Book Review: The Stranger – Albert Camus

L’Étranger, The Stranger or The Outsider, is a 1942 novel by French author Albert Camus. Though it is a work of fiction, it is often cited as an example of Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism.

The Stranger has had a profound impact on millions of readers. Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”

Meursault, an indifferent French Algerian, is the protagonist of The Stranger, to whom the novel’s title refers.

The novel begins:

“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.”

Right from the start, we can see Meursault’s emotional indifference and detached personality. An aspect that is often lost in translation is that he uses the child’s word “Maman”, literally “Mommy”, instead of the more adult “Mother”. Camus wrote in his notebooks that:

“The curious feeling the son has for his mother constitutes all his sensibility.”

Meursault is asked if he wants to see his mother who is sealed in the coffin. He declines the offer. During the vigil, he drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes next to the coffin, showing his indifference to his mother’s death.

That night, he happily arrives back in Algiers. The next day he goes to the beach for a swim. There he runs into Marie, his former co-worker, they go watch a comedy at the movie theatre that evening and spend the night together.

Throughout the novel, Marie asks him if he loves her, and he simply replies that: “it didn’t mean anything”, but probably not. She also asks him if he wants to marry her, he replies indifferently but says that they can get married if she wants to, so they become engaged.

Meursault has an encounter with one of his neighbours who curses and beats his mangy dog. One day, he laments that his dog has run away and can be heard weeping in the night longing for its return. This strong grief over someone losing his dog contrasts with Meursault’s indifference at losing his mother.

The climax of the novel takes part on a Sunday trip to a beach house.

“The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The sun was the same as it had been the day I’d buried Maman, and like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I couldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead […] My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave […] I knew I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times at the door of unhappiness.”

This is after he had shot the arab man for stabbing his friend with a  knife. | Strange, Arab men, Zelda characters
Meursault shooting the Arab

Meursault kills a man whom he did not know, an involuntary and absurd act. The sun merely struck his knife, sweat was running in his eyes. From this moment he enters the world of judgment. And the world of judgment is the discovery of man.

Meursault is arrested and thrown into jail. His lack of remorse over his crime, and, in particular, his lack of grief at his mother’s funeral makes people think of him as a complete stranger.

In prison, he is tormented by the isolation from nature, women, and cigarettes.

“When I was first imprisoned, the hardest thing was that my thoughts were still those of a free man. For example, I would suddenly have the urge to be on a beach and to walk down to the water.”

He eventually adapts, sharing his mother’s attitude that “after a while, you could get used to anything”.

In the courtroom Meursault is seen as a monster and people believe that the emptiness of his heart threatens to swallow up society. His lack of belief in God, gives him the nickname “Monsieur Antichrist”.

Meursault is afflicted by the madness of sincerity, distinguished by his never wanting to say more than he feels. When asked if he grieved at his mother’s burial, he neither admits nor denies having grieved. It is this tenacious refusal, this fascination with the authenticity of what one is and what one feels that gives meaning to the entire novel.

When asked why he had killed the Arab, he says that it was because of the sun. People laugh at him. Eventually, he is found guilty and is sentenced to death by guillotine. This shows one of the forms of the Absurd, a young man who wants to live but is condemned to die.

While waiting for his execution, he struggles to come to terms with his situation, and he has trouble accepting the certainty and inevitability of his fate. He is visited by the Chaplain who tries to make him renounce his atheism and turn to God, but he refuses. Instead, he declares that he is correct in believing in a meaningless, purely physical world.

The major themes of the book include: the importance of the physical world, the irrationality of the universe and the meaninglessness of human life.

1. The Importance of the Physical World

Meursault is far more interested in the physical aspects of the world than its social or emotional aspects.

For instance, the heat during the funeral procession causes him far more pain than the thought of burying his mother. The sun on the beach torments Meursault, and during his trial he even identifies his suffering under the sun as the reason he killed the Arab.

2. Irrationality of the universe

The second theme is the irrationality of the universe. Although the notion of the absurd is not mentioned in the novel, it is implicit in it.

Which is best described as “the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless, and irrational universe with the ‘unreasonable silence’ of the universe in response.”

However, this world in itself is not absurd, what is absurd is our relationship with the universe, which is irrational. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. It is all that links them together. Thus, the universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.

Camus describes it as the conflict between seeking meaning and the inability to find any in an indifferent universe.

Acrylic Speed Painting | Galaxy IV - YouTube
Indifferent universe

The difficulty in accepting this notion drives people to constantly attempt to create a rational structure and meaning in their lives.

Society attempts to impose rational explanations for Meursault’s irrational actions, as the idea that things happen for no reason or that events have no meaning is disruptive and threatening to society.

The courtroom represents society’s attempt to manufacture rational order, trying to offer explanations based on reason for Meursault’s unreasonable acts. The entire trial is therefore an example of absurdity – an instance of humankind’s futile attempt to impose rationality on an irrational universe.

Camus wrote in 1955:

I summarised The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

3. The Meaninglessness of Human Life

In Absurdism, the only certain thing in life is the inevitability of death, and, because all humans will eventually meet death, all lives are equally meaningless.

Meursault realises this towards the end of the novel. Just as he is indifferent to much of the universe, so is the universe indifferent to him. We are born into a world that was there before and will remain there after we are gone.

However, in this seemingly dismal realisation, he is able to attain happiness. When he fully comes to terms with the inevitability of death, he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death at an old age.

“Since we are all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”

Meursault starts to truly embrace the idea that human existence holds no greater meaning. He abandons all hope for the future and accepts the “gentle indifference of the world.” This acceptance makes him feel happy.

“For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”

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The Stranger in 10 Minutes | Camus

The Stranger or The Outsider is a 1942 novel by French author Albert Camus. Though it is a work of fiction, it is often cited as an example of Camus’ philosophy of Absurdism.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Stranger – Albert Camus

  1. Sounds like a good read. Not playing the game really resonated with me. In my family we are expected to grieve properly. I have to play along or I will disappoint them all.

    1. Absolutely. Although it is put into exaggeration and is fiction, it can be seen as an allegory of how alienated one can become when one does not adhere to social rules. This incentivises “herd mentality” and playing the game.

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