The Forms of Apathy in Literature

Bachelor Thesis, 2011
109 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content

1. Introduction
1.1 What is apathy?

2. Apathy as a character trait

3. Unawareness of emotions - The Stranger
3.1 First indications for apathy
3.2 Apathy and moral guilt
3.3 Reliability
3.4 Apathy as Meursault’s tragic flaw

4. Controlling/repressing emotions - Hamlet
4.1 Emotion and ratio
4.2 Examples of repressed emotions: Hamlet in interaction with other characters
4.3 Soliloquies and motivation
4.4 Apathy as Hamlet’s flaw

5. Striving to feel - Fight Club
5.1 Disrupting the state of apathy
5.2 Who is Tyler Durden?
5.3 From copy to original – From apathy to emotion

6. Emotion in relation to only one particular feature – Perfume
6.1 Apathy, smell and existence
6.2 Grenouille’s apathy and further analysis of the character’s motivation
6.3 Crime fiction from the view of the murderer

7. Apathy as social phenomenon - Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?
7.1 The different social groups: three levels of human emotion
7.2 Empathy and emotion for oneself
7.3 Creating apathy in society
7.4 Dystopias and utopias

8. Apathy in the narration - Boyhood

9. Apathy in the setting – Endgame and Dubliners

10. Intermediate conclusion
10.1 The four types of apathetic characters
10.2 The two forms of apathy as external concept
10.3 Apathy in the setting and narration

11. Comparison of further key differences
11.1 Assimilation to society
11.2 Religion
11.3 Will to live and the downfall

12. Criticism in the text (philosophy in literature)
12.1 Existence precedes essence
12.2 Concept of time
12.3 Concept of humanism
12.4 Concept of freedom
12.5 Ethical considerations

13. Apathy in poems – Apathy and Enthusiasm

14. The reader’s experience / Differences between play, prose and poem

15. Final conclusion

16. References

1. Introduction

Apathy is the lack of any kind of emotion. As emotions are essential to the conception of the human being, many approaches to understand this phenomenon have been made. The fields of psychology and biology are only two of several sciences which try to explain this phenomenon of alexithymia. But whereas the core and origin of this human condition are still being analysed, literature has been using the theme of apathy in several different ways. How this theme is used and which different concepts of apathy exist, will be examined in this discourse.

This discourse will concentrate on two major aspects of literature: the effect of apathy as a concept within the plot and the effect of this concept of apathy on the reader. The main part will focus on the development of the characters within the plot because apathy is primarily a human condition. Albert Camus, for example, presents a protagonist in his work The Stranger who is entirely unaware of his emotions. He does not express or perceive any feelings and thereby sees the world without emotions. Moreover, the relation between emotion and ratio of William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet will be analysed showing that Hamlet is in control of his emotional state. This special concept of apathy, which sets in after the ghost appears, will be examined. The protagonist in Fight Club confronts the reader with a completely different concept of apathy as he strives to extinguish his own lack of emotion. Thereby, also the concept of apathy of life in Fight Club, which shows that apathy can go beyond a single character trait, will be examined. Furthermore, Grenouille, the protagonist of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, is a highly complex character as he perceives the world with his sense of smell. He is an unemotional murderer on the surface, whose aim it is to create a perfume which makes everyone love him. He does not strive to feel himself, but strives for others to feel for him. The question will be how apathy works in combination with a character whose perception of the world is not compatible with the reader’s perception and which special concept of apathy is produced by this kind of character. These four characters will show the first form of apathy: the apathy as a character trait.

Then the field of apathy within a single character will be left. Apathy can become an external concept, as it has been already shown by the concept of apathy of life presented in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. In utopian fiction entire fictive societies without emotions or with controlled emotions such as in Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? have been created. In these works apathy becomes a social phenomenon. Apathy of life and apathy as social phenomenon will then serve as examples for the next form of apathy: apathy as external concept.

Furthermore, it will be of interest to analyse whether apathy is something which can only be found in the nature of a character or if it can also appear in the narrative, for which J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood will serve as primary example, or even if we can call a setting unemotional, which will be described with the help of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and a short excursion to James Joyce’ Dubliners.

