Monday, June 28, 2021

The Stranger by Albert Camus

A meaningful testament to meaninglessness
Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in Algeria to French parents when the North African nation was ruled as a colony of France. Algeria also serves as the setting for his 1942 novel The Stranger. Its protagonist, Meursault, was born in France and has settled in North Africa with his mother. In his adopted homeland, Meursault lives as a Frenchman and only associates with other European settlers. This makes him “L’Étranger”—the French title of the work, which can be translated as the “foreigner,” “The Outsider” (the book’s British title) or “The Stranger” (its American title). Only a few Arab citizens of Algeria appear in the book, and they remain unnamed, referred to only as “the Arab,” thus emphasizing Meursault’s (and France’s) detachment from his colonial home.

Meursault’s indifference, however, is not directed at any particular race or demographic, but rather at the world and life in general, making him somewhat of a stranger to humanity. Under almost all circumstances, he demonstrates himself peculiarly incapable of feeling empathy or emotion, whether anger, fear, or love. Meursault narrates the novel in a detached, deadpan style that almost mocks everything that happens in the plot. He relates his dramatic saga of crime and punishment, love and sex, life and death in short, choppy sentences of bareboned syntax as if he were mentioning the most mundane of occurrences. This linguistic style is aptly evocative of Meursault’s apathetic attitude towards life and the world around him.

Likewise, the universe itself treats Meursault with harsh indifference. As if driven towards an inevitable fate by random variables beyond his control, he commits a crime almost unthinkingly. The circumstances of the crime exhibit some characteristics of self-defense and some of premeditation, leaving the outcome of his trial uncertain. During the actual court proceedings, however, Meursault finds that he is not being tried for what he has done but rather for who he is. The judge, jury, and courtroom crowd judges him for the very unfeeling personality that characterizes his nature. The details of his life are scrutinized as evidence of his otherness, his indifference to the way people are supposed to be, his status as a stranger among normal humans who dutifully love their mothers and worship God. Despite this negative turn of events, Meursault greets this persecution with his characteristic lack of concern, because life really doesn’t matter anyway.

Camus manages to convey all this in a tone that’s relentlessly bleak but with touches of absurd humor. Though Meursault’s narration remains dispassionate for most of the book, the plot does culminate in a climactic outburst, through which Meursault’s (and presumably Camus’s) philosophy of the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence is revealed with harsh and brutal frankness. Even so, this outlook of pointlessness is oddly liberating. The Stranger is one of the twentieth century’s most thought-provoking works of philosophical fiction. It certainly is no “feel-good” book, however, and it makes for a reading experience that’s obviously not to everyone’s taste. If you just don’t “get” The Stranger, then chances are you’re a rather happy, optimistic, and well-adjusted person. Congratulations!
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