The essay begins with an introduction to myths—note the plural—of Sisyphus. The ancient gods of myth found a uniquely horrific punishment for Sisyphus: pushing an enormous and heavy rock to the top of a mountain only to have it fall back to its starting point thanks to the forces of gravity upon that weight. The punishment was considered severe: futile labor for ever.
The ancient poet Homer presented Sisyphus as a particularly intelligent mortal. Another tradition portrays him as a common thief lying in wait for passersby. For Camus, the two visions of the man are hardly incompatible. As for what Sisyphus is actually being punished for, accounts differ there as well ranging from a generally rebellious disregard for the supposed supremacy of the gods to imprisoning Death. The overriding presumption of guilt boils down an essential lack of proper obeisance to the gods from their point of view.
It is this very lack of respect for those who punish him as well as the peculiar choice of the gods for that punishment that makes Sisyphus an absurd hero for Camus. His life was one of perpetual scorn for authority, disbelief in the concept of mortality for mortals and utter and boundless passion for living was the real motivation behind an eternity of futility. That futile effort to push that rock to the top of the hill over and over again is described in poetic language that serves to transform what was intended to be an act of futility into an act of existential transcendence.
The point at which transcendence occurs within the ever-recurring brief moment of time that passes between when Sisyphus accomplishes his goal and when the rock starts rolling backward. What is often overlooked in the story of Sisyphus is that in order for the punishment to really tear at his soul, he has to succeed in getting the rock to the top of the incline. To get it there only part way offers no chance for hope to set in. Only if he must constantly walk back down the hill to start again after being allowed to imagine for just a moment that the punishment is over does the full intensity of such futility rend the heart.
Or so the gods would have it. But, like Sisyphus, Camus has little regard for the gods.
He sees within that brief shining moment of glory something quite different. The labor of Sisyphus is compared to the daily work of the bulk of the masses of population in the modern world. Billions of workers head to a job every single day that presents no less an absurd hope of accomplishment than rolling a rock to the top of a hill. And just as Sisyphus is condemned to never make progress, so are the billions of workers who must get up the very next day and do the exact same thing. Day after day after day. The purpose of the punishment lies within that moment of lucid awareness of the eternity of futility that he faces. That very lucidity is also the moment when he finally beats the gods.
Camus stretches the point by narrowing the comparison of Sisyphus from the mass of modern men to Oedipus, another tragic figure from ancient myth. The connection can only be acquired through restless experience that brings wisdom. Only with that wisdom gained from experience can one become heroic in the face of the absurd.
The absurd is also the location of happiness. The happiness that is discovered in the realm of the absurd is the emotional key that unlocks the gates to fate. When the seemingly absurd can be transformed into that which provides happiness is when fate is stolen from the gods and returned to the mortals.
In that brief moment between the rock being where he pushed it and the rock rolling back to where he started is where Sisyphus finds joy in his toil. That joy results in regaining control over his own fate. When Sisyphus turns back to head down the cliff to where the rock now sits waiting to be pushed again, Camus imagines him in contemplation of all the various events of his life which together have made up his fate and placed him where he is. Those events were not crafted by the gods with him placed into the narrative like a puppet. His decisions were his own and thus his destiny has always been of his own making. At last, Sisyphus has demonstrated the disobedience of the thief who thumbs his nose at gods and the gods can do nothing about it.
And so when Sisyphus reaches his place back down at the foot of the mountain, Camus sees not a man filled with the dread of repeating the inevitably futile labor that serves as punishment. He sees a man who is happy because his punishment has led to his discovery that it is the struggle itself which has led to his contentment. And that is certainly no punishment at all.