After the analysis of apathy within the text, it will be concentrated on the criticism such literary works incorporate. The focus of this last part will therefore lie on the effect of apathy on the reader and viewer. Whether there is only one correct author’s intention to extract or the text functions as independent entity providing the reader with several different forms of criticism, will be discussed. The presented texts will moreover be examined with the help of five aspects of existentialism which Thomas R. Flynn points out. It will be explained, why literature which deals with the theme of apathy affects exactly these existentialistic aspects and moreover, what particular criticism can be extracted from the texts.

Finally, not only the criticism/message, but the viewing experience will be brought into focus. What will be examined is if the lack of emotion has a different effect on the reader, if it appears in a prose text, a play or even a poem. Therefore, Herman Melville’s poem Apathy and Enthusiasm will be analysed in order to understand if and how apathy appears in a poem.

1.1 What is apathy?

Before examining the theme of apathy in literature, it is necessary to define what apathy is. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says that apathy is the “feeling of not being interested in or enthusiastic about anything” (p. 59, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English). Lacking enthusiasm means lacking emotion towards a certain object or situation. The recent Wikipedia – article about apathy calls it a “state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions” ( In this thesis apathy will therefore be used synonym to the lack or suppression of emotions and furthermore, the state of being apathetic will be used synonym to being unemotional. This state is particularly what will be examined in this thesis. But as apathy is the lack of emotions, it becomes important to define what emotions are. Commonly, when speaking about emotions, one refers to human conditions as fear, love, anger, happiness and so on. These conditions can appear as a single, quick impression or a lasting mood. Moreover, there have been several philosophical debates about how to specify what exactly emotions are. E. M. Dadlez shows up several of these philosophical positions in What’s Hecuba to him? and brings up the key questions. It has been debated whether emotions are something happening to us or something which we actively do. It is therefore unclear if emotions should be regarded as “attributes or states or perception” (p.10, What’s Hecuba to him?) and furthermore, if emotions are something “cognitive or noncognitive” (p.10, What’s Hecuba to him?). What Dadlez can conclude at the end of the discourse is that emotions are “intentional and cognitive” (p.19, What’s Hecuba to him?) because we connect an emotion with a situation or object. Thus, there must be a relation between the emotional subject and the object triggering the emotion. It is explained that emotions are intentional states as they only appear when there is an object or a situation which stands in relation to the subject. It is the intention of our fear, for example, which appears when seeing a dangerous animal to stay away from it and prevent any danger. If there was no animal, there would be no fear and so emotions have a purpose. Furthermore, emotions are cognitive because the individual must have knowledge of the object or situation. For example, a dangerous animal would not trigger fear if the subject would not have the knowledge that this particular animal can harm him. Taking this specification in account, apathy would be the human condition in which no situation or object triggers an emotion within the person - it would be the lack of human conditions as fear, love, anger, happiness and so on. This could either be the case if the person does not relate to objects or situations at all or these objects and situations have no value to him/her, so that no emotion can be triggered by these. Both of these concepts will appear in this discourse, but it will primarily be focused on the concept in which the origin of apathy lies within the character.

Nonetheless, this definition and specification given by Dadlez only examines a real person’s emotion. It does not describe a fictive character’s emotion/apathy and does not describe if emotion can be an external concept beyond a single character trait. However, it is not necessary to have an exact definition of emotions or apathy as they appear in literature at this point of the discourse because firstly, when apathy is used in literature it does not necessarily have to be the same concept as the real phenomenon of alexithymia. And secondly, as it will be shown, every work has a slightly different use of emotions and their lacking. Nonetheless, Dadlez’ definition will serve as first impression of what emotions are and what we need to search for in literature, but the challenge will be to show up the similarities and differences of these concepts of emotion and apathy given in the particular works. Only thereby it will possible to analyse how literature uses and defines emotions and apathy.

2. Apathy as a character trait

The closest assumption when searching for the appearance of apathy is to locate it within a human as a condition. The analysis will therefore primarily focus on the concepts of apathy as a character trait. But in order to analyse what the effects of apathy as a character trait are, it will be necessary to describe the character’s significance in a literary work. In Literature, Criticism and Theory Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle quote Aristotle who says that the characters are only of secondary importance. Protagonist and other characters are formed only after the plot exists and only as the plot requires the characters to be. The plot is for him the “first essential” (p.60, Literature, Criticism and Theory). In contrast to this conception, Henry James says that both, plot and character, affect each other equally - “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (p.60, Literature, Criticism and Theory) – Crucial about this statement is that a character cannot exist alone as a plot cannot take place without a character. Analysing a certain character’s lack of emotion simultaneously includes analysing the effects the character’s lack of emotion has on the plot. The character’s apathy is therefore never an isolated concept, which can be neglected when examining the plot of a story. Features as the tragic hero in relation to the tragedy and the honesty of a character in relation to his reliability as narrator of the plot will therefore be aspects which show this relation.

