Book Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus | (Contains Spoilers)

Albert Camus’s The Stranger may be a short novel, but it definitely packs a punch. An existential-dread-inducing punch but nevertheless a comforting one. It’ll make more sense when I explain that.

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Albert Camus’s The Stranger may be a short novel, but it definitely packs a punch. An existential-dread-inducing punch but nevertheless a comforting one. It’ll make more sense when I explain that.

About the Book

Title: The Stranger (L’Etranger)

Author: Albert Camus

Published: 1942

Series: (standalone)

Genre: classics, philosophy

My Rating: 5/5 stars

The Premise

Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):

“Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”

My Thoughts

(This review will contain a general plot summary including spoilers because the ending reveals the main theme of the novel)

The Stranger opens with the main character and narrator, Meursault, attending his mother’s funeral, and we witness his apathetic and very detached demeanor. He basically feels no emotions and continues on with his life as if nothing has happened, because “it doesn’t really matter anyway.”

Later he becomes entangled in a situation involving his neighbor and his neighbor’s girlfriend, which leads to an altercation a few days later with the girlfriend’s brother and his friends. Then Meursault shoots someone. Why? He doesn’t really know, exactly.

During the trial, the prosecution uses Meursault’s emotional detachment to paint him as a sociopathic murderer, someone completely morally bankrupt and unfit for society. They ask him why he killed the man. He says it is because the sun was in his eyes. There is nothing else to say.

Meursault’s detachment only begins to waver after he has been sentenced to death for the murder. Sitting in his cell at the end of the novel, awaiting his execution, the chaplain tries to talk to him, and it is then that he comes to a realization about his predicament:

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.

Existence is weird, it really is– to use Camus’s favorite adjective, it’s absurd. We like to pretend we can rationalize the world but really we can’t. No one knows why we are here. No one knows where we are going. No one knows whose God is the right one, or whether he exists at all. No one knows whether there is a purpose to life, or even if there is a purpose. In all likelihood, there’s not. And if there’s not, where does that leave us? We are all going to die. There is no escaping it.

Just like the inescapable machine of justice that Meursault laments as he waits for the guillotine, death will come for every single one of us in the end.

And yet, just like Meursault, we cling to the hope that we can evade our own mortality. We distract ourselves with material wealth and hedonism. We imagine that something, you know, just something will allow us to evade the inevitable. You have to jolt yourself back to the reality that you are going to die, because until it happens, it seems like it will never happen to you. And when you think about that, and really think about it, everything seems ridiculous.

Because why are you striving for success and fame and happiness when one day it will be erased? You want your reputation to outlive yourself, yes. Okay. But one day the universe itself will end, and what then? Eventually all trace of your existence and the existence of everyone else will be annihilated. Is there a point to doing anything?

How are you supposed to keep on living or find any sort of happiness when in the back of your mind, there is the crushing knowledge, the dark wind rising towards you, as Meursault puts it, that everything is transient, and it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things what you do or don’t do, or if you are being executed by the state of France or not, and how silly is it that we as humans try to establish an order on our insignificant planet alone in the vastness of the universe and there is such a thing as France? And how weird is it to think that everyone here is just going about their lives, day in and day out, never stopping to think about how insane it all is? And how are you supposed to reconcile that?

You’re just supposed to deal with it. It just is. And as tragic as it seems in the end it’s your choice what you do and how you feel. You might as well say screw it and be happy anyway. In spite of it. That’s absurdism. I love it.

It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.” 

The Verdict

I really enjoyed this book and it gave me a ton of stuff to think about. If you are in the mood for a short yet deep classic, I would definitely recommend it.

Have you read The Stranger by Albert Camus? If so, what did you think of it? Feel free to leave a comment!

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7 comments on “Book Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus | (Contains Spoilers)”

  1. Nice review! I read this last summer and your review really brings me back to the book.

    Your twitter bio says you’re a contrarian, so I hope you don’t mind a different opinion.

    I liked The Stranger because it made me think but I think absurdism is lame. It sucks. It’s just too bleak.

    You mentioned “the crushing knowledge, the dark wind rising towards you, as Meursault