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FRANCE WEEK: L’Etranger/ The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus

I nervously decided to review The Stranger for our French week – nervously because I’m not sure what I have, if anything, to contribute to the thousands of pages of analysis that have been written about this slim, 185-page book, considered by many to be one of the most influential, powerful novels of the 20th century. But here goes.

Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1957, an achievement which filled him with anxiety because, at 44 years of age, he was the second youngest Nobel laureate ever (after Rudyard Kipling) and he despaired of producing work of the standard the world now expected of him. However, he need not have worried: only three years later he died in a car crash.

Much of The Stranger is written in a very simple, minimalist style (a good first choice for those who’d like to read original fiction in French) but this, in part, has helped it to transcend the contemporary trends of its day and to remain relevant to philosophical thought today. And everywhere The Stranger is discussed, philosophy rears its head. In particular the theories of absurdism and existentialism are bandied about so I had to check out their definitions. I’m not sure I’ve understood the difference between the two but both believe that there is no higher meaning in life other than physical existence. The ‘absurd’, a term coined by Camus, refers to the attempt by man to find meaning where none exists. A person can create specific meaning for his own individual life but this does not change the fact that life, a sensory rather than rational experience, has no deeper purpose other than existence. Death is the only certainty and the world is indifferent to man who is of no importance once he no longer exists. It is against this cheery background that The Stranger was written.

Although the plot is well known and secondary to the reading of this novel, if you haven’t read it before, you might like to look away now so as to avoid spoilers. Despite its short length, the book is dense with meaning and every sentence counts. The novel is divided into two parts, the first documents Meursault’s life and relationships, the second deals with his trial and meditations on death.

The opening line is probably one of the most famous in French literature. ‘Aujourd’hui Maman est morte.’ ‘Today Maman died.’ The mother in question lived in a old people’s home on the Algerian coast and belongs to Meursault (we never discover his first name). He attends her funeral with disconcerting aplomb and composure. The following day, he meets Marie, a girl he knows from before and begins an affair with her. In his relationships with her and his neighbours; Salamano, a widower who despises and loves his old, scabby dog in equal measure, and Raymond, a shady character who abuses his Arab girlfriend for whom he is probably pimping; Meursault seems to shows a lack of discernment that borders on autistic.

Meursault is constitutionally incapable of being untruthful. He is sensitive to the sensations the physical world around him provoke; he is perturbed by the heat of the sun, he enjoys sex with Marie, he appreciates her physical beauty. But his emotional reactions to more abstract situations appear strange.

‘When she laughed, I felt desire for her (Marie) again. A moment later she asked if I loved her. I replied that that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think I did. She looked sad’

He tells the truth even when social etiquette demands a white lie.

‘Then he (Raymond) declared that, in fact, he wanted my advice on this matter, that I was a man, I knew about life, that I could help him and then he would be my friend. I said nothing and then he asked again if I wanted to be his friend. I said I didn’t care either way: he seemed happy.’

He assists Raymond to escape charges for beating his girlfriend even though he witnesses and even facilitates her beating. Raymond invites Meurseult and Marie to spend the weekend in a seaside cabin belonging to his friend, Masson. A stroll on the beach turns into a misadventure when they are followed by a gang of Arabs including the brother of Raymond’s mistress. Raymond passes a gun to Meursault and after Raymond receives a knife injury they return to the cabin. For reasons he can’t explain Meursault returns to the beach and, disorientated by the sun, kills the Arab with five gunshots.

During his trial the crime for which Meursault seems to be most severely judged is his lack of grief at his mother’s funeral and his refusal to express appropriate regret for the killing. The most fascinating part of the novel is Meursault’s anguished contemplation of his impending execution after he is sentenced to death. A violent confrontation with the prison chaplain is a breakthrough for Meursault and this allows him to submit to the ‘gentle indifference of the world’.

The extent to which Camus approves of Meursault and his journey towards enlightenment is something I wondered about. Society presents justice ideally as being blind to the emotional and psychological complications of human nature, focusing only on the truth and the facts but in this case the roles are reversed: Meursault is objective and detached about his crime but the justice system insists on trying to understand his motivation and condemns him harshly (relative to the sentence that might otherwise have been expected) when this cannot be explained within the confines of society’s expectations. Meursault becomes more sympathetic as the novel progresses and this is also reflected in the changing prose style which becomes richer, more complex. Camus seems to approve of Meursault’s evolution from a natural, unthinking indifference to a more considered one. Is Camus saying that we should become indifferent to the world just as it is indifferent to us? Or is he saying that we should take as much enjoyment as we can from the sensory pleasures of life but in the clear knowledge that none of this means anything and ceases to have relevance once the moment is past? Food for thought.