Another aspect which is introduced by Bennett and Royle is that the character we identify with is the character whose “role we imaginatively inhabit” (p.67, Literature, Criticism and Theory). Identifying with a character is a method of letting us “create oneself as a character” (p.67, Literature, Criticism and Theory). Therefore, it is not only the way to enjoy a novel, making it more interesting as we become part of it but also the method of answering questions of our own existence. This is, as Bennett and Royle say, the reader’s question of “Who am I?” (p.66, Literature, Criticism and Theory).

The question which must be asked in this context is if one can identify with a person who is unaware of his emotions and who is not necessarily suffering due to this condition of apathy, but who is simply relating to the world in a different way. Moreover, what does the piece of literature tell us about our own existence if this character is completely different to oneself? A possible answer can be given, when we look at antiheros as protagonists. As in Richard III the protagonist is a villain, who is not only ugly on the outside but also on the inside[1]. Richard is a character one would not want to identify with due to his evil deeds and intrigues. It is also easier for a reader to identify with a character if the divergence between his own nature and the character’s nature is smaller. Nonetheless, the reader identifies with the anti-hero to a certain extent, but simultaneously figures Richard to be someone who makes the morally wrong decisions and therefore someone the reader does not want to be. Antiheroes such as Richard function as a bad example or an ‘anti-role-model’. Albert Camus’ The Stranger, for instance, presents a protagonist (Meursault) who is not an antihero, but has a similar effect on the reader because he also takes the morally wrong actions. He is not a villain, but functions as an ‘anti-role-model’. Moreover, the protagonist’s lack of emotion makes it harder to identify with the character because the readers do not lack emotions in most cases. Even more than the antihero in Richard III, Meursault’s way of thinking and thereby his actions become hard to follow. Richard’s way of thinking is unclear at first because his aim is to manipulate (it is not the power itself which drives him as he is not content when he is the king), but Meursault’s way of thinking reaches a level of absurdity to the reader because he does not perceive his own emotions. For example, the reason for the murder that happens in the story is open to interpretation. Therefore, one might say that also the protagonist in The Stranger, is someone the reader sees as a character who he/she would never want to be because nobody wants to be as irrational and lack emotions. There is a great divergence between the reader’s and the character’s nature. Nevertheless, it is possible for the reader to identify with such a character as it is possible to identify with an antihero. The question remains which effects the author intends to trigger by introducing such a character, who lacks emotions and with which it is hard to identify.

This first analysis of apathy as a character trait has shown the two levels on which literature functions. On the one hand, a feature functions on the level of plot. It can influence the characters into taking certain actions, it can be an indication of certain events which are going to happen or it can set the text in a certain context and thereby in relation to other texts as for instance being a comedy or tragedy. The different concepts of apathy in the plot and effect these concepts have will therefore be examined in the following chapters.

On the other hand, most of the texts can be read as criticism. As the reader asks himself/herself the question “Who am I?” (p.66, Literature, Criticism and Theory) when reading a text, a text presents either a criticism of the individual or a criticism of the entire society we live in. By identifying with a character, we inhabit this role and are open to the criticism. Which message is transmitted by implementing apathy in literary texts and furthermore, the reading/ viewing experience will be analysed in the end of this discourse.

To begin with, the different conceptions of the lack of emotions as character trait and their effect on the plot will be examined. The Stranger will serve as first example as it presents one of the clearest illustrations of apathy as a character trait.

3. Unawareness of emotions - The Stranger

Albert Camus’ The Stranger uses the theme of apathy by introducing a protagonist who is absolutely unaware of his feelings. The first concept which will be focused on is therefore the ‘unawareness of emotions’.

