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The Stranger ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1957)

Though the Myth of Sisyphus is the essay in which Camus best expresses his philosophy of Existentialism, he is most familiar to many of us through this short novel.  Influenced by American hard-boiled fiction and film noir, it tells the deceptively simple story of a young French Algerian named Meursault.  As the novel opens he announces, in one of the best known opening lines in all of literature: "Maman died today."  (In the most widely read previous English language version, by the great translator Stuart Gilbert, the line was rendered: "Mother died today.")  Meursault travels to the nursing home where she is to be buried, but mystifies the staff and his mother's friends by his failure to react emotionally to her death.  He does not cry, does not ask to view the body and leaves immediately after she is buried.  At the close of the day he observes:

    It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was
    going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed.

This establishes him as an Existential hero, someone who recognizes the futility of human existence, but continues on even in the face of it's fundamental absurdity.

In the ensuing days he interacts with the other tenants of his building, including Raymond Sintes, a pimp, and with his coworkers, including Marie Cardona, actually a former coworker with whom he starts having an affair.  He further demonstrates his indifference to mundane concerns in a couple of episodes.  He angers his boss by not responding with sufficient enthusiasm to a promotion:

    'You're young, and it seems to me it's the kind of life that would appeal to you.'  I said yes but that
    really it was all the same to me.  Then he asked me if I wasn't interested in a change of life.  I said
    that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I
    wasn't dissatisfied with mine here at all.  He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a
    straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that this was disastrous in business.  So I went back to
    work.  I would rather not have upset him, but I couldn't see any reason to change my life.  Looking
    back on it, I wasn't unhappy.  When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that.  But when I
    had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered.

And when Marie asks him if he wants to marry her:

    I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.  Then she wanted to
    know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but
    that I probably didn't love her.

Eventually he gets drawn into a violent dispute between Sintes and a gang of Arabs.  There is a knife fight on the beach one day and Meursault ends up with a gun.  Later, walking by himself on the beach, he meets up with one of the Arabs and shoots him, then shoots him four more times after he's fallen to the sand.

In the second half of the novel he is put on trial for murder.  Everyone from his own attorney to the judge is mystified, even horrified by Meursault's indifference to his own actions and to the proceedings which will determine his fate.  During the prosecutor's summation, Meursault reflects:

    I was listening, and I could hear that I was being judged intelligent.  But I couldn't quite understand
    how an ordinary man's good qualities could become crushing accusations against a guilty man.  At
    least that was what struck me, and I stopped listening to the prosecutor until I heard him say, 'Has
    he so much as expressed any remorse?  Never, gentlemen.  Not once during the preliminary hearings
    did this man show emotion over his heinous offense.'  At that point, he turned in my direction,
    pointed his finger at me, and went on attacking me without ever really understanding why.  Of
    course, I couldn't help admitting that he was right.  I didn't feel much remorse for what I'd done.
    But I was surprised by how relentless he was.  I would have liked to have tried explaining to him
    cordially, almost affectionately, that I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything.  My
    mind was always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow.

He is convicted and sentenced to the guillotine.  While awaiting execution he entertains one fleeting dream of escape:

    The papers were always talking about the debt owed to society.  According to them, it had to be
    paid.  But that doesn't speak to the imagination.  What really counted was the possibility of escape,
    a leap to freedom, out of the implacable ritual, a wild run for it that would give whatever chance
    for hope there was.  Of course, hope meant being cut down on some street corner, as you ran like
    mad, by a random bullet.  But when I really thought it through, nothing was going to allow me
    such a luxury.  Everything was against it; I would just be caught up in the machinery again.

And so, having accepted his fate again, Meursault finally has a moment of apotheosis.  A priest is trying for the umpteenth time to counsel him, when:

    Then, I don't know why, but something inside me snapped.  I started yelling at the top of my lungs,
    and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me.  I grabbed him by the collar of his
    cassock. I was pouring out on him everything that was in my heart, cries of anger and cries of joy.
    He seemed so certain about everything, didn't he?  And yet none of his certainties was worth one
    hair of a woman's head.  He wasn't even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man.
    Whereas it looked as if I was the one who'd come up emptyhanded.  But I was sure about me, about
    everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me.
    Yes, that was all I had.  But at least I has as much of a hold on it as it had on me.  I had been right,
    I was still right, I was always right.  I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived
    it another.  I had done this and I hadn't done that.  I hadn't done this thing but I had done another.
    And so?  It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to
    be vindicated.  Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why.  So did he.  Throughout the whole
    absurd life I'd lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future,
    across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me
    at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.  What did other people's deaths or a
    mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they
    elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like
    him who also called themselves my brothers?  Couldn't he see, couldn't he see that?  Everybody was
    privileged.  There were only privileged people.  The others would all be condemned one day.  And
    he would be condemned, too.

