🔫 The Stranger
Author: Albert Camus
Date Finished: Oct 21, 2020
🎭 Author Background
Albert Camus was a French author and Nobel Prize winner for literature. Generally agreed upon as an existentialist philosopher, he denied both these terms, instead calling himself an artist in the absurd. Absurdism is his topic of philosophy, and it ties deeply into existentialism. He was good friends with Sartre, however their opposing views on communism ruined that relationship.
Existentialism seeks to explore what it means to exist, and why we exist. What is the meaning to existence. Camus throws that out of the window and describes existence as absurd, there is no point in focusing on these topics as there is no meaning to existence. The absurdity comes from that statement, as having no meaning to existence can send a lot of people into despair. This also means that everything we do is absurd and without a concrete end goal. Our lives are doomed to play out towards the end, which is nothing. Bear in mind this book was written in 1942 in the midst of the worst and most deadly human conflict in history.
📜 Thesis of Book
Life is absurd and without meaning. The world is miserable because it struggles and repeatedly fails to find meaning. Instead what we should do is accept the absurdity of reality, and love and enjoy what it offers to us. To enjoy life, we have to live, and while death is not to be feared (as it is the end of all things) it is not to be sought, as it’s giving up. The sad part of this is that others will not understand you when you find such freedom. This could paint you as an outsider, a psychopath or a limp ambitionless individual.
🔎 My Thesis
Life is absurd and without meaning. The majority of people don’t understand this and so fail to understand the main character’s motives (or lack thereof). The trial shows how everyone desperately tries to bring meaning to what the character did, and in turn provide more and more exaggerated views of his character or soul. Everyone, on both sides, fails to even entertain the notion that there really was no meaning or motive to the murder of someone the character just met.
The character never really tries to focus on the meaning of life, life after death, or his role in the world. At every step of the way, he just wants to life. Right to the end, he does everything so that he is living. Living without meaning, but this
One life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well.
After the character voices this to his boss, the boss says he lacks ambition. That is the boss imposing his own values and meaning of life on the character. What if the character is 100% content with where he is already? Then he has reached his ambition. There is no need for continual struggle in that regard, and he can continue enjoying life as it is.
The story begins with the famous lines “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.” This opening line expertly thrusts us into the mind of the narrator and protagonist. The first part of the book familiarises us with Mersault’s character as he sits vigil at his mothers funeral, and breaks expected expressions of grief much to the uncomfortable surprise of the others at the Home. It then follows Mersault’s relationships with his neighbours, co-workers and romantic interest Marie. I say romantic interest in the literary sense, for as Mersault says:
A moment later she asked me if I loved her. I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t.
The turning point starts when Mersault is befriended by Raymond, a sketchy individual who roughs up his mistress and has Mersault vouch for him in court. The mistresses brother “The Arab” confronts Raymond and Mersault on a walk on the beach, during which altercation he slashes at Raymond injuring him. As Raymond returns to the holiday home, Mersault decides to go back to that spot, enticed by the promise of a cool stream, where he encounters the Arab again. As he approaches against better judgement, the heat and sun glint off the knife drawn by the Arab, and Mersault hears each shot of the gun in his hand as
the fateful rap on the door of my undoing
The second part begins with Mersault in jail, being questioned as to why he killed the Arab. Throughout the entirety of the part, everyone fails to understand that there really is no meaning to it. It is too absurd for anyone to understand. Instead, he is described as “Monsieur Antichrist”, as his apparent apathy, lack of sadness or remorse and disengagement make him condemned to death for murder with malice aforethought.
In the final chapters, Mersault’s interaction with the chaplain brings forth the main thesis of this book in an explosion of rage, outlining atheistic and nihilistic views. This finally brings Mersault peace and he accepts the coming death.
🔬 Analysis and Evaluation
It could be easy to see “stoic virtues” in Mersault. The control of his emotions only breaks down in the last moments before he accepts death, and only so to express his view points.
To look at him, you could see him as a Stoic Sage, the classic example of one is one who will not bat an eyelid in both sadness and happiness. Mersault’s mother died, he has a beautiful girl-friend who loves him, makes some friends. And throughout all this, he feels exactly the same.
The other way to look at is is he is a psychopath, someone who doesn’t understand the feelings of others. Though that is challenged multiple times, as there are plenty of examples where he is aware and knows what is expected of him. He’s in touch with humanity, just humanity is not in touch with him.
Opening my mind to absurdism painted a much sadder image of someone who accepted that existence has no meaning, that life happens without meaning and so can death. His murder of the Arab was pure chance and not pre-meditated. The 4 shots point blank after the first also had no meaning. No-one can accept that and they cannot accept someone who believes this.
This book hit me deep. I’m struggling with existentialism, and I don’t necessarily adhere to any particular philosophy regarding this, but putting myself into the shoes of Mersault’s made me so sad for him. Nobody understands his view, and explaining it only serves to deepen the other’s belief of his apparent murderous mind. Camus also takes a few digs at religion, mainly Christianity, in both his portrayal of the Chaplain and the Magistrate as annoying incessant zealots hell bent on saving someone’s poor soul.
Lastly I’d like to touch on the point of whether what Mersault did was wrong. My personal view is yes, he ended another’s life, it could be said in “self defence”, however it was made clear Mersault knew taking some steps forward would result in tragedy. This was a point where his curiosity and belief in the lack of meaning to life (not the lack of worth to a life, just meaning) hindered and clouded his judgement. So he is guilty, the problem is he is convicted wrongly. His punishment may or may not be just, I’m not sure about this. I’ll let Mersault himself speak about what punishment is when thinking of the ban on cigarettes inside the prison:
But, by the time I understood, I’d lost the craving, so it had ceased to be a punishment.
In the final chapters, he understands his punishment, and his craving for meaning to his situation ends. Death ceases to be a punishment to him.
I read this in one sitting and cried at the end. A really wonderful introduction into the philosophy of absurdism, if you take the time to inhabit Mersault’s mind and forget your own prejudices about the meaning and sense of life.
💬 Favourite Quotes
Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man.
There’s no idea to which one doesn’t get acclimatized in time.
Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class
Though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me.
I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.