Camus’ protagonist provides the reader with one of the clearest presentations of a character lacking emotions. The first thing we learn about Monsieur Meursault, the protagonist and narrator of this story, is that he has lost his mother, over which he does not seem emotionally affected[2]. In the beginning of the story he goes to his mother’s funeral. Shortly after, he meets a girl named Marie, with whom he gets engaged. They go together on vacation with an ambiguous character named Raymond. One of Raymond’s friends, who the three are visiting, owns a bungalow near the beach. Meursault has assisted Raymond in parting with his girlfriend earlier by writing a letter for him. The intention of the letter was to lure the girlfriend to Raymond so he could beat her. This deed made Meursault and Raymond “pals” (p.29, The Stranger). At the beach, Meursault, Marie and Raymond are followed by a group of Arabs, one of whose sister was the girlfriend of Raymond who was beaten. After a previous incident at the beach Meursault returns to the beach with a gun to see if the Arabs are still there. He unwillingly shoots the brother of Raymond’s girlfriend because he is irritated by the sun, but then shoots another three times. The trial afterwards does not have a clear direction due to the fact that Meursault does not show any emotions and the court is irritated. The lawyer focuses on this apathy – especially on the fact that Meursault has not shed a tear at his mother’s funeral. Although this apathy shown in the trial is irrelevant to any evidence concerning the case, Meursault is finally condemned to death. In prison he becomes aware of many things. He thinks about life and death and the time everyone is given in between. Shortly after a priest has come to hear Meursaults confessions and the situation escalates because Meursault does not give a confession, the bells announcing Meursault’s execution sound.

3.1 First indications for apathy

Already the first sentence of this story shows Meursault’s lack of emotion by his statement: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (p.3, The Stranger). The indifference Meursault expresses towards the death of his own mother is therefore shown right from the beginning. As it will be shown, this is only one of many passages in which apathy is expressed by Meursault because being unaware of his emotions is one of his character traits. Moreover, in the end of the story, while being interviewed by a lawyer, Meursault says of himself that he has lost the ability to notice his own feelings.

“I had pretty much lost the habit of analysing myself […] I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything” (p.65, The Stranger)[3].

The unawareness of emotions is a concept of apathy shown in The Stranger as Meursault is a character who does not notice his emotions. Therefore, the term ‘unaware’ is used. Being unaware of one’s emotions is here used synonym to lacking emotions because the protagonist does not perceive his own emotions and is therefore unemotional. The term ‘unaware’ suggests that there might be emotions left, but as there is no indication that this is the case, and the emotions stay unnoticed, unawareness is the same as a lack.

Contradictive to Meursault’s description of being unemotional, Meursault says in a few passages that he enjoys washing his hands at lunchtime. But these sentences can be interpreted as mere expression of practicability. That he likes to wash his hands at lunchtime, is only rational because the towel is soaked wet in the evening[4]. That he likes Marie’s hair better when she wears it open is also rational as the decision what is considered as beautiful follows certain trends and is not necessarily subjective. Another moment in The Stranger where Meursault’s apathy can be questioned is when he talks about his mother’s death and then says: “you always feel a little guilty” (p.20, The Stranger). But Meursault does not talk about his own feelings. He talks about the convention that one feels guilty when sending a parent to the elderly home.

Already at this point a differentiation must be made. The concept of an unemotional character in literature does not mean that a character does not prefer certain objects or situations over others. Would this be the case, then there would not be a plot because the character would not take any action at all as in going to certain places or interacting with certain people. Even an unemotional character must be able to have an own will or motivation, which is not necessarily based on emotional triggers, but can also be based on rational reasons. A free will and having emotions therefore do not contradict each other. Apathy describes the lack of feeling the joy, guilt and desire, not the lack of verbalising these emotions. When Meursault says that he enjoys something, this does not automatically mean that he feels joy, but that he prefers the situation or object over another, which is the origin of every action and every plot.

3.2 Apathy and moral guilt

The death of Meursault’s mother is a key element in the story. Moreover, it is a key element in the trial, in which whether he is guilty seems to be defined by how he behaved at her funeral. Because he did not cry at her funeral, he appears to be a bad person to the court. He is even called Monsieur Antichrist by one of the inspectors, which not only shows Meursault’s opinion towards religion before he explicitly discusses this topic with the priest, but indicates that Meursault is seen as a morally bad person. To society one is only a good person, if one shows feelings openly and at the appropriate time. Behaving in the appropriate way is therefore what is demanded. It is therefore a common assumption to understand the unemotional as a morally bad person, because with the lack of emotion the lack of empathy and values is connected. Meursault does not show these expected emotions. He does not behave in the way it is expected from him. The absence of feelings within Meursault also becomes clear at the point where he is asked by Marie whether he loves her and wants to marry her. He answers that he does not love her, but he wants to marry her nonetheless[5]. Whereas Meursault is therefore able to separate the world of his emotions and the world of actions, the society presented in The Stranger is not. Whereas he can live with someone he does not notice his emotions for, society cannot imagine someone to be good if this person does not show emotions. To Meursault one’s openly showed emotions have no influence on whether a character/person is good or bad. But to the people in the trial apathy becomes synonym with being a bad person.