Exhausted by this outburst, Meursault sleeps and when he awakes a calmness has settled upon him:

    For the first time in a long time I thought about Maman.  I felt as if I understood why at the end  of
    her life she had taken a 'fiancé,' why she had played at beginning again.  even there, in that home
    where lives were fading out, evening was a kind of wistful respite.  So close to death, Maman must
    have felt free then and ready to live it all again.  Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her.
    And I felt ready to live it all again too.  as if the blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope;
    for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference
    of the world.  Finding it so much like myself--so like a brother, really--I felt i had been happy and
    that I was happy again.  For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to
    wish that there was a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with
    cries of hate.

So ends the novel, with Meursault having become a nearly Christlike figure, with grace descending upon him as he awaits execution.

But, of course, the message here is anything but Christian.  Meursault's passivity in the face of life and his indifference to the quality of his own actions, up to and including murder, are the inevitable culmination of Existential philosophy.  For if it's true that nothing matters, why regulate your behavior?  You may as well act on your every impulse.  The irony is that Camus used this as the jumping off point to try to reconstruct morality, but on a Godless basis.  Unfortunately, experience demonstrates that this task is impossible, not because of any intrinsically religious quality of God, but because it removes the concept of the absolute and necessarily replaces it with the relative.  And once morality is deemed a relative set of principles there is no logical underpinning that makes one moral precept better than another.  If life does not matter there's no difference between "Thou shalt not kill" and "Kill when convenient."

Ultimately, this novel, and the philosophy of Existentialism itself, must be considered a noble failure. The novel succeeds only as a thought experiment, envisioning how a man might act if he carried these beliefs to their logical extremes.  But as we look upon the results, we can only feel revulsion. Meursault, the quintessential Existential hero, is a character whose pending execution we welcome.


Grade: (C+)


