The Stranger by Albert Camus is a novel concerning the absurdist philosophy of the main character, Meursault, who inevitably becomes the ‘other’. Camus was known as one of the biggest players in existentialism and absurdism, however, he denied those titles for the majority of his lifetime, even that of being a philosopher. Instead, he pursued a political voice on the Cold War, rejecting both communism and capitalism. Regardless, his literature continued to portray him as a modern philosopher, posing some of the biggest existentialist and absurdist questions of our lifetime. The book was published in 1942 and written in French- setting in French-colonized Algeria. The novel is blunt in its language and rather absent in message until the last few pages. Meursault is consumed with ideas of absurdism, a philosophical principle that states that humans exist in a meaningless and purposeless world. He is viewed differently in the eyes of society under a negative connotation, especially when he commits the murder of an Arab. Because of Meursault’s beliefs, regular contributing members of society suspected that he was not on the same mental wavelength as they were. However, the conclusion of the novel proves otherwise, showing that he feels the same way that most of the characters do when it comes to death and the beauty of life. The historical context, social circumstances, and philosophies he worshipped played a large role in the way Meursault was viewed and the consequences he endured towards the story’s conclusion as the ‘other’.
The novel begins in the 1940s with the death of Meursault’s mother. Meursault describes how he is unable to remember the exact day she died, showing a discreet indifference to the passing of a loved one, as seen in this quote, “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure” (Camus, par. 1). The lack of effort he puts into knowing the exact date of such a significant person’s passing establishes his ‘meaningless’ philosophy and character. The strangeness of his character begins with this event because when Meursault goes to visit his deceased mother, he does not want to see the body, nor does he shed a single tear. When he arrives to the nursery home, he is not familiar with a single person, one of them supposedly being his mother’s lover. People began to look at him abnormally, as seen in these lines when he talks to a caretaker at the nursery home, “While he was going up to the coffin I told him not to trouble. “Eh? What’s that?” he exclaimed. “You don’t want me to …?” “No,” I said. He put back the screwdriver in his pocket and stared at me. I realized then that I shouldn’t have said, “No,” and it made me rather embarrassed. After eying me for some moments he asked: “Why not?” But he didn’t sound reproachful; he simply wanted to know. “Well, really I couldn’t say,” I answered” (Camus, para. 21-22). His unwillingness to see the body shows the disconnect he had with his family. When it comes time to bury his mother, he goes outside into the scorching sun, where the first signs of genuine emotion appear. The only thing that deeply affects Meursault is the heat. The sun, an indifferent object to human activities on Earth, is what makes Meursault react even though he is an indifferent person. Regardless of his mother’s passing, Meursault only pays attention to the heat, which seems to severely bother him, even in the process of burying his mother. This does prove that he feels an emotion, or perhaps phobia, as the rest of society does. However, this again, makes him look different and isolated since the only sign of distress he shows and cares about is towards the sun, and not his mother’s death. This is the first introduction to a common theme throughout the book, proving that, despite his pessimistic philosophy, Meursault feels a degree of emotion, even if it is negative. His absurdist philosophy, that nothing truly matters, is heavily exhibited in this circumstance, since he believes that death is inevitable. This, of course, makes him the ‘other’ in the eyes of society. Most of the characters within the novel agreed that this was an abnormal reaction to have to a parent’s passing, especially when having supposed deep connections with people. The glares and stares he received introduced the concept of his isolation and misunderstanding on the objective perspectives of life and basic emotion. It shows that he did not develop connections with people, nor did he cope with anything to begin with. Regardless, Meursault acknowledges that his reactions and emotions are inappropriate, especially when he feels embarrassment. Nevertheless, his philosophy towards his mother’s death contributed to him being viewed as the ‘other’.
Throughout the progression of the novel, Meursault’s heat phobia intensified, causing him to commit a murder for a ‘friend’. There is a clear connection between his phobia and the murder because if it wasn’t for the intensity of the heat, and his relationship with it, he probably would not have committed the murder in the first place. This event came about with Meursault’s ‘friend’ named Raymond, who also wasn’t the most ethnically clean or socially accepted, as seen in these lines, “The general idea hereabouts is that he’s a pimp. But if you ask him what his job is, he says he’s a warehouseman. One thing’s sure: he isn’t popular in our street” (Camus, part 3., para. 8). He did not necessarily consider Raymond a friend since he had no real concepts of what having relationships with people was like. Raymond consistently abused his ex-girlfriend, who was the sibling of two Arabian men. These men then continued to pursue Raymond in attempts to scare him off and warn him to cease his abuse towards their sister. Because Meursault lived in the same building as Raymond, he was followed too. The Arabs followed the men to the beach, where they were vacationing on a hot summer day. Frightening Raymond, it prompted him to give his emergency gun to Meursault. When confrontation occurred, the sun and heat severely disturbed Meursault, triggering him to kill one of the Arabs. This is evident in these lines, “The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations—especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward” (Camus pg.38, para. 4). This is a pivotal point because his philosophy led him to commit a murder. Afterwards, he admitted to being the murderer and was sent into the judicial processing system of Algeria. His lack of empathy and pure action of murder is what especially stands out as the ‘other,’ since this goes against basic moral values and law in the eyes of the people. One of the biggest events the jury pointed out was that he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, making a full circle to the beginning of the book. This further allowed the jury to believe in his heartless manners, making Meursault appear as an emotionless monster. He attempted to blame the heat on the murder, which was not a valid excuse for legal reasons. He also tried to rationalize his actions regarding his mother’s death, which was seen as immoral in the jurors’ perspective. This all lead to the deciding factor for the jury towards his conviction of the death penalty.
