In this section, Camus recounts the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a mortal condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only for it to then fall back to the bottom. His fate is to keep returning to the rock in order to push it back up again.
Though the myth of Sisyphus frames the book by providing the title, it’s only in this last section that Camus fully engages with the story. Sisyphus’ fate is inherently absurd, an eternity of toil that never amounts to anything. The mountainous setting heightens the sense of unending, unimaginable timescales.
There are different accounts of Sisyphus’ story, as well as his reason for being punished. Whether it’s that he “stole their secrets,” or double-crossed them in order to receive a new fountain for the city of which he was the ruler, Sisyphus didn’t respect the gods in the way they wanted. Another story is that Sisyphus had put Death in chains, incurring the wrath of Pluto.
The story of Sisyphus putting Death in chains is an especially interesting one, because it is fundamentally antagonistic to Camus’ concept of the absurd. The absurd is based on life’s meaninglessness, which in turn is based on the inevitability of death—but for a short while, Sisyphus interrupts the work of Death. In this brief period of time, it’s unclear if life is still absurd or, given the promise of eternity, takes on a new meaning. Sisyphus, in this story, wants to cheat mortality—not embrace it.
Just before he died, Sisyphus wanted to test his wife’s love by ordering that she “cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square,” which she promptly did. Because he hadn’t been buried properly, Sisyphus received permission from Pluto to return to Earth in order to chastise her.
Again, Sisyphus’ actions don’t seem to embrace the inevitability of death—instead, he seems to do whatever he can to live again. The woman in this story is a marginalized figure, reflecting the role of women in Camus’ book throughout.
Once back on earth, Sisyphus fell in love again with the “water and sun, warm stones and the sea.” He refused to return to the underworld. Eventually, Mercury came and snatched him back. This time, Sisyphus’ rock was waiting for him.
For Camus, Sisyphus is the “absurd hero,” both through his “passions” and his “torture.” He exerted his entire being “towards accomplishing nothing.” Camus pictures Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain, “the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass,” before the rock rolls down once more.
Here, the materiality of the natural world heightens the futility of Sisyphus’ task. The rock and the mountain, operating on different time scales to man’s usual life (that is, they are long-standing fixtures that endure forever, while humans live short, temporary lives), come to represent Sisyphus’ eternal fate. It seems strange that Camus claims Sisyphus as the “absurd hero,” given that Sisyphus would undoubtedly prefer to be living his earthly life once more—he doesn’t embrace his fate, but simply has no choice in the matter.
Camus is particularly interested in the “pause” when Sisyphus has to go back down to the bottom of the mountain to start again. It seems to Camus like “breathing-space which returns as surely as [Sisyphus’] suffering” and represents “the hour of consciousness.” In these moments, says Camus, Sisyphus is “stronger than his rock” and “superior to his fate.”
The pause gives Sisyphus a moment of reflection. But there’s nothing in the myth that confirms Sisyphus is “stronger than his rock”; instead, Camus is imbuing Sisyphus with the qualities he thinks are necessary to live the absurd life.
Camus likens Sisyphus’ fate to “the workman of today” repeating the “same tasks” every time he goes to work. It is Camus’ full awareness of his fate that is both his torture and his “victory.” “Crushing truths,” says Camus, “perish from being acknowledged.” Camus thinks Oedipus, a Greek king who was destined to marry his mother and murder his father, bore a similar fate.
The redemption for Sisyphus, then, is a paradox: he is saved by his hopelessness. The “workman of today” is condemned by the fact that he continues to hope, despite the mundane repetition of his everyday life. Again, Camus glosses over the type of labor typically performed by women—especially childcare and domestic work. Camus slightly contradicts himself, as earlier in the essay he has been very keen to avoid any sense that “crushing truths” can “perish.”
Happiness and the absurd are “inseparable,” states Camus. Like Kirilov, Oedipus concludes that “all is well,” a remark that Camus says “echoes in the wild and limited universe of man.” Camus sees Sisyphus as owning his fate in the same way that the “absurd man” does. Both are the “master” of their days, even if there is no meaning to them.
The notion of happiness is introduced very late into the overall discussion—Camus has not expressly aimed, thus far, to show how man could or should be happy. That said, he has consistently emphasized the importance of accepting and acknowledging the meaninglessness of life. The reader might well question whether Sisyphus is the master of his days—his fate is undeniably the one chosen for him by the gods. He would clearly rather be back home, sitting in the sun by the sea.
Camus says, “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain!” Like Oedipus and Kirilov, Sisyphus “concludes that all is well.” Sisyphus knows “each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain.” It is necessary, concludes Camus, to “imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus suggests there is a kind of intimacy between Sisyphus and his stone, and that increasing his knowledge of “each atom” constitutes a kind of acceptance of his fate on Sisyphus’ part. But the final line here is intriguing because of the word “imagine.” The reader might consider that “imagining” constitutes a form of “illusion”—if Sisyphus isn’t happy, perhaps imagining that he is represents the kind of false hope that Camus has previously rallied against.