The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus: Allusion & Quotes

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

This lesson focuses on ''The Myth of Sisyphus,'' an essay written by philosopher Albert Camus in 1942. Sisyphus is doomed to push a rock up a hill in the Underworld for all eternity as punishment for attachment to the pleasures of earthly life.

The Myth of Sisyphus

Does it sometimes seem absurd to you to realize that certain tasks must be repeated over and over again, like mowing the grass - only to have it grow again and need mowing again? These seemingly futile tasks are sometimes labeled 'Sisyphean' after the title character of an ancient myth. This myth tells the story of Sisyphus, a citizen of ancient Greece, who was assigned the punishment of eternally pushing a huge, heavy rock up a hill. Each time he reached the top of the hill, the rock would roll back down. Over and over again, the poor man would begin the futile task again, for all eternity.

According to the Greek writer Homer, Sisyphus was known as a wise and prudent person - at least as far as mortals go. So why did he end up as the never-ending laborer of the mythological Underworld?

Sisyphus was known for his rather disdainful attitude toward the gods, stealing their secrets and putting Death in chains. When Sisyphus himself died, he persuaded the god of the Underworld to allow him one last trip to the world of humans. Sisyphus so enjoyed the pleasures of earthly existence that he refused to return to Hades. In the end, Sisyphus was dragged back to the Underworld, where he was condemned to push the boulder for all eternity.

The Pleasures of Earth
Greek Seaside

Sisyphus and Albert Camus

The basic core of the legend was adapted into a complete narrative by philosopher Albert Camus and incorporated into a 1942 essay called ''The Myth of Sisyphus''. Camus' philosophical search was to find meaning and clarity in a world that often has little explanation of existence to offer. For Camus, like the character of Sisyphus, humans seemed destined to forever toil without a definite reason for doing so.

Camus is often identified with a philosophical movement called absurdism, which emphasizes the temporary nature of human happiness and the inevitability of death. Though this sounds a bit negative, for Camus, the thought of mortality only made moments of happiness all the more valuable.

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

So how does the story of the unfortunate Sisyphus relate to the philosophy of Camus?

Think about the beginning of this lesson, when we looked at the absurdity of the tasks of human living. Yes, after cooking, eating a meal, and then washing up, you may think about the futility of having to do it all again the next evening. But if you, like Camus and other absurdists, buy into the concept of absurdism as a fixture of human existence, perhaps you will find that you enjoy the meal, and even the preparation and cleaning up after, with a bit more gusto.

Themes and Quotations

The Absurd Hero

''Sisyphus is the absurd much through his passions as through his torture'' writes Camus. Sometimes, we must simply do the tasks set out for us without a satisfying explanation. Camus adopted Sisyphus to represent the absurd hero, who carries on in spite of the futility of completing the task.

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