Awaiting his death, a clerk attempted to convince Meursault to repent for his sins in the eyes of God, which is ineffective, causing him to turn to anger. Meursault completely rejects any signs of God or ultimate being because he is consistent on his views that life should be seen through the perspective of death. This is evident towards the conclusion of the book when he states, “ Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming” (Camus, pg.74). As Alan Gullette states in his analysis, “In a sense, Meursault is always aware of the meaninglessness of all endeavors in the face of death: he has no ambition to advance socio-economically; he is indifferent about being friends with Raymond and about marrying Marie; etc. But this awareness is somehow never intense enough to involve self-awareness – that is, he never reflects on the meaning of death for him – until he is in prison awaiting execution. Of course, the “meaning” of another’s death is quite difference from the “meaning” of one’s own death”. Although religious leaders persuade him to save himself, he becomes bitter and angry towards the world and its systematic beliefs. Meursault is unable to conform to the normalcy of society’s rules, where he is again, seen as the ‘other’.
As hours pass and his execution approaches, he begins to dwell on the things in his life that could have mattered. He understands that life is very precious and should be valued. Some may believe that Meursault thought normally with his absurdist psyche, and had reason to behave the way he did- since nothing really does matter and death does approach each of us. These arguments would support his philosophy and beliefs. However, this is false since he expressed some kind of distress in his last waking hours, and showed huge revelations about how beautiful life is. He does so by pondering his favorite moments in life, seen in these lines, “ And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a “fiancé”; why she’d played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again” (Camus, pg.75). It is evident that Meursault, despite indifference to the world, felt a yearning to live life. He understood his dying mother, who wanted to essentially start over, because he, too, felt the same way. His absurdist philosophy is entirely debunked when it comes to his dying thoughts, which really shows his conformity to the rest of society’s beliefs. Unfortunately, he did not get the chance to show people his true internal dialogues and emotions due to his conviction.
The characters within the book view Meursault as ‘strange’ due to his philosophy and psyche. This is portrayed in a variety of events throughout the novel. Meursault’s mother’s death is significant in showing that he is the “other” character based on society’s ethics and reactions towards him. “It is evident that he is almost totally unaffected by his mother’s death as nothing changes in his life. In other words, her death has little or no real significance for him” (Gullette par. 2). This quote shows how it affects Meursault, and in society’s standpoints, this is seen as abnormal. His mother’s friends found his lack of reaction rather strange since he was not crying and refused to see the body, hence the judgmental reactions he received. They continually speculated on who he was and what his affairs were since nothing was truly known of him. The death penalty punishment he is given is largely due to his lack of emotions at his mother’s funeral. The murder of the Arab was also a very significant point, since his reaction is what got the jury to punish him. His meaningless attitude towards life and death put him into the position of being a murderer, which societally and legally is not allowed under any circumstances. Although he acts this way towards other characters, the end of the book shines a light on the fact that he does actually feel basic human emotion, and cares about people and events. For instance, he remembers his mother and empathizes with her when he previously never did; or his ‘girlfriend’ Marie, regretting never having married her. Regardless, the characters in the book are unable to experience that, hence why he is automatically labeled as the ‘other’ and ‘strange’ for his philosophy and psyche.
The intersectionality of the time period also plays an important role in the racist ideals exhibited from Meursault and Raymond during the time frame. Algeria was one of France’s major settler colonies, which means that the French aimed to replace the original Algerian population with their own. Migration to Algeria not only came from France, but also Italy, Spain, and Malta. Land expropriation of the native population, where the government took private property for public gain, took place. This process destroyed the socio-economic and cultural traditions of the Algerian people, due to European ideals of superiority. The migration was officially extended to that of France. Because of these norms, ‘arabs’ were referred to as ‘arabs’, and viewed as ‘less than’ by the general public. This explains why Meursault did not care if he were to take the life of someone who was viewed as culturally insignificant. Additionally, because a westernized way of thinking was implemented into Algeria, emotions are an expected way of showing humanity, hence why Meursault’s lack of emotion was viewed as ‘strange’ by the public within the novel.
The Stranger by Albert Camus is a philosophical piece concerning the absurdist, meaningless philosophy of Meursault, the main character. It is examined that within the novel, people view him as an ‘other’ for his strange and emotionless demeanors. The main events within the novel contribute to his impending death, which later reveal his true beliefs in the beauty of life. Because he is unable to show these emotions to characters within the novel, he is labeled as the ‘other’. The intersectionality and historical circumstances play a fairly large role as well in how Meursault goes about his interactions. The Stranger is arguably one of the greatest philosophical works of modern times.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.
“Washington Independent Review of Books.” The Meursault Investigation | Washington Independent Review of Books, www.washingtonindependetreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/the-meursault-investigation
Death and Absurdism in Camus’s The Stranger by Alan Gullette, alangullette.com/essays/lit/stranger.htm.
Aronson, Ronald. “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 10 Apr. 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.
“History in Focus.” A Review of the TV Programme ‘Congo: White King, Red Rubber and Black Death’ (BBC 4), www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Migration/articles/house.html.
Montoya, Yesenia. “Racism in The Stranger.” Prezi.com, 19 Feb. 2014, prezi.com/tjym_d3tojr1/racism-in-the-stranger/.