Book: The Stranger (L’Étranger, 1942)
Author: Albert Camus
Original Language/Translation: French; read in English
Genre: Philosophy, fiction, drama, crime
Page Count:123 pgs
Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to claim human beings and to a larger extent, society, function under various prescribed notions of meaning and value. Meaning then is assumed, infused, and forever stamped into every order of the chain from the base idea of existing itself to grander ideas relating to relationships and religion. Yet for many, this rests on an impenetrable, unshakable belief in a self-sustaining, inherent meaning that this system holds, not a manufactured one.
But then, imagine a world without any innate meaning and then, what about the species born from that very soil that too, would be destined for meaninglessness– how could such a world ever be justified as is?
In Albert Camus’s compelling account of The Stranger, such a phenomenon is explored.
Before the novel can be examined any closer, it’s important to briefly touch on Camus’s ideologies, since both thematic significance and character motivations (or lack of) entirely depend on that. Albert Camus, a French-Algerian ‘artist’ (Camus disliked being called a philosopher), had propagated a theory called absurdism. In this, Camus answered a very fundamental question: what is the meaning of existence. Absurdism first assumes the notion that there is no intrinsic meaning in existing, in life, and there is no source that exists (whether naturally or by device) that can provide it. Thus, it concludes that the human desire or want to find meaning that essentially doesn’t exist is absurd. The Stranger, then, even though never explicitly mentions this theory, is founded upon these ideas, and explores it through the main character and the trials he undergoes. Putting its philosophical pangs and intricate ideas aside, this really is simply a tale of triumph – in many ways – over an inescapable, bitter truth.
The novel opens up with the – main character – Meursault reviewing his mother’s recent death. He is preparing to attend her funeral, yet remains severely disconnected from the event. His entire elaboration feels impersonal; words fall out with indifference as if scripted. Even while attending, Meursault displays no grief, and instead comments about the heat, and the physical world around him. He refuses to see his mother in her coffin one last time, and instead sits in front of it, sharing smokes and coffee with the caretaker. This first scene sets the underlying tone of the novel as it continues to build on 1) Meursault as a character and 2) the absurdism that looms over him and the events of the narrative.
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
The breadth of The Stranger revolves around the daily observations, interactions, and insights of its absurdist “hero”, Meursault, until it leads him to commit the murder of an “Arab” he barely knows for reasons that don’t really exist, and for Meursault, they don’t matter. The novel is thus divided into two parts: the first part trailing Meursault’s pre-murder days (focusing on his character and ideologies on life which largely provide ongoing context to the aforesaid question), and the second part focusing on the events after his arrest (which centralize more around Meursault’s meditations on society, and the illusions of meaning that it feeds off of).
The most commendable aspect of this work is its ability to effectively convey its ideas, regardless of how extreme or unfathomable they may initially come off. Through Meursault – the titular Stranger – Camus is able to present the world truly from the perspective of an outsider. It is through this precise foreignness he emulates that he eventually succumbs to a life of condemnation. However, it is through that condemnation that he is able to find acceptance and liberation. Besides the flow of the narrative being driven by Meursault’s methodic digressions and observations, there are some other important nuances that bring the themes and ideas of The Stranger to the forefront.
Firstly, there is the setting. The Stranger takes place in French (colonized) Algeria. This sets the mood all too appropriately. The novel isn’t just about existential quandaries produced by man’s vain search for meaning but extends further into providing perspective into the mechanics of society. The alienation and disenfranchisement caused by colonialism, not just on the colonized but even the colonizers can be seen primarily through Meursault’s conviction and trial. Even though Meursault is by blood a Frenchmen – he is estranged from his land and society because of his personal disposition. This is contrasted by his friend Raymond who gets away with beating an Arab woman and is pardoned by the law with no issues. Of course, the gravity of the crimes is not the same, yet the parallel remains because of the manner in which Meursault’s crimes are approached. His entire trial revolves around his character which is constantly under scrutiny and most of the criticism stems from his behavior at his mother’s funeral, rather than the actual murder itself. The Arab is insignificant in all contexts because alas, it’s not the life of the Arab that mattered, but the values and meaning that the French held in such esteem that Meursault clearly violated. A “characterless” man might as well be a murderer and it would make no difference because, in the end, Meursault is on trial for the former, not the latter.