Another feature concerning Meursault’s moral guilt (whether he is a good or bad person) is that he does not pretend to have emotions in the courtroom although his lawyer demands it to win the trial. He even tells the court that he was blinded by the light instead of inventing a more plausible story, which would then contradict the truth[6]. When he is asked by his lawyer if he could say that he “held back” his “natural feelings” (p.65, The Stranger), Meursault refuses because it is not the truth. Furthermore, he does not show emotions towards Marie although he has the intention to marry her. He therefore never uses false emotion to his own advantage. This makes Meursault a very honest character. Camus writes in his own interpretation of The Stranger that Meursault “doesn’t play the game” and “refuses to lie” by saying “more than is true” (p.78, Bloom’s Guides: The Stranger). Showing emotions you do not feel would be “more than is true”. A protagonist is created who is unaware of his emotions and simultaneously very honest.

Contrastive to this position, Conor Cruise O’Brien argues that Meursault does lie. O’Brien argues that the entire letter written for Raymond is a lie[7] and Meursault testifies for Raymond at the police station. Both of these actions show the morally dark side of Meursault’s character. But this position must be critically analysed. Whereas Meursault lies for Raymond, he never lies about himself. Despite the fact that his friend Raymond is a criminal and Meursault helps him by testifying, one could say Meursault only tries to help his friend and commit a good deed. One interpretation might be to say that Meursault cannot interpret the emotion of others due to the fact that he is unaware of his own emotions. He lacks the capability of feeling empathy. He cannot feel pity for Raymond’s girlfriend because he does not know when to feel pity. With regard to this incapability, Meursault does not become morally guilty when he writes the letter since he does not have the possibility to choose the morally right possibility. His lack of emotion becomes an incapability to choose the right action. Does not Meursault feel empathy for Raymond as he writes the letter? Is he not then capable of feeling empathy? Meursault speaks directly to Raymond as he explains why his girlfriend had deserved this punishment. The letter seems rationally justified because his girlfriend had cheated on him. Furthermore, Meursault more or less stumbles into the situation with Raymond and therefore does not have the chance to intensively reflect on whether someone could take damage. Meursault does not feel empathy for Raymond, but cannot think of a reason not to write the letter.

Firstly, as it has been shown, the concept of apathy Camus presents in his story is that also an unemotional person can attempt to try doing the right thing. A character is not necessarily a bad person only because he is unaware of his emotions. If this was so, then Camus would present a Monsieur Meursault who lies in court. Meursault would thereby still be unaware of his emotions, but simultaneously invent more plausible explanations for the murder. It is not his fault that he lacks the capability of judging the emotion of others and therefore his guilt is questioned. This unawareness might therefore be like a fatal flaw and not willingly intended (see chapter ‘Apathy as Meursault’s tragic flaw’). Secondly, with an honest protagonist as created by Camus the question of reliability does not appear. Whether a character’s narration can be trusted or not, is a question of reliability.

3.3 Reliability

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example for questionable reliability. The story is narrated by am unnamed person who received a manuscript from another person named Douglas. Furthermore, Douglas received the manuscript from a Governess who experienced and wrote down events. He appears to be attracted by her[8] and therefore does not question the events. Thus, it is unclear if the events have really taken place and if so, if the manuscript is still the same as the Governess wrote it because it has had many owners. Another aspect where the story raises the theme of unreliability is the fact that the Governess is blinded by her affection for the housekeeper[9]. Emotion can distort the sight on certain events as the characters can become, according to the sayings, ‘blind of rage’ or ‘blind of love’. Reliability of the mistress, of Douglas and the story itself become highly questionable and therefore it is unclear whether the story narrated by these persons is true. In The Stranger reliability is not questioned because Meursault is an honest person. As he is the narrator, the narration must be honest as well. Furthermore, he is not distracted by any feelings blinding his view on events (like the mistress in The Turn of the Screw) because he is not aware of his emotions.

