The Stranger (1942)
Episode #5 of the course Masterpieces of world literature and why they matter by Alisa Miller
Welcome to Day 5 of Masterpieces of World Literature. Yesterday, we explored the complex Finnegans Wake, but today, we will take a look at a book that is written so simply, readers must be careful not to miss the depth of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Camus wrote The Stranger in France but set it in the place of his birth, French Algeria.
The Stranger opens with Meursault, the main character, learning that his mother died. He is living in Algiers and must travel to a nearby town, where his mother was living, to attend her funeral. It quickly becomes apparent that Meursault’s regard for people is not typical. He doesn’t express any sadness over the loss of his mother. Twice Meursault is asked his mother’s age, and despite his stating that they were close, he doesn’t know how old she was.
When Meursault returns to Algiers, he goes to the beach the next morning, where he meets a woman, Marie. They swim together, go to a movie—a comedy—and then go to his apartment to have sex. The black mourning suit Meursault wears stands in stark contrast to his actions.
Meursault’s acquaintance, Raymond, believes his girlfriend has been unfaithful and subsequently beats her. The girlfriend’s brother, known only as the Arab, and his friends seek retaliation against Raymond. Meursault watches these events with detachment. He doesn’t ever express concern about anyone’s feelings; instead, he describes them in the same flat manner he describes watching the neighborhood outside his apartment window.
Meursault, Marie, and Raymond plan a day at the beach, and the Arab and his friends appear to have followed them. After an altercation in which Raymond is stabbed, Meursault goes to the beach alone. There, he encounters the Arab, who is also alone. The Arab is lying on the beach, and when Meursault approaches the Arab, he holds up his knife without ever rising. Meursault, overcome by the heat of the day, is provoked by the glint of sunlight coming off the knife and shoots the Arab five times, killing him with the first shot.
The second half of the book concerns Meursault’s imprisonment and trial. Meursault passes the time in prison with the same detachment he had outside prison. He eventually goes to trial, where much of it focuses on everyone trying to make sense of the murder, which to Meursault, is meaningless. His lack of reaction to his mother’s death focuses largely at the trial, and Meursault is sentenced to death by guillotine. Soon after, the book ends with Meursault pondering his death. He comes to the realization that his life will end less lonely and more complete if he is surrounded in death by a yelling crowd full of hate.
The Stranger, Existentialism, and Absurdism
Many readers of The Stranger have associated it with existentialism; however, Camus vehemently opposed this connection. Existentialism is often described as a philosophy wherein the world has no meaning, and if a person sees meaning, it is only significant to that person. Camus, instead, preferred the connection to absurdism, or the thought that humans suffer because they attempt to find meaning in a world that holds no meaning.
Meursault didn’t assign meaning to what happened around him and may be seen as a representation of the meaningless world, with those around him attempting to find meaning. It is worth noting that Camus never mentions Meursault’s first name in The Stranger. By omitting this personalization, it is as though Camus asks the reader to see Meursault not as a representation of humanity, but as the exception.
Just as there are several interpretations, there have been many reasons The Stranger has appealed to readers. Some feel connected to what they see as a call to action in the way they live their lives: finding meaning rather than living insensitively. Some perceive an anti-establishment sentiment and see it as a call to revolution. Many readers appreciate that the book is so easy to read yet provides an opportunity for deep thought on humanity and the world. For all these reasons, The Stranger stands as a timeless masterpiece that readers still enjoy today.
Tomorrow, we will take a look at the famously infamous book, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.
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