I’m about to outline one of the most beautiful and stimulating books that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Admittedly, I'm a little biased because I personally adhere to Absurdist philosophy. Understanding a bit about Camus' Absurdism will illuminate facets of this book that might otherwise go unnoticed; however, it’s important to remember that when The Stranger* was first published in France in 1942, there was very little established philosophical context with which to approach it. Existentialism had been lingering on people’s minds at the time, but Camus adamantly claimed that Absurdism was distinct from that line of thinking. Full disclosure: any and all religious beliefs directly butt heads with both this book and the philosophy behind it. I trust that my religious readers understand the significance of reading things you don’t always agree with as well as appreciating that my interpretation of the novel is obviously not the end all be all. That being said, there are three main takeaways for this particular philosophy (as imagined by Camus):
- It is impossible and contradictory (and therefore absurd) for humans to search for intrinsic meaning in life---because SURPRISE, there isn’t any.
- There are three viable ways to confront the absurdity: suicide, religion (which he labels “philosophical suicide”), or recognition/acceptance. The first two are merely a craven evasion of the paradox whereas embracing a life devoid of meaning allows for true freedom. This is because…
- Recognizing that life has no objective value dissolves any absolutes. A human can thereby actually act as an individual, creating his own sense of purpose and searching for what he believes to be subjectively valuable in life. He does not answer to an externally imposed morality; rather, his own integrity is the driving force behind his moral choices. He can approach each day heroically, fighting an unwinnable war, but drudging along in the hopes that he might come across something really beautiful that would make his day worthwhile. Today I had cheesecake and I’d say it was a successful Tuesday.
Camus devoted much of his literary life to expressing this philosophy through the eyes of various characters. Born and raised in Algeria, he seemed to be the jack of all trades—playing soccer, founding a theatrical company, studying philosophy, sociology, and psychology, and submitting his thesis on “Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought”. You know, the usual. He had a couple of marriages that didn’t work out because deep down he was a bit of a whore. Notably, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature for his illumination of human consciousness. Tragically, at the tender age of 46, he died in a car accident with his publisher. For the record--being French and therefore more fancy sounding—his name is pronounced (cam moo). Like the cow. Don’t be that person at the party pronouncing it Camus, with a strong southern emphasis on the “s”, to a philosophy major (definitely not something I did…).
The novel begins with the now infamous first two sentences: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (Camus, 3). *Chilling*. It reads in the first person narrative, following the day-to-day life of a man named Meursault from the time his mother dies to when he faces his own death penalty for killing a man known only as “The Arab”. Meursault is a fascinating character, mainly in that he is extraordinarily apathetic. Fun facts about Meursault:
1) He didn’t know how old his Maman was when she died because he simply didn’t see the importance of it.
2) His physical nature generally overrides any emotional factors. For example, he shoots the Arab “because of the sun” (Camus, 103). But literally—homeboy gets really hot at multiple points in the book and he reacts to his discomfort in whatever way he sees fit at the time. I was really sweaty on the subway the other day (sexy) and I thought I might strangle the guy next to me for no particular reason other than I was hot. Meursault would sympathize. (As a side note, I think that the heat motif is a symbol for dangerous and over-eager vigor—a vitality which acknowledges meaning in life that doesn't exist for the Absurdist. This heat can, of course, be tempered by the cold—a more level-headed realization that there is no such meaning. Hence why the verdict comes when the sun was getting low. Additionally, when Meursault starts to fantasize about his appeal getting accepted, he has to “cool the hot blood” aka chill out and understand that either way, it is what is is (Camus, 115)).
3) He is quite adapting. When he is put behind bars, he discovers that “a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison” (Camus, 79). This guy would do great in time out.
4) He has the ability to be an excellent listener…as long as the temperature is just right. He claims, “I don’t have much to say, so I keep quiet” (Camus, 66). Shit absolutely no one says.
5) Unlike Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, Meursault does not experience guilt or remorse. In fact, he’s just annoyed by having to endure such pointless activities as court proceedings.
6) He thinks certainty is arrogant. Receiving a guillotine sentence means zero chance for survival—if it didn’t chop off your head the first time, they’d give it another go. The whole messed up system has the condemned ironically hoping that it’ll work the first time.
7) He doesn’t have any self-assuring notions that he’ll leave behind any meaningful legacy… and this doesn’t upset him in the slightest. Who cares? After all, “since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter” (Camus, 114).
Camus shapes Meursault’s nonchalant demeanor not only by the character’s words and actions but also through the raw, seemingly simplistic writing style. His sentences are succinct without the choppy, jerked around feeling you get when reading something like A Million Little Pieces. This is not to say that simplicity of text equates to simplicity of content. As the translator reminds us in his foreword, Camus possesses “an artistic sleight of hand that would make the complexities of a man’s life appear simple” (Camus, v). Moreover, there is a natural pace to the story, as if it were a movie happening before your very eyes. Parts of it even feel like poetry. Camus has an exquisite way of expressing relatable imagery. His images are stunning in their exactitude; while a flowy metaphor is nice every now and then, it’s refreshing to be able to seamlessly read page after page without pausing every five seconds to truly capture what’s happening in your mind’s eye. My favorite sentence in the novel occurs when Meursault is reflecting on his life before imprisonment. He says , “And yet something had changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day… as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent” (Camus, 97). Wow.
Before I wrap up my rant on how baller Camus is, I’ll refer to two separate scenes that I believe serve as microcosms for the crux of the novel as a whole. The first is at his Maman’s vigil, where Meursault sits directly across from the elderly men and women who had lived in the home with his mother prior to her death. In my opinion, the placement of people in this scene serves to create a mirror image—Meursault sees himself in these old people. You’re young and then you’re old and nothing really changes. The parallel is further enforced as Meursault proves continually burdened by physical sensations. He’s tired, his back hurts, he doesn’t like the noises in the room—he has plenty to complain about bodily-wise. Read: old people (hope I don’t scare off my older audience too much). Camus ends this scene with the old people retreating to their rooms single-file, each one shaking Meursault’s hand. Meursault describes the departure, noting—“as if that night during which we hadn’t exchanged as much as a single word had somehow brought us closer together” (Camus, 12). As we will soon see, the events in his life are certainly bringing him closer to death, and it’s almost as if they are one and the same.
Later in the book, Meursault is attempting to envision what a guillotine actually looks like. It dawns on him that up until now, he’d had the mistaken belief that you had to climb a lot of stairs to reach the scaffold; in actuality, it is much closer to the ground. He thinks to himself, “you always get exaggerated notions of things you don’t know anything about…Mounting the scaffold, going right up into the sky, was something the imagination could hold on to” (Camus, 112). That’s a pretty blatant metaphor for heaven. Thus, according to Camus, life is closer to death than one might think and anything aside from the blade is just wishful thinking.
In summary, I give The Stranger 5 out of 5 camel humps (surprise, surprise). This is a very short novel, only 123 pages—and this novel is unique in that every single page brought me satisfaction. I was both bemused and amused by Meursault and his effortless detachment from society. It was a book about crime, murder, and death without being a book about crime, murder, and death---instead emphasizing freedom within imprisonment and awakening the joy that can come from acknowledging “the gentle indifference of the world” (Camus, 122).
*Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Random House, Inc., 1988. Print.