Meursault describes many people in a very detailed way including the people in the city, who go to the movies, or the robot lady, who eats with Meursault and who he finds odd[10]. He observes many characters in the story intensively. What Camus evokes here, is not only the elaboration of different existences. By making Meursault a protagonist and a first person-narrator freed of any emotional description, he provides the reader with a new perception of characters in the story. This type of narrator provides reliable information because Meursault is honest and unemotional and detailed information as Meursault is an intensive observer and reflecting on others. Moreover, he is to a great extent objective as he has no emotion for people. He, for example, describes the Arab who he shoots in a very detailed way instead of describing him as a threat or unpleasant and so on[11].

But there is another aspect with regard to the narration. Avi Sagi notes in his chapter on social alienation in Bloom’s Guides: The Stranger that Meursault is a character who does not reflect on himself. Although the counterpart of ratio is emotion, Meursault does not seem to be a highly rational character, standing in contrast to Hamlet, for example, as it will be shown. Despite the fact that Meursault reflects on others, he does not reflect on himself. Furthermore, he does not reflect or calculate many of the actions he takes as for instance his statements in the trial or the senseless killing. Moreover, Sagi’s quotation of Meursault saying “[…] in recent years I’d rather lost the habit of noting my feelings […]” (p. 74, Bloom’s Guides: The Stranger) brings up a contradiction. He explains that on the one hand, this proves that Meursault is not aware of reflecting on himself, but on the other hand, this statement he brings is a reflective observation. The solution Sagi suggests would be differentiating between the Meursault as the narrator and the Meursault as the character. The narrator would be reflective and the protagonist not. This brings up the question if the narrator Meursault is also unemotional and thereby the question if unemotional narration as such is possible at all. This question will be picked up again later in this discourse.

3.4 Apathy as Meursault’s tragic flaw

One question which appeared when regarding Meursault’s downfall is if the downfall is inevitable. Furthermore, this would lead to the question if he has a flaw which makes this downfall inevitable and if this is his unawareness of his emotions, which would make Meursault a tragic hero. Understanding the lack of emotion of a character as flaw would be another aspect in defining apathy. But why examine the tragic feature? Independent of Camus’ intention as author, if Meursault was a tragic hero in the classical understanding, it would set him in relation to the classical tragedy as such. The key moments of the story would therefore be of greater importance because they are what defines a tragedy and simultaneously these moments would be analysed under the aspect of apathy. Meursault as a tragic hero enables a new perspective to the theme of apathy.

A definition of a tragic hero is given by Hans-Dieter Gelfert. He says that the protagonist of a tragedy must have a tragic flaw to be a tragic hero. Moreover, the hero must come into a dangerous situation as of which the downfall is predestined (“Hamartia”, p. 19, Die Tragödie). Then there must be a turning point as of which the downfall sets in (“Peripetie”, p. 17, Die Tragödie) and he must become aware of the situation shortly before his tragic death takes place (“Anagnorisis”, p. 19, Die Tragödie). Moreover, Gelfert explains that a tragic hero is neither a sinner nor a saint at the beginning of the tragedy.

Regarding Meursault, one can say that he is no sinner or saint in the beginning either. He becomes a sinner only as of the point where he helps Raymond to write the letter. But he is no saint either because he has brought his mother to the elderly home, which is morally questionable for many of the characters in the story. The scene in which Meursault should write the letter for Raymond is the moment of the dangerous situation which Gelfert describes, because the point when he writes the letter is the point as of which he becomes friends with Raymond. As of there he is a friend of a criminal and his lack of emotion will lead him into further trouble. His downfall is predestined. The story climaxes in the unwilling shooting of one of the Arabs. This scene can be regarded as the turning point of the story. After this scene, Meursault is imprisoned and cannot help himself because he is unwilling to show the appropriate emotions in the moment when it is expected from him. Moreover, Meursault becomes aware of his situation before he is executed. He does not only know that he will be falling, but even reflects on what he has experienced, including his relation to Marie and what his mother might have thought. In the end, there is a glimpse of refelctive emotion as he believes that he has been happy[12]. He notices his feelings for a moment. The question which must be asked is what his flaw was which led to his downfall.

