to possess a fascination with death. It appears in almost all his major soliloquies, most notably in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He reveals his knowledge of the universality and certainty of death—a common existentialist principle—under interrogation by Claudius, “Your fat king and your lean beggar is but / variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that’s / the end.” (4.3.24-26) Hamlet recognizes that death spares no one, king or beggar alike. It is the eventual end for all human beings. In Act 5, Hamlet confronts the inevitability of death—an existentialist must—and is resigned to the finality of it:
If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be. (5.2.211-215)
Hamlet’s words reveal an indifference like Meursault, strikingly akin to a passage in The Outsider: “Given that you’ve got to die,” rationalizes Meursault, “it obviously doesn’t matter exactly how or when.” (Camus, 109) When Hamlet is about to duel Laertes, he accepts this philosophy, that there is no sense trying to escape death since it will come for him eventually either way. Likewise, Meursault finds happiness in his last moments when he comes to terms with the inevitability of death; he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death at an old age. His paradoxical realization liberates him to live life for what it is and make the most of his remaining days. Although Meursault is clearly a paragon of existentialism, Hamlet too shows signs of existentialist beliefs brewing within.
Meursault and Hamlet find liberation in their existentialist beliefs, but what happens, as a result, is that they both disconnect from the people around them, leading towards their demise. Hamlet’s self-induced separation from his lover—Ophelia—alienates any possible love for Hamlet, propelling him deeper into his isolated state. By stating, “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it. I loved you not” (3.1.118-119), Hamlet is lying to Ophelia to push her away. Like this, Hamlet distances himself from other close relationships he once had. By the end, Hamlet’s only real confidante is his friend, Horatio. The lack of connection and extreme loneliness leads him to contemplate suicide. In Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, he declares, “To be, or not to be: that is the question." (3.1.57) By questioning the purpose of life and whether to commit suicide, Hamlet expresses significant loneliness. Due to Hamlet’s actions, he lacks meaningful relationships and alienates all that could have saved him and would have pulled him from his tragic insanity. Meursault shares a similar predicament. Meursault is an isolated person, separating himself from his lover, Marie, his mother, his small circle of friends, and eventually, society and human reason itself. After being with Marie for the day, she asked him if he loved her. To which he responded, “I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so.” (Camus 35) Meursault’s attitude toward love and Marie conveys his isolation and his inability to create meaningful relationships. Through his self-induced isolation, Meursault creates a lonely life with little purpose. As the novel begins, it is apparent that Meursault is an incredibly lonely individual through how he mentions his mother’s funeral. “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.” (Camus, 1) Meursault’s blunt indifference and lack of emotion—to what would typically be a traumatic experience for most—exposes how he was rather distant from his mother. His non-traditionalist actions, like this, disconnect him from the people around him and society at large. Isolation renders him an “outsider” and results in him being sentenced to death, directly proving Said’s point that survival is dependant on the strength of the connections one has. In the case of Meursault and Hamlet, despite being considered existential heroes, their lack of meaningful relationships/connections resulted in their “worldly” demise.
Although both Hamlet and Meursault die at the end of each work, there is a notable difference in each protagonist’s outcome. Hamlet dies as a revered hero of Denmark, while Meursault is executed as an outsider (hated by society). In the last moments of Hamlet’s life, the royal caucus becomes cognizant of Claudius’s atrocities, and so he dies as a tragic hero. Even Fortinbras, stumbling upon the bodies, proclaims that, “Let four captains / Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, / For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royally.” (5.2.397-400) Fortinbras recognizes Hamlet’s bravery and conveys that he would have been a great king if he had the chance to prove himself. On the other hand, we can assume that Meursault is executed at society’s celebration. The public describes him as a “debt owed to society,” and he is a loathed criminal in their eyes. Instead of improving his public image, Meursault—near the end—paradoxically becomes actively happy (unlike before in the novel) when he becomes fully indifferent to the world’s affairs, “[F]or the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. . . . For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” (Camus, 123) He fully accepts that the universe is indifferent to human affairs, making him feel actively happy after opening himself up to the reality of human existence. So, although Meursault and Hamlet both die due to their disconnection from their environment, Hamlet dies as a hero while Meursault is executed as a loathed criminal.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Camus’s The Outsider exemplify how two protagonists became disconnected from their environment due to their existentialist ideologies—consequentially succeeding as existentialist heroes. Though conceived more than three centuries apart, Hamlet and The Outsider contain undeniable similarities, most strikingly between their two protagonists. Hamlet’s grief and indifference fuel him to jeopardize all his close relationships, whereas Meursault’s nihilistic tendencies drive him to have meaningless relationships making him appear as an “outsider” to society. Despite the slight differences at the endings of each work, both Meursault’s and Hamlet’s isolation from surrounding people leads them to a tragic end. Comparing The Outsider to Hamlet shows us that survival is entirely dependant on the authentic and meaningful connections that we make with others and the environment around us.
Camus, Albert. Stranger. Vintage International, 1989.
Shakespeare, William, et al. Hamlet with Related Readings. ITP International Thomson Pub., 1997.