Second and most importantly, is Meursault as a character. When I read this novel for the first time, I found myself despairing for Meursault, not for his predicament, but for the sheer indifference he had for himself and humanity in general. Of course, that is a huge generalization and an almost inaccurate one. Given that throughout the course of the novel, he doesn’t really change; it’s easy to assume him as a stagnated or static character. Although, his views, solipsistic tendencies, general indifference remain intact throughout; the ideas that he represents evolve to bring his character a sense of closure that for once feels humanly. Meursault is shown to be a man defined by ideas, not a man of flesh, blood, and feelings. He isn’t meant to be empathized with or understood because he doesn’t have the capacity to do these things himself. Camus keeps Meursault detached, pragmatic, and entirely alien. Consequently, Meursault becomes a Stranger to society, but as fervently as society becomes a Stranger to him. However, the consequences here are to be assumed entirely by Meursault.
The entire novel is told from a first-person perspective. The writing in The Stranger is very mechanical, clear, and often times dry. This can potentially be seen as a downfall but it must be remembered that this is precisely the point. The writing reflects the character entirely. The most interesting part about the writing here is the points where Camus does infuse some poetics into it. The more aesthetic bits of the writing are never in relation to other people, but rather when Meursault is describing the physical world, specifically the weather, the dizzying heat of the sun, or the color of the sky. His relationship with the natural world is far more expressive than anything else, and actually the motivator of most of his actions. Even the murder of the “Arab”, Meursault rationalizes due to the sun beating down him. This bizarre reliance on the physical realm, however, plays a crucial role in the ultimate realization and acceptance that eventually liberates Meursault.
“All around me there was still the same glowing countryside flooded with sunlight. The glare from the sky was unbearable. At one point, we went over a section of the road that had just been repaved. The tar had burst open in the sun. […] I felt a little lost between the blue and white of the sky and the monotony of the colors around me – the sticky black of the tar, the dull black of all the clothes, and the shiny black of the hearse. All of it – the sun, the smell of leather and horse dung from the hearse, the smell of varnish and incense, and my fatigue after a night without sleep – was making it hard for me to see or think straight. […] I could feel the blood pounding in my temples.”
The reason why this specific story becomes so powerful is it reveals that even in the face of such a paradoxical adversity, the ability to prevail exists. Prevailing and meaningfulness are then reconstituted on different terms. What Meursault is able to show is that even though there is no rational order to finding or discovering meaning on its own, it is still possible to continue existing in a meaningful way by accepting the various truths explored in the novel. There are many arguments made about equality, death/mortality, and the necessary acceptance of it all. It’s only through accepting – in the face of futility – can meaning really be ascribed. Meursault is able to find meaning in his conscious recognition of choice and come to terms with not just his own indifference, but the indifference of the world and universe towards him.
“As if that blind rage has washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, I that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much life myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”
Of course, the answers here that Camus provides to such a strong claim might not be adequate, and for me they really aren’t, but that didn’t matter. The argument was compelling and it made me think – hard, and as with any good work, it forced my mind to wander in places that I couldn’t comprehend before.
Overall, The Stranger is a powerfully rich, important work that takes a look into the fundamental pillars of existence. The novel pushes one to the outermost boundaries of comfort and provides a look into humanity, society, and really, all life in a way that demands one to open their eyes and look into the world through the eyes of a Stranger. It’s a fantastic, thematically-driven novel that might at points enrage, discourage, and even depress its readers, but as with Meursault, it will also set them free; for the “truth” always does, regardless if one finds it meaningful or not.