Editions Flammarion; New Ed edition (Mar 1991), 185 pages, Language: French, ISBN-10: 2070360024

17 comments on “FRANCE WEEK: L’Etranger/ The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus

  1. Sam
    July 20, 2008

    Read your review today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. Either way, a great review of a great book. Really enjoyed that and, yes, lots of food for thought which I will now chew over.

    Incidentally, my translation’s called The Outsider. Is The Stranger closer to the original?

  2. Moira
    July 20, 2008

    Ah Sam … You have no idea how complicated that simple question is.

    I’d say that “Outsider” is closer to the correct meaning, but acres of forest and gallons of ink have been expended in discussion of just that question …

    Excellent review, Mary. Much to consider, as Sam says.

  3. Jackie
    July 20, 2008

    This is one of those Classics which I’m determined to read before I die. What a short book to contain such a complex array of events and speculations. It would be a good one for a discussion group. I’m interested in Meursault’s remoteness, which you label as almost autism. I wonder what it was labeled as when the book was first published? Was he just considered the ‘strong and silent’ type or was his disengagement even noticed? Interesting point about how perception of that has changed in just a few decades.

  4. Peter
    July 20, 2008

    This review was an excellent homage to an excellent book. I would like to elaborate on a couple of points: first, here is the quote from Mary:

    Much of The Stranger is written in a very simple, minimalist style (a good first choice for those who’d like to read original fiction in French) but this, in part, has helped it to transcend the contemporary trends of its day and to remain relevant to philosophical thought today. And everywhere The Stranger is discussed, philosophy rears its head. In particular the theories of absurdism and existentialism are bandied about so I had to check out their definitions. I’m not sure I’ve understood the difference between the two but both believe that there is no higher meaning in life other than physical existence. The ‘absurd’, a term coined by Camus, refers to the attempt by man to find meaning where none exists.

    While I very much appreciate her connection between Camus’ philosophy of the absurd and Existentialism, the sad reality is that contemporary trends in philosophical thought are moving away from any mention of the absurd as well as a dismissing of Camus as a philosopher. Both of these are inherently “wrong” because a) Camus was trained as a philosopher in university, and b) the philosophy of the absurd is a philosophy that is as much a part of Existentialism as existence is.

    Second, we, as readers of French literature or philosophy must not disergard the importance and significance of Camus in philosophy and our everyday lives. In closing, if you are a fan of Camus, or the philosophy of the absurd, please support the Albert Camus Society.

    Thank you.

  5. Peter
    July 20, 2008

    Camus Society Website

    http://www.camus-society.com/

    and JOIN TODAY!!

  6. mary
    July 20, 2008

    Thanks Sam. As Moira said there are differing views about which is the better translation as both meanings can be taken from the original French. Also I think ‘The Outsider’ is the English translation while ‘The Stranger’ is the American translation. I marginally prefer the second over the first. I think.

    Thanks also for your comments, Moira and Jackie. 🙂
    Jackie, no, I don’t think Meursault’s remoteness would have been considered normal even in its day.

    Thank you very much, Peter. I am flattered that a student of Camus should approve of my review. I am tempted to read ‘The First Man’ next.

  7. RosyB
    July 20, 2008

    Loved this – informative AND witty and doesn’t make me feel too stupid for never actually reading any Camus. This sounds like a companion-piece to a lot of the absurdist theatre I’ve read. One of the things that tempts me is that it is very short. I do like short books. 🙂

    “Death is the only certainty and the world is indifferent to man who is of no importance once he no longer exists. It is against this cheery background that The Stranger was written.”

    Loved that.

    I wondered how familiar the themes and ideas feel today to you, Mary. Whether it still feels fresh.

  8. Simon, Camus Society
    July 20, 2008

    Sam and Moira, I think the ‘The Stranger’ is a more useful translation than ‘The Outsider’. Camus wants us to think of Meursault as a stranger WITHIN a society rather than someone who lives OUTSIDE it. Meursault, as an outsider, is easier to accept (he’s a psychopath, for example, someone outside of normal society). Meursault as ‘one of us’, a stranger in our midst is harder to accept.

    If Meursault had been considered as some kind of outsider then his treatment in court would have probably been more lenient. What did he do? Shoot an Arab. Why? Because he’s psycho – give him 5 years. An outsider (psycho) killing another outsider (Arab) wouldn’t concern the French authorities too much. But one of their own, a member of society acting so strangely, is harder to understand and accept – why did he do it, why isn’t he like the rest of us? How could someone like this have come to be in our society?

