Title: The Stranger (Goodreads)
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Matthew Ward
Published: Vintage, 1941
My Copy: Paperback
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
The Stranger (also known as The Outsider or L’Étranger) tells the story of Meursault, an unsympathetic French Algerian, who after attending his mother’s funeral, finds himself killing an Arab man. The novel follows a first-person narrative that explores the events before and after this murder. Albert Camus said is best when he said “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.”
On the surface The Stranger is the story of an emotionless protagonist; Meursault does not care about anything and could be considered a sociopath. However, this novel is often cited as an example of Camus’ philosophy on the absurd and existentialism. So in order to fully grasp the intent behind this classic novel, we must look into just what existentialism is and more practically absurdism.
The absurd is often referring to the conflicting philosophy that humans have a tendency to seek out value and meaning in life. However absurdism believes it is logically and humanly impossible to find any meaning of life. Philosophers may have very different doctrines but they generally believe that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject. Though existentialism comes from the disorientation or confusion that we are living in a meaningless (or absurd) world.
For Albert Camus, The Stranger is an exploration into the meaning of life and if life has no meaning what is the purpose of morality. Meursault’s detachment from the world is a result of his conclusion that life is meaningless; “The chaplain knew the game well too, I could tell right away: his gaze never faltered. And his voice didn’t falter, either, when he said, ‘Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?’ ‘Yes,’ I said.” Paradoxically, it was only after being sentenced to death, that Meursault was able to obtain some sense of happiness.
Without an understanding of Albert Camus’ philosophical ideas, I do not think that the reader will have any hope in truly understand or appreciating this novel. However I have heard that The Stranger has been an option for high school students (especially in America) to study. I wonder how many students fall into the trap of picking this novel thinking it was short only to discover how difficult it is to analyse. I do not have enough of an understanding of absurdism or existential philosophy to full appreciate The Stranger. However re-reading this novel has helped me understand this enough to enjoy the Camus’ philosophical ideas.