Deckard and Meursault by Andrew Rosebrock

One generally doesn’t associate 1960s American science fiction with 1940s French existentialism, but then again one generally doesn’t associate Jimi Hendrix with Robert Johnson either and anyone who knows anything about music knows the former might never have existed without the latter. At the heart of every existentialist novel there exists an uncertainty about what constitutes humanity, and at the heart of Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? uncertainty reigns supreme. Rick Deckard spends the vast majority of his time in the novel in an almost trancelike state, unaware of anything but what appears to him to be the path of least resistance: retire the andys, collect the bounties, spend the money, repeat. But his attitude is not unique among literary characters; Rick Deckard is almost a brother to the protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Meursault. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Rick Deckard follows a path of existential self-realization along the same lines as Meursault, in that both characters exist at a disconnect with the rest of their respective worlds, but through harrowing experience become empathetic to their surroundings.

In order to understand the similarities between Deckard and Meursault, we must first take a look at the role empathy plays in the two novels as a central and irreplaceable theme. Deckard quantifies empathy in the form of the Voight-Kampff Test and uses it to carry out his duties as a bounty hunter (Dick, 26) and as such it is a constant presence within the novel. For the majority of the novel, however, Deckard only exercises empathy in order to do his job; empathy constitutes a trait lacking in Deckard’s personal character. The protagonist of DADOES is dismissive toward his wife, complacent towards his surroundings, and completely willing to take the life of a living being after only a modicum of threadbare rationalization. Deckard is a man without empathy killing men and women who seem to be no more, but who are certainly no less, capable than he is. The role of empathy in DADOES is central in defining the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonists. Similarly in The Stranger Meursault is defined by his lack of empathy. Meursault is so lacking, in fact, he kills a man for no particular reason other than that it was hot. At the end of both novels, empathy is used as a yardstick measuring the change of both protagonists. After surviving and successfully retiring the androids, Deckard encounters a toad and feels joy at the simple existence of a living creature, whereas Meursault is finally shaken from his complacency by impending death and realizes he wants to share in the hatred people have for him as he walks to his own death at the guillotine. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Stranger are two novels of a kind, chronicling the journey of two characters on a subtly similar trajectory.

The parallels between Deckard and Meursault are readily apparent at the beginning of both novels, in how the two characters treat their family. Deckard’s story begins with a wretched squabble with his wife Iran (Dick, 2), the only solution to which he can come up with is to use the Penfield Mood Organ. It isn’t hard to extrapolate that Deckard has no great interest in his wife other than convenience in not having to drastically change his established patterns. The use of the Mood Organ is a particularly lazy compromise and demonstrates that at the beginning of the novel Deckard has an eye primarily toward what seems to be the path of least resistance. Deckard is comfortable in his rut and would just as soon stay there if he could. To Deckard’s dubious credit, however, Meursault is worse; his reaction to the news of his mother’s death being simply “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” (Camus, 1.) Regardless both characters are shown from the very beginning of their respective novels to exist in an empathetic void, cut off from those that should be closest to them.

The two protagonists are not only cut off from their loved ones, but also from those they kill. Meursault’s murder is a senseless act on a scale few can even comprehend; he kills a man simply because it’s hot, and he feels like it (Camus, 59). Deckard, meanwhile, kills because he is told to and because killing is his job. This is more sensible from a pragmatic standpoint, but at the base of things Deckard and Meursault are still tied together: both kill because they lack the willpower not to kill, and they lack the willpower not to kill because they have no empathy. The only way in which Deckard differs significantly for Meursault is that he makes a cursory attempt at rationalizing his actions through the Mercerist principle of “kill only the killers” (Dick, 27). Within a few paragraphs of internal monologue, however, Deckard betrays that he is hardly confident in his faith. Deckard is ultimately no more moral or justified in his work than Meursault is in his discretion; neither man really gives a damn.

Ultimately Meursault and Deckard are similar in their redemption as they were in their sin, though they come about it from different directions. Meursault and Deckard are both confronted by a religious figure, Meursault by the Catholic priest and Deckard by Wilbur Mercer. Though they react in different ways, Meursault with anger towards the priest (Camus, 120), and Deckard with resignation that he can complete his task (Dick, 196). Deckard goes on to retire – or murder, depending on your perspective, the last two andys, but the encounter with Mercer allows Deckard to finally make an empathic connection with another living creature (though it isn’t actually living), becoming Mercer himself (Dick, 210). Similarly Meursault’s encounter with the priest allows him to appreciate the anger of the crowd that will watch him die. Both characters have come to the end of their journey: from existing at odd with their surroundings they finally show empathy and move beyond what they were. Finally both characters have affirmed their humanity.

The story of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is ultimately the story of Rick Deckard’s existentialist journey – from a man barely living to a man who understands the value of life. In my opinion Rick Deckard is a direct descendent of Meursault, and though Philip K. Dick and Albert Camus come from drastically different backgrounds there is an unmistakable similarity in their work. Though Dick was a “lowly” science fiction author, he was no less able to communicate grand themes in his novels and stories, and the question of human existence is a theme he deftly handled in this novel.