    Camus wants us to read The Stranger philosophically – it doesn’t matter whether or not we consider it absurdist or existential (the former label, in my opinion, being more useless than the latter) – and he wants us to read it alongside The Myth of Sisyphus and Caligula. The novel, essay and play are designed to be read together. Considering Meursault without thinking about Caligula (or Camus) is to only have a third of Camus’s picture. Two very common errors are to mistake Meursault for Camus, and to only look at Meursault’s life and ideas ignoring Caligula (and Camus) – the resilt is a distorted and confused picture of the absurd.

    In this project, the works on the Absurd (the works on Revolt being The Plague, The Rebel and the The Just), Camus is not telling us to think this or that. His work is designed to entice us into thinking for ourselves. The word entice has its origins in French, for ‘set aflame’. Camus’s work is designed to start a fire inside us to seek out the answers to exsitential (or absurdist) questions.

    The Stranger was written to be discussed, Camus sets the questions but doesn’t supply the answers. He can not give us a reason to act morally in the absence of God we, as a society, must find values we can live with for ourselves. It’s great that The Stranger is being discussed today, thank you for posting your review.

  9. Sam
    July 21, 2008

    Hi Simon

    On the question of the title, there is the subtle point of from whose perspective Meursault is being considered a stranger or an outsider. From the point of view of the society then, for the reasons you’ve outlined, The Stranger is the more appropriate title. But if we consider things from Meursault’s perspective then The Outsider could be said to be the more appropriate title. Meursault lives in a society in which he considers himself an outsider, someone who refuses to, or simply can’t, take part. If we instead say he considers himself a stranger to the society then that almost suggests that he can’t quite comprehend what is around him; and Meursault’s too good a diagnostician – or just too knowing – of the society for that to be the case.

    one of their own, a member of society acting so strangely, is harder to understand and accept – why did he do it, why isn’t he like the rest of us? How could someone like this have come to be in our society?

    Huge contemporary resonances! Camus was way ahead of his time. If only he had decided to leave us some answers.

    Mary, if you haven’t read any more Camus and are keen to, I’d really recommend The Myth of Sisyphus, or, if you want to try other absurdists, Beckett’s always great.

  10. mary
    July 21, 2008

    Sorry for the delays in responding to comments but I am away from home so it’s a bit on the fly.
    Thank you all for your comments.

    “Two very common errors are to mistake Meursault for Camus…” Simon, yes this is something that struck me as I was reading and reviewing. That’s why I was so hesitant in my last paragraph. I’m not sure of the extent to which Camus agreed with Meursault’s approach. There is a tendancy to see this book as very depressing but I got the impression that Camus was advocating lucidity rather than depression.

    Good point, Sam, about the title, I see what you mean.

  11. rosyb
    July 21, 2008

    What about “The Estranged”? Or “The Estranged One” (admittedly clumsy). Or is that way off the mark?

  12. marygm
    July 22, 2008

    Rosy, I’m not sure about ‘Estranged’ because that implies a more active rejection of and by society than is the case. He is more Unconnected than Estranged but that’s even more clumsy.

    And I didn’t reply to your previous question about whether it feels fresh or not now and yes, I did find it had a point. Where we fit in the broader context of life is of even more relevance today, in my opinion. A friend of mine calls us the L’Oreal Generation (Because I’m Worth It!) and I do think that a bit more humility might do us a world of good.

  13. Devon Tuttle
    October 1, 2008

    I would like to use this as a reference for a 12th grade AP English research paper, but I do not know how to do so. Can you offer me some help?

  14. Moira
    October 2, 2008

    I’ve emailed you, Devon.

  15. Richard
    April 1, 2009

    In the last paragraph or so of the novel, The Stranger, Camus says something such as, “when the world finally comes to an end the only people remaining will be prostitutes and journalists.” I have mauled that sentence badly, but I would like to have his precise phrase if someone knows it.

  16. Pingback: Interview with M J Hyland « Vulpes Libris

  17. Steven Toh
    March 10, 2021

    Interesting blog, it reminds me of Albert Camus words: ” I am a Mediterranean man, with a healthy body worshipping beauty and the body like the ancient Greeks. I was placed midway between misery and the sun. Misery stopped me from believing that all is well under the sun. and in history; the sun taught me that history isn’t everything.”
    I tried to write a blog about him , hope you also like it: https://stenote.blogspot.com/2018/08/an-interview-with-albert_12.html

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