If you don’t know what you’re doing in life and you just want to know what the point of it all is, then you might really enjoy The Stranger, a novel written by French author and philosopher Albert Camus.
I suspect that many people who read — and who enjoy — The Stranger find the novel’s protagonist Meursault and his uninviting view of human life and society more palatable than they’d like to admit. Let’s be honest: even if you love life way more than you hate it, it’s still difficult not to occasionally wonder what the point of everything is (or is that just me?).
Below, you’ll find a summary and a few of my thoughts on The Stranger and the novel’s themes.
The Stranger is a two part novel. Part 1 opens with Meursault, the protagonist (anti-protagonist?) of The Stranger, as he attends his mother’s funeral. Meursault is an odd character. He is indifferent in most aspects of his life, aspects that most “normal” people care about: how long his mother had been dead for, how old she was.
After Meursault returns home from the funeral, we’re introduced to the small cast of characters in his life. They include: Salamano, an old man who tirelessly and pointlessly beats his dog every day; Marie, Meursault’s lover who is inexplicably attracted to his oddities; and Raymond, a neighbor who is violent and emotional. One day, Raymond asks for Meursault’s help in a conflict involving Raymond’s ex-lover. Meursault agrees because “he doesn’t have any reason not to”. The conflict escalates for no particular reason, and Meursault ends up murdering a man.
Part 2 of the Stranger follows Meursault after the murder. He’s imprisoned for almost a year before he goes on trial. At the trial, the prosecution summons every single one of his friends and acquaintances. The prosecution goes to lengths to portray Meursault as a cold-hearted murderer. They convince the jury of his guilt and sentence him with the death penalty. Hours before his execution, Meursault reaches an enlightenment about his situation and faces his sentence with peace.
I liked this book. The prose was concise and punchy (perhaps to drive home further that extra fluff and illustrations are simply not necessary), so reading it took no more than a few hours. I enjoyed thinking about absurdism (a branch of existentialism, discussed below) and Meursault’s odd character stuck in my mind.
I would recommend this book to anyone who’s angsty and wants to spend a few hours thinking about what the meaning of life is, anyone who harbors a secret dread that ultimately nothing and no one will matter, or anyone who wants to read a seminal novel that has impacted an entire branch of philosophy.
Absurdism and the Meaninglessness of Human Life
Discussing The Stranger is impossible without discussing absurdism, the philosophy that underpins almost every aspect of the novel. (In fact, Albert Camus’s philosophies expressed through The Stranger and other essays led to the development and rise of absurdism.) Absurdism is a philosophy which highlights human’s doomed nature because we constantly strive and search for meaning in a world that doesn’t have any meaning to begin with. Any efforts we make to find meaning, whether through religion, which seeks to find meaning in a higher being, or through society, which helps us find meaning through work or relationships, are absurd because in a meaningless universe none of these efforts could ever bear fruit.
What confuses me about absurdism, though, is that if you accept its premise that the universe is meaningless, then there isn’t any point in continuing to live, work, or really do anything at all. And yet to have any sort of functioning society, you need to convince people to do all of those things. But where would your motivation come from if you knew everything was meaningless? How could you find any happiness or enjoyment in such a life?
Perhaps that is the point of absurdism: finding enjoyment or happiness is pointless, because there’s no enjoyment or happiness to find. Rather, we can only be sure about the physical pleasures that exist only in the exact moment we are in. Because that is the case, we can only be happy as a result of the here and now: a friend’s laughter, a spoonful of ice cream, a walk down our favorite street.
Meursault’s character helps us understand this point better. He doesn’t seek anything; rather he just decides in each moment what he would or wouldn’t like to do. This focus on the present explains Meursault’s almost exclusive focus on sensate pleasures such as the weather, Marie’s body, or foods that he enjoys. A few examples:
“Then he offered to bring me a cup of coffee with milk. I like milk in my coffee, so I said yes.”
“I’d never noticed what huge stomachs old women can have. Almost all the men were skinny and carried canes. What struck me most about their faces was that I couldn’t see their eyes, just a faint glimmer in a nest of wrinkles.”
“She turned towards me. Her hair was in her eyes and she was laughing. I hoisted myself up next to her. It was nice, and, sort of joking around, I let my head fall back and rest on her stomach.”
Meursault is only able to find happiness after he comes to the realization that nothing about his life ever mattered. In fact, nothing about his life or anyone else’s will ever matter. Eventually, everyone will face the same fate (death), and everyone will eventually be forgotten about. He immediately gives up all hope for a retrial. Instead, he is able to find happiness and joy in the present moment.
“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 that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”
The Human Charade in The Stranger
A salient point made in many different ways throughout The Stranger is how irrational human beings and society are. None of our actions makes any sense. We’re driven by an absurd desire to assign meaning to everything because we’re not comfortable with irrationality and uncertainty.
Camus makes this point most poignantly in Meursault’s trial. During the trial, there is an undue focus placed on Meursault’s odd character. Further, all of the characters from the first half of the novel testify in his trial, though none of them have anything to do with the murder (with the exception of Raymond, of course).
The trial scenes in The Stranger are particularly interesting because they’re so familiar. Just like in real life, in Meursault’s trial the prosecution spends all their efforts creating narratives about Meursault that are unrelated to his actual crime. If you accept absurdism’s premises, though, then you accept that there is no larger narrative. There is no larger story. That’s a hard pill for humans to swallow. Our actions don’t make sense. They simply happen from moment to moment. And there is no narrative to decipher, no character to psychoanalyze.
In The Stranger, the trial’s absurdity is that the prosecution is so focused on attempting to assign motives to Meursault’s murder that they spend no time at all analyzing the actual details of the crime. Unfortunately, the tragically simple truth of Meursault’s crime is that he committed it for no reason at all. He was simply walking on the beach, a few events led to the next, and Meursault ended up killing the man. Any other sequence of events, in fact, could have led to a different outcome.
Worse still, in The Stranger, the human charade is destructive because if you choose not to participate in it then you are immediately outcast and seen as suspicious. We see this in Meursault’s stubborn refusal to lie. If Meursault just lied, then his lawyer could have presented a compelling counter-argument to the jury that spun a different interpretation of the facts. But in Meursault’s mind there is no reason to lie because he didn’t have any ulterior motives or any larger story. He simply did what he did, and that was that. And ultimately, Meursault’s stubborn refusal to lie and participate in the human charade causes everyone to be even more suspicious of him. When they assign the death penalty to him, no one, least of all the reader, is surprised.
Some salient quotations from The Stranger
“But everybody knows life isn’t worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn’t much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living–and for thousands of years. In fact, nothing could be clearer. Whether it was now or twenty years from now, I would still be the one dying…Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”
“A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything, but that I didn’t think so. She looked sad. But as we were fixing lunch, and for no apparent reason, she laughed in such a way that I kissed her.”
“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.“