Firstly, his indifference to what would happen to Raymond’s girlfriend when she will be beaten has led him on a criminal path by writing the letter. If he had had the capability of feeling empathy for the girlfriend, he would not have helped to write the letter. Since he is incapable of perceiving his own emotions, he is also incapable of judging the emotions of others. His apathy has therefore led him into this criminal environment triggering the dangerous situation. Also the turning point at the beach is triggered by writing the letter because it is Raymond who initiates the visit at his friend’s bungalow. Secondly, his apathy is the obstacle preventing him from winning the trial. He does not show any emotions in court when it is expected from him and cannot express sadness over the death of his mother. Therefore his lack of emotion becomes the tragic flaw which triggers the dangerous situation, the turning point and his final downfall. Meursault’s death is inevitable as of an early point in the story and he is therefore, with regard to these key moments of a tragedy, a tragic hero.

As Meursault can be interpreted as tragic hero, he is set in relation to other tragic heroes such as Hamlet or Macbeth. This does not only show that Meursault’s fate is predestined and apathy can be used as flaw in literature, but moreover, sets The Stranger in direct contrast to other tragedies. The question which comes up is which role apathy plays in classic tragedies. Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet will therefore be examined in the following, furthermore, being the basis of an analysis of the relation between emotion and ratio / apathy and irrationality.

Short conclusion of the concept of apathy - The Stranger

The concept of apathy in The Stranger is presented in form of the protagonist’s flaw. He is unaware of his emotions and thereby does not perceive or express regret, love and so on. In the interpretation given, he therefore not only lacks own emotions but the capability of feeling empathy for others. Thus, the lack of emotion questions the guilt of a person because apathy can lead to the incapability to judge others. Meursault is honest and reliable and tries to stay on the right path, but fails due to his apathy. As it has been shown, his lack of emotion can be interpreted as a tragic flaw due to which his downfall is predestined. The concept of apathy in The Stranger is the entirely and unwillingly unemotional type of character – a character who is unaware of his emotions. This is the first type of apathy as a character trait.

4. Controlling/repressing emotions - Hamlet

‘Controlling/repressing emotions’ is the next concept of apathy which will be analysed. The question will be asked whether Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet represses his emotions as of the meeting with the ghost. The hypothesis which will be examined is therefore that he expresses emotions particularly when the circumstances demand it in order to take revenge. Thus, his emotions must be seen as artificial as they are entirely controlled by his reason. Moreover, if this is the case, the question must be asked what Hamlet’s motivation is. Although Hamlet is often staged as emotional, the drama text itself will stand in the focus showing that it is not as obvious that Hamlet acts emotional. By contrasting the interpretation of the emotional with the apathetic Hamlet in the drama text, it will be shown that Hamlet’s controlling emotions is a possible interpretation.

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most known plays. This drama tells the story of the prince of Denmark to whom a ghost appears. This ghost is apparently his father, who claims to have been killed by his brother Claudius. Claudius is now the new king of Denmark. Hamlet seeks revenge for his father. Thus, he also harshly judges his mother, who has married Claudius, the suspected murderer, shortly after prince Hamlet’s father had parted. This desire for revenge is often considered as a motive which drives Hamlet. Hamlet’s great love seems to be Ophelia whereas he changes his opinion concerning his love for her during the course of the story. Polonius, who serves Claudius and is the father of Ophelia, forbids her to have any contact to Hamlet. Furthermore, Hamlet stages a ‘play in the play’, in which an analogue murder of a king is presented on stage. Thereby, Hamlet intends to provoke a reaction of Claudius. When Claudius leaves the theatre, Hamlet interprets this as a proof for his guilt. He instantly decides to take revenge. In the final battle Hamlet is poised by the slash of a sword, but survives long enough to fulfil his deed and murder Claudius. He then falls as it is necessary for a tragic hero.

4.1 Emotion and ratio

The change of Hamlet from an emotional state to an unemotional state takes place when the ghost appears and asks for revenge. Hamlet says that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records” and his father’s “commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume” (p. 214, Hamlet) of his mind. With this, it appears he also wipes all emotions from his mind and becomes unemotional. Before this scene, he mourns because of his father’s death. After this scene, he uses emotions only to achieve his aim of taking revenge. As of this point, he becomes apathetic – not only in the sense of the way he behaves when he visits Ophelia directly after the incident with the ghost and stares into the void, but also in the sense that he does not have any emotions as of this point. An indication for this interpretation is, for instance, that he prepares himself to feel a certain emotion before he goes to his mother. He says: “Let me be cruel, not unnatural” (p.282, Hamlet). This scene will therefore be described in detail in this discourse. Also before staging the play in the play he prepares for a certain emotional state by saying “I must be idle” (p.269, Hamlet). By provoking Claudius, Hamlet plays with emotion. He controls not only his own emotion, but in this case even tries to control the emotions of others. Furthermore, emotions can be something irrational. They do not necessarily apply to circumstances. For example, the love for Ophelia does not need to end as of the moment Hamlet knows she is not “fair” (p. 260, Hamlet) to him and his affection for his mother does not need to end as of the moment the ghost tells Hamlet about his uncle’s misdeed. But Hamlet adjusts to situations. He stops loving Ophelia and loses any affection for his mother immediately. In these situations his ratio is in control of his emotion.

