‘Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas’
"My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know" famously opens Albert Camus's 1942 novel The Stranger or The Outsider of which I have decided to discuss today.
The novel is largely renowned for two passages. The first is its opening, and the second features halfway through the novel when Meursault is blinded by the sun, bewildered by the sand and sea on a beach, and decides to shoot dead an unnamed Arab.
Nevertheless it is misleading to think Camus wrote a racist novel. Although the silence of the Arabs in the novel gives a troubling effect, it is arguable that Meursault shot the Arab dead by mistake.
The following extract from the novel describes his thoughts at that time, on the beach:
‘All I could feel were the cymbals the sun was clashing against my forehead. The sea swept ashore a great breath of fire. The sky seemed to be splitting from end to end and raining down sheets of flame. My whole being went tense and I tightened my grip on the gun. The trigger gave.’
I think the Arab is the second most significant character in the book despite having no name, no face and speaking no words. The fact that the Arab is unnamed is not incidental; it is the whole point. For to give him a name would be to introduce agency, empathy and humanity into the narrative, which evidently is absent.
For example earlier in the novel when his lady friend Marie asks Meursault if he wants to marry her. Meursault replies that it makes no difference to him. When she asks Meursault if he loves her, he again replies that though it does not mean anything, he probably does not love her. This lack of feeling and compassion shows insight into Meursault’s bleak world.
Upon reflection, I discovered that one might have more in common with Meursault- the murderous, unlikeable, chain-smoking, semi-sociopathic protagonist of the novel, then what you would initially think.
No I’m not saying that you would shoot a stranger in cold-blood or lose interest at your mother’s funeral such as him.
But nevertheless I am equally sure that we have all experienced weird moments of questioning and isolation. This is inclusive of anything from the deflated feeling after something tragic occurs- take a break-up or death for example- and you wake surprised to see everything exactly the same as it was before. To the moments of questioning the significance of living or existence is general. These such moments of detachment may leave you feeling like a Stranger, demonstrating a likeliness to the main character.
Yet Meursault is an introspective philosophical rebel, promoting the philosophy of absurdism throughout the novel. This features as a key theme and is renowned for reflecting Albert Camus’ very own personal philosophical stance as an absurdist. The philosophy of absurdism states that the world is nonsensical, too absurd to find meaning in it anywhere. Without logic, rationale or governing order -for me it suggests loneliness. Nevertheless it can be useful when life throws the bizarre at you, to be able to think “yes that makes no sense whatsoever” and just leave it at that.
Although I don’t advocate treating Meursault as a role model, you may find the theory of absurdism somewhat comforting and I thoroughly recommend the novel if this philosophy has sparked an interest for you.
As I have quite a curious nature, I disagree with absurdism and my Christian background has reasonably convinced me that life must have a meaning. Naturally I found Albert Camus’ philosophy interesting, as it opposed philosophers in the West, who have taken the question “what is the meaning of life” very seriously, and found all of the answers wanting.
I found the writing style in the novel extremely minimalist, consisting almost exclusively of short, direct sentences. Although this may not be the most engaging style of writing ever employed, I thought it communicated the mood of the novel effectively.
After reading the first couple of pages, I found that the prose wasn’t too dense and the concept fairly original. Usually books are designed to make you sympathize with the main character, so it was interesting to be introduced to a main character that was so different from anyone else.
However, this novel is far from perfect. You won’t read it for the plot, because it’s not particularly engaging. You won’t read it for the characters, because, from the eyes of Meursault, they aren’t that proposed to be nuanced or intriguing. You won’t read it for the beautiful writing, because in honesty it’s really not that beautiful. But what you will read it for is the social commentary. What this book says about society as a whole is interesting and it will make you think about the implications of this tale long after it has been told.