As a case study, Camus examines the works of Dostoevsky. In particular, he looks at The Possessed (sometimes translated as The Devils). According to Camus, Dostoevsky starts from, and is obsessed with, absurd reasoning. For Dostoevsky, either there is a God, a life after death and life has a meaning, or life has no meaning, everything we do is pointless, and life is little more than a cruel joke. He is a modern writer with absurd concerns because he is primarily interested in metaphysics and the meaning of life, but he is an artist and not a philosopher because he examines how these problems affect people's lives rather than just dealing with them as abstract concepts.
Kirilov is a character from The Possessed who commits what he calls a "logical suicide." For life to be worth living, God must exist, and yet he is convinced that God cannot exist. His suicide is essentially a revolt against the idea that God does not exist. He is an absurd character in that his action is motivated by revolt and is done in the spirit of freedom. And yet, he commits suicide. Camus says that this suicide, however, is not an act of despair, but a creative act in which Kirilov hopes, in a sense, to "become God."
Camus's reasoning begins with the peculiar assertion that if there is no God, then Kirilov is God. In a Christian worldview, everything depends on the will of God and everything we do is in service of God. If God does not exist, however, we do everything of our own free will, and our actions serve only ourselves. In a world without God, we ourselves occupy the position that God would otherwise have held.
The problem, however, is that even in a world without God, most people continue to live by hoping and are unable to accept the freedom they have inherited. In the contemporary world, there is no way that people can live with freedom. However, as Kirilov intends to show, it is possible to die with this freedom. His suicide is essentially an attempt to sacrifice himself and to show the world the absurd freedom that we all have, so that those that follow him might be able to live more freely.
In the character of Kirilov, and in the problems he addresses generally, Dostoevsky presents us with an absurd worldview. However, Dostoevsky ultimately backs away from the consequences of the absurd and leaps into faith. His final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, ends with Alyosha affirming that there is a life after death. Though Dostoevsky wrestled with absurd themes, he ultimately placed his faith in God. In this sense, Camus concludes, he is more of an existentialist than an absurdist.
Alongside Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Dostoevsky is often cited as one of the great nineteenth century inspirations for the existentialist movement. Like Camus, Dostoevsky is a novelist with philosophical preoccupations. Both seem less interested in working out the relative merit of different philosophical positions than in working out how people might live with different philosophical propositions. The great preoccupation of Camus's early work is precisely to determine if and how a person can live with full awareness of the absurd. Dostoevsky returns again and again to the problem of faith, and to the full implications of what it would be like to live in a world without God. They share an awareness that plenty of people can affirm the idea of absurdity or the non- existence of God on an intellectual level, but that it is a different matter actually to live out the consequences of that affirmation.
The difference one might see between Dostoevsky and Camus is that Dostoevsky ultimately concludes that we cannot live without faith, while Camus believes that we can. In Crime and Punishment, the protagonist, Raskolnikov, commits a murder in order to test the limits of his own freedom. He is subsequently wracked with guilt, ultimately confesses, and experiences a conversion in the epilogue. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov's atheism ultimately leads him to madness, while his younger brother, Alyosha, who ardently wants to believe, emerges in better shape.
Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, and Kirilov are different from most atheists in that they want to live consistently with their principles. It is not enough for them to assert that they are free and to continue to live as before. They must sort out exactly how a life without God would be different and try to live according to that rule. For Raskolnikov, this path leads to murder, for Ivan it leads to madness, and for Kirilov to suicide. Camus similarly wants his characters to fully live the philosophy he entertains. Meursault and Caligula, two of Camus's protagonists created around the same time that he wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, do not simply accept the absurdity of their lives on an intellectual level. Camus also uses them to see how a fully consistent absurd life might differ from the norm.
Much of this difference between Camus and Dostoevsky, however, might be explained by sixty or seventy years of history and a different cultural climate. They needn't be seen as contradictory. In Dostoevsky's Russia, life without God may have seemed impossible, whereas in Camus's France, life without God might even have seemed necessary. From Camus's discussion of The Possessed, he certainly seems to accept that suicide was the only alternative to faith in God at that time.
Camus includes this chapter because he wants to see whether a writer who accepts absurdist principles must necessarily remain true to those principles. In Dostoevsky, he seems to conclude that it is possible for a writer to recognize absurdity and not live according to that principle. In the first part of the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus shows that existentialist philosophers such as Jaspers, Kierkegaard, and Chestov recognized absurdist principles but then leapt into faith rather than choosing to accept those principles. In this chapter, he shows that what is true for those thinkers philosophically is also true for Dostoevsky as a writer. An absurd sensibility does not necessarily imply absurd fiction.