Sisyphus is probably more famous for his punishment in the underworld than for what he did in his life. According to the Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom every time he reaches the top. The gods were wise, Camus suggests, in perceiving that an eternity of futile labor is a hideous punishment.
There are a number of stories—ones which are not mutually exclusive—that explain how Sisyphus came to earn his punishment in the underworld. According to one story, Zeus carried off Aegina, a mortal woman who was the daughter of Asopus. Sisyphus witnessed this kidnapping in his home city of Corinth. Sisyphus agreed to inform Asopus as to who had kidnapped Aegina if Asopus would give the citadel at Corinth a fresh-water spring. In making this deal and bearing witness against Zeus, Sisyphus earned the wrath of the gods while earning earthly wealth and happiness for himself and his people.
Another story tells how Sisyphus enchained the spirit of Death, so that during Death's imprisonment, no human being died. Naturally, when the gods freed Death, his first victim was Sisyphus. It is also said that Sisyphus told his wife not to offer any of the traditional burial rites when he died. When he arrived in the underworld, he complained to Hades that his wife had not observed these rites and was granted permission to return to earth to chastise her. Once granted this second lease on life, Sisyphus refused to return to the underworld, and lived to a ripe old age before returning to the underworld a second time to endure his eternal punishment.
Camus identifies Sisyphus as the archetypal absurd hero, both for his behavior on earth and for his punishment in the underworld. He displays scorn for the gods, a hatred of death, and a passion for life. His punishment is to endure an eternity of hopeless struggle.
We are not told how Sisyphus endures his punishment in the underworld: that much is left to our imagination. What fascinates Camus is Sisyphus's state of mind in that moment after the rock rolls away from him at the top of the mountain. As he heads down the mountain, briefly free from his labor, he is conscious, aware of the absurdity of his fate. His fate can only be considered tragic because he understands it and has no hope for reprieve. At the same time, the lucidity he achieves with this understanding also places him above his fate.
Camus suggests that Sisyphus might even approach his task with joy. The moments of sorrow or melancholy come when he looks back at the world he's left behind, or when he hopes or wishes for happiness. When Sisyphus accepts his fate, however, the sorrow and melancholy of it vanish. Camus suggests that acknowledging "crushing truths" like the eternity and futility of his fate is enough to render them less crushing. He refers to Oedipus, who, having suffered so much, is able to "conclude that all is well."
Happiness and the absurd are closely linked, suggests Camus. They are both connected to the discovery that our world and our fate is our own, that there is no hope and that our life is purely what we make of it. As he descends the mountain, Sisyphus is totally aware of his fate. Camus concludes: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
Camus has argued that the absurd hero sees life as a constant struggle, without hope. Any attempt to deny or avoid the struggle and the hopelessness that define our lives is an attempt to escape from this absurd contradiction. Camus's single requirement for the absurd man is that he live with full awareness of the absurdity of his position. While Sisyphus is pushing his rock up the mountain, there is nothing for him but toil and struggle. But in those moments where Sisyphus descends the mountain free from his burden, he is aware. He knows that he will struggle forever and he knows that this struggle will get him nowhere. This awareness is precisely the same awareness that an absurd man has in this life. So long as Sisyphus is aware, his fate is no different and no worse than our lot in life.
We react to Sisyphus's fate with horror because we see its futility and hopelessness. Of course, the central argument of this essay is that life itself is a futile struggle devoid of hope. However, Camus also suggests that this fate is only horrible if we continue to hope, if we think that there is something more that is worth aiming for. Our fate only seems horrible when we place it in contrast with something that would seem preferable. If we accept that there is no preferable alternative, then we can accept our fate without horror. Only then, Camus suggests, can we fully appreciate life, because we are accepting it without reservations. Therefore, Sisyphus is above his fate precisely because he has accepted it. His punishment is only horrible if he can hope or dream for something better. If he does not hope, the gods have nothing to punish him with.
The theory of tragedy is a vast and complicated subject beyond the scope of this commentary, but a brief discussion of Camus's angle on tragedy may be valuable. Camus tells us that the moment Sisyphus becomes aware of his fate, his fate becomes tragic. He also alludes to Oedipus, who becomes a tragic figure only when he becomes aware that he has killed his father and married his mother. He also remarks that both Sisyphus and Oedipus are ultimately happy, that they "conclude that all is well." Tragedy, Camus seems to be suggesting, is not pessimistic. On the contrary, it represents the greatest triumph we are capable of as human beings. So long as Sisyphus and Oedipus continue to hope and to deceive themselves, they are not heroic. With tragic recognition comes a full acknowledgment of our fate and our limitations, and with that acknowledgment comes an acceptance of who we are and what we are capable of. Tragic fate only seems horrible in contrast to the hope for something more. In accepting their fate, Sisyphus and Oedipus have abandoned hope, and so their fate does not seem horrible to them. On the contrary, they have finally found the only genuine happiness.
Camus concludes his essay by arguing that happiness and absurd awareness are intimately connected. We can only be truly happy, he suggests, when we accept our life and our fate as entirely our own—as the only thing we have and as the only thing we will ever be. The final sentence reads: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." But why must we imagine Sisyphus happy? Camus's wording suggests that we have no choice in the matter. But is there an alternative? Sisyphus is the absurd hero, the man who loved life so much that he has been condemned to an eternity of futile and hopeless labor. And yet he is above that fate precisely because he is aware of it. If Sisyphus is not happy in this awareness, then absurd awareness does not bring happiness. It would then follow that happiness is only possible if we evade absurd awareness, if we leap into hope or faith.
If the leap into hope or faith represents an attempt to escape from the reality of our fate, and if happiness is only possible through such a leap, then happiness would essentially be an escape. Life itself would be inherently unhappy and happiness would be a sham born out of denial. We must imagine Sisyphus happy if we want to believe in genuine happiness. Though this is the last sentence of the essay, we might see it as the initial premise that starts Camus's reasoning. Because Camus essentially believes in the idea that individual human experience is the only thing that is real, if he wants to show that happiness is real he must show that individual humans can truly be happy based on their experiences, not on their denial of experience. If happiness is real, we must be able to find happiness without relying on hope, faith, or anything else that goes beyond immediate experience. The Myth of Sisyphus is essentially an elaborate attempt to show that this is possible, and it concludes with its starting premise: if genuine happiness is possible, then Sisyphus must be happy.