Emotion and ratio are two extremes in Hamlet, which have been debated intensively. Hamlet is often characterized as very emotional and at the same time excessively reasoning. This divergence between ratio and emotion is, for example, shown by the incident when Hamlet has the chance to revenge his father by murdering Claudius. But because Claudius prays, Hamlet considers that Claudius would go to heaven if he would take revenge at that particular moment[13]. On the one hand, he therefore seems to seek revenge, which is an expression of the affection for his father. He acts emotional. On the other hand, he thinks over every situation. He never makes a mistake due to being over-affectionate and does not take revenge (for example on Claudius) when it appears to be inappropriate. He, for example, seeks proof of Claudius’ guilt by staging a play instead of acting solely as his emotions tell him and murder Claudius before Hamlet has this final proof. In contrast to Romeo, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s drama Romeo and Juliette, who commits suicide due to his overwhelming affection for Juliette[14], Hamlet rejects this idea of committing suicide because it is a mortal sin. “To be, or not to be” (p.258, Hamlet) – the first line of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which will become of interest later in this discourse – is therefore a rational question and not a question which can be answered by emotions. The assumption that Hamlet switches from one extreme to another (from emotion to reason and vice versa) seems plausible, but another thought comes to mind. Hamlet’s expressed emotions are entirely controlled by his reason. They are, thus, artificial emotions.


[1] „But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass […] I am determined to prove a villain“, p.148-149, Richard III

[2] Meursault’s attitude becomes clearer later in the story when he says: “At one time or another all normal people have wished their loved ones were dead.”, p.65, The Stranger

[3] Avi Sagi quotes pages 68 and 69 from The Outsider (The Stranger ’s earlier translation): “[…] in recent years I’d rather lost the habit of noting my feelings […]”, p. 74, Bloom’s Guides: The Stranger

[4] “I washed my hands. I really like doing this at lunchtime. […] I don’t enjoy it so much in the evening, because the roller towel you use is soaked through: […]”, p.25, The Stranger

[5] “I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her.[…] if she wanted to, we could get married.”, p.41, The Stranger

[6] “Fumbling a little with my words and realizing how ridiculous I sounded, I blurted out that it was because of the sun.”, p.103, The Stranger

[7] “He concocts for Raymond the letter that is designed to deceive the Arab girl”, p.79, Bloom’s Guides: The Stranger

[8] “Yes, but that’s just the beauty of her passion.”, p.6, The Turn of the Screw

[9] “[…] the seduction exercised by the splendid young man. She succumbed to it”, p.5, The Turn of the Screw

[10] Bloom’s Guides: The Stranger suggest that the robot lady is a suggestion that “even a minor encounter can affect one’s future” (p.20, Bloom’s Guides: The Stranger) as Meursault sees her again in the trial and she is then observing him.

[11] “He was lying on his back, with his hands behind his head, his forehead in the shade of the rock, the rest of his body in the sun. His blue overalls seemed to be steaming in the heat.”, p.57-58, The Stranger

[12] “I felt that I had been happy”, p.123, The Stranger

[13] “I, his foul son, do this same villain send To heaven. O this is hire and salary not revenge.”, p. 286, Hamlet

[14] “O true apothecary, Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.”, p.228, Romeo and Juliet

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The Forms of Apathy in Literature
Technical University of Darmstadt
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Forms, Apathy, Apathie, Literature, Literatur, Anglistik, Shakespeare, Hamlet, Do Androids Dream, Androids, Dick, Philip K. Dick, Fight Club, Palahniuk, Camus, Emotion, Albert, Chuck, Chuck Palahniuk, Dubliners, The Stranger, Stranger, Emotionslosigkeit, Emotionslos, Emotionless, Albert Camus, Comparison, Forms of Apathy, Apathy in Literature, Tyler Durden, Boyhood
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Tony McCracken (Author), 2011, The Forms of Apathy in Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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