Albert Camus Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Albert Camus
    -LETTER: 21 January (1948): Albert Camus to Jean Grenier
    -ESSAY: What Albert Camus’s The Stranger Says About Our Contemporary Anxieties: Kate Christensen on Finding Inspiration in the Existentialist Classic (Kate Christensen, November 30, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Camus and the Crisis of the West: The Rebel considers what happens when human beings are unwilling to live within the limits placed on them by the cosmos. (Graham Mcaleer, 8/18/23, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Albert Camus on suicide, absurdity, and the meaning of life: Albert Camus was a Franco-Algerian philosopher with some great insights on the meaning of life, why you should look to this life and not the next, and why suicide is a poor choice. (Scotty Hendricks, 3/20/23, Big Think)
    -ESSAY: Orwell, Camus and truth: On honesty as an attitude (William Fear, 12 March, 2023, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: Camus’s Atheism and the Virtues of Inconsistency (Craig DeLancey, 1/21/20, Culturico)
    -ESSAY: Influencing the Young Albert Camus: Perspectives on Jean Grenier (Jesse Mosqueda, January 3, 2017, Fragments of History)
    -ESSAY: Is Human Suffering Metaphysical Or Mundane? (Dwight Furrow, 1/23/23, 3 Quarks)
    -ESSAY: The philosopher who resisted despair: Albert Camus and the search for solace in a cruel age. (Sean Illing, May 28, 2022, Vox)
    -ESSAY: Is It Ironic That Life Is Absurd? (Tim Sommers, 5/16/22, 3 Quarks)
    -ESSAY: Can France resist tribalism?: Albert Camus agonised over his divided country (BOYD TONKIN, 1/02/22, UnHerd)
    -VIDEO: Camus: The Madness of Sincerity
    -PODCAST: Camus (Melvyn Bragg, 8/11/19, BBC In Our Time)
    -VIDEO: Albert Camus: The Madness of Sincerity — 1997 Documentary Revisits the Philosopher’s Life & Work (Open Culture, November 30th, 2014)
-ESSAY: Without God or Reason: Albert Camus faced the human condition with clarity. (Morten Høi Jensen, January 6, 2021, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: On Albert Camus’s Legendary Postwar Speech at Columbia University: “The years we have gone through have killed something in us.” (Robert Meagher, November 10, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Who are You Calling an Existentialist?! in “Albert Camus and the Human Crisis” (ROSS COLLIN, NOVEMBER 3, 2021, Chicago Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Of course Albert Camus was a goalkeeper. (Emily Temple, February 16, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Without God or Reason: Albert Camus faced the human condition with clarity. (Morten Høi Jensen, December 24, 2020, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: Reading Camus in Time of Plague and Polarization: The French Algerian writer steadfastly defended democracy and humanity against dogmatic ideologies of all stripes. We need to read and reread him today. (MUGAMBI JOUET, 12/07/20, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY: How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free: If the idea of freedom bound Camus and Sartre philosophically, then the fight for justice united them politically. (SAM DRESSER, 19 July, 2020, Big Think)
    -ESSAY: Camus and the Neo-Cons: More in Common Than They Might Suspect (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, February 7, 2004, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Albert Camus: Camus has overtaken Sartre to become the popular hero of existentialism. Now even his views on Algeria have outgrown Sartre (Paul Barker, December 2003, The Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Camus as Conservative: A post 9/11 reassessment of the work of Albert Camus (Murray Soupcoffm, Iconoclast)
    -ESSAY: To be a man: Albert Camus' vision in The Plague was bleak, but his study in terrorism is also a fable of redemption (Marina Warner, April 26, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: 'This one's had a good start born in the middle of a move.': This is how Albert Camus, alias Jacques Cormery in the novel, was born - Camus called it his War and Peace, but after he was killed his friends suppressed the First Man for fear it would undermine his reputation. Antoine De Gaudemar of Libération on the novel held back for 34 years (Antoine de Gaudemar, April 16, 1994, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Personal Writing by Albert Camus (Robert Zaretsky, LA Review of Books)
    -POEM: Death and the Sun: An original poem from 1986 (Derek Mahon, Times Literary Supplement)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Albert Camus (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "albert camus"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Guide to the Nobel Prizes : Albert Camus
    -Albert Camus--Nobel Laureate for Literature 1957 (Nobel eMuseum)
    -Albert Camus (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -Nobel Acceptance Speech
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Albert Camus (NY Times Book Review)
    -ETEXT: The Myth of Sysiphus by Albert Camus
    -existentialism and Albert Camus (Katharena Eiermann, Realms of Existentialism)
    -A Page About Albert Camus
    -An Albert Camus Page
    -Albert Camus (1913-1960)
    -Albert Camus Critical Interpretation Page
    -Existential Frames: Existentialism: An Introduction
    -The Notebook on Albert Camus
    -A Page About Albert Camus
    -Albert Camus (1913-1960) (Bohemian Ink)
    -Albert Camus (Timothy Leuers)
    -Annotated Existentialism Links
    -ESSAY: The Absurd Hero (Bob Lane)
    -ARTICLE: Camus's Last Work, a First Draft, Shows His Life and His Style (ALAN RIDING, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Classic French Novel Is 'Americanized' (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: SISYPHUS IN ORWELL'S DECADE (Gunter Grass, NY Times Book Review)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: The Stranger by Albert Camus (SparkNote by Selena Ward)
    -Background on The Stranger (Classic Notes)
    -Albert Camus' "The Stranger" (City Honors School)
    -ESSAY : The enduring morality of Albert Camus (S. Prasannarajan, Indian Express Newspapers)
    -ESSAY: Stranger Essay: Indifference
    -ESSAY: A Modern View on Man's Place in Society and Nature: Albert Camus and Virginia Woolf (Benji Zusman)
    -REVIEW: The Stranger by Albert Camus (Vien Tran, High Point Central High School)
    -ARCHIVE: "Camus" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: THE FIRST MAN By Albert Camus Translated by David Hapgood (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: THE FIRST MAN By Albert Camus. Translated by David Hapgood (Victor Brombert, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Le premier homme by Albert Camus (Tony Judt, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Albert Camus, Le premier homme   The Last Camus (David Cook, ctheory)
    -s o l i t a i r e   e t  s o l i d a i r e  Russell Wilkinson talks to  Catherine Camus about Albert Camus' The First Man (Spike)
    -REVIEW: of The Stranger (Paul M. Willenberg, Senior Honors English, The Overlake School)
    -REVIEW: of 'The Plague' by Albert Camus (Stephen Spender, NY Times Book Review, August 1, 1948)
    -ESSAY: Sickness Unto Life (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of  A Happy Death by Albert Camus (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Notebooks 1942-1951 by Albert Camus (Paul de Man, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Notebooks, 1935-42 by Albert Camus (Susan Sontag, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of ALBERT CAMUS A Life By Olivier Todd Translated by Benjamin Ivry (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CAMUS By Patrick McCarthy (Peter Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ALBERT CAMUS A Life By Olivier Todd. Translated by Benjamin Ivry  (Isabelle de Courtivron, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Albert Camus: A Life by Olivier Todd (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Camus by Patrick McCarthy (Frederick Brown, NY Review of Books)

    -The Notebook  for Contemporary Continental Philosophy
    -REVIEW: of Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 by Tony Judt (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY:  Idealism and Its Critic (John Bayley, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Summing Up Sartre (John Weightman, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Sartre's Cage (Stuart Hampshire, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Deadly Sins/Despair; The One Unforgivable Sin (Joyce Carol Oates, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLOODY CROSSROADS Where Literature and Politics Meet. By Norman Podhoretz (Cynthia Ozick, NY Times Book Review)