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[95] The Stranger – Albert Camus

stranger.jpg“They were announcing departures of a world that now and forever meant nothing to me…As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”

The Stranger is indeed a very strange book, to the point that it might be absurd. In fact this 1943 novel is one of the best examples of absurdist fiction. Absurdism is a philosophy rooted in Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard stating that the efforts of humanity (i.e. human being) to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to humanity. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the Existentialist movement.

The novel opens with the funeral of Meursault’s mother. That he has settled the old Madame in a senior home three years ago has been judged by his contemporaries as unloving and uncaring. Being completely unapologetic and unreflecting, he does not express any usual emotions that a funeral usually induces. To the caretaker’s utter aphysicallyazement, he doesn’t want to view his mother one last time before the casket is sealed. All these have laid the foundation of his demise.

Then the book goes on to document the next few days of his life in a first person point-of-view. Here Camus is silently but cleverly staging his basic theory that there exists no truth to humanity. Meursault himself might not be savvy of this truth then but his actions, which are later deemed remorseless and despicable, demonstrate the gist of this school of thought: the only real things in life are what one experiences physcially, the sensory experiences. This justifies the fact that the first half of the novel is written in very simple sentences that are meant to inform, and not to analyze.

As Meursault has explained himself later, his nature is such that his physical needs often get in the way of his feelings. Tiredness can drown out natural feelings for his mother. Only physical experiences–the funeral procession, swimming at the beach, watching a comedy film, sexual intercourse with Marie–move him and make him feel constituent to his being. In these days, he helps his friend Raymond dismiss an Arab girlfriend whom Raymond suspects of infidelity. Later, the woman’s brother encounters the two on a beach and Raymond gets cut in the knife fight. Meursault afterwards returns to the beach and shoots one of the two Arab men. As one might have deduced and reason has dictated, the prosecutor believes the crime is premeditated, using the insensitivity and heartlessness of Meursault as an evidence to support the argument that he is incapable of remorse. That he has fired four more shots at the corpse shows that not one of the moral principles governing men’s hearts is within his reach.

But he has told no lies throughout the book. He kills the Arab because of his response to the glaring sun, which beats down upon him as he walks toward him on the beach. Not only does the testimony snap in place what he usually claims about physical needs, it also shows that the death of Arab is not particularly meaningful in itself. It’s merely something else that happens to him, except of huge consequences. It forces him to reflect upon his life and its meaning as he contemplates his impending punishment. His honestly takes a very thorough course but naive dimension during his trial. He is truthful to his atheism and refuses to pretend he has found religion, for he knows he makes his own destiny; and he, not God, is responsible for his actions and their consequences. This realization is one of happiness even though it is “in the gentle indifference of the world.”

11 Responses

  1. At one point the Walter Kaufmann was also on my reading list — along with the Stranger and Myth of Sisyphus.

  2. Dark Orpheus:
    All three titles were on the reading list for a philosophy class that conflicted with my literary theory class. So I adopted some of the books from that list for my purpose. 🙂

    I have yet prepared myself to read Myth of Sisyphus. I think I’ll need another solitary beach for that one!

  3. I *have* to hurry up and read this book. It’s been lying around here for years, and I’m a slacker, so it remains unread. Thanks for the push!

  4. I did read them and at one poin Camus was a favourite author. It’s now such a long time ago that I need to reread to say anything sensible about the books.

  5. This novel is so great in its simplicity and ability to introduce a reader to the idea of existentialism.

    Camus and Nietzsche together form a basis of existentialism that, while atheistic in nature, also serve to give man complete control over his destiny.

    One of the greatest things about The Stranger is the opening line (paraphrasing), “Mama died today, or yesterday maybe.”

    The Myth of Sisyphus is much more philosophical as it is an essay. If thinking of Nietzsche I would consider Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his most “literary” work.

  6. Andi:
    It’s a short book (rich in implications and meaning); I’m sure you can devour it in no time between your two classes. 🙂

    That we keep on reading and re-reading some titles simple makes the books classic, right? I have yet to tackle Myth of Sisyphus.

  7. Christopher:
    I read the book twice. I read through it without making any note or stopping–to get the whole idea of the book. Then I read it the second time and scribbled some notes.

    Walter Kaufmann makes a reference to Camus and recommends the book for an intro to existentialism.

    The opening line is being translated either as Maman or Mother, but that the use of the child’s word “Maman” is more personal, since “Mother” would sound more detach and thus change the nature of Meursault’s curious feeling for her.

    The style is at once literary, but the simplicity of the prose makes the complexities of someone’s life appear simple. It simply tells us what happens but not why it happens.

  8. This book has been on my “must read” list for ages but had never got round to getting my hands on a copy. However recently I was given a copy of it in French from a friend from Europe, so I’m going to have to work twice as hard to read and understand the book as my French isn’t as good as it used to be…my lesson learnt: be careful for what you wish for ;-p

  9. r:
    My French has got very rusty. I can still read the menus and that’s pretty much it!

    At least The Stranger is a teeny tiny book. Reading double shouldn’t take too much time. You might still be able to finish in one sitting.

  10. I finished it in one sitting — couldn’t put it down. Even though I despised the main character, I thought it was an intriguing look at a very strange person: one who doesn’t feel.

    I don’t know much about philosophy but thank you for this review.

  11. […] God – Zora Neale Hurston (1426) [70] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (1407) [95] The Stranger – Albert Camus (1328) [183] Beloved – Toni Morrison (1274) Beijing 3: Forbidden City […]

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