“He wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I only had a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.”
Albert Camus was a French-Algerian writer best known for his absurdist works, including The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Camus started his involvement in political activities during his student years, joining first the Communist Party and then the Algerian People’s Party. As a champion of individual rights, he opposed French colonization and argued for the empowerment of Algerians in politics and labour.
“The Stranger”, or sometimes translated as “The Outsider”, is considered the best at highlighting Albert Camus’ philosophies towards life of absurdism and existentialism. The story has two parts. It follows Meursault, the main character, before and after he commits a murder. The philosophical contemplations are embodied by Meursault, a pied-noir office worker, who appears as a blank canvas, barren of any real emotions.
The novel opens with the news that Meursault’s mother has died – something that he greets with his usual indifference – and goes on to describe his lack of grief at the funeral, and his subsequent relationship with Marie, a young woman he takes to the cinema the day after the funeral. Later, when he is befriended by Raymond, a man of dubious character, Meursault is drawn into obnoxiousness, which ends with his murdering an Arab. The second half of the novel is concerned with Meursault’s subsequent trial and incarceration and, more significantly, his awakening to the absurdity of life, and his passage, in the full knowledge of death, into authentic existence.
The Stranger touches on a number of philosophical schools of thought, and Camus borrows from his forbears, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Even though Camus claimed not to be an existentialist, Meursault undoubtedly embodies the existential spirit; he recognises that life is limited to this world and that death, the fate common to all mankind, is inevitable and final.
By embracing authentic existence, Meursault sets himself apart as the outsider. Meursault’s most striking characteristic is his strict adherence to truth; he lives without motive, with a complete congruence between his thoughts and actions. In perfectly embodying one of society’s moral ideals, he causes friction between himself and an hypocritical society who cannot themselves achieve the standards they set. That Meursault will not make concessions, will not bring comfort to others by buying into the illusion, is the true cause of his condemnation.
There are philosophical works that offer a deeper and fuller discussion of the human condition, and The Stranger can feel a little lightweight. However, the novel is so luminously constructed, the ideas presented in such an accessible and immaculate form, that it is indisputably one of the very best introductions to existentialism and the ideas surrounding absurdism and authenticity.
The enduring appeal of this work can be attested by the continuous disconnection that we as individual have with norms impose by society. The world that Meursault inhabits is a strange version of our own, and his attitude, his disconnect from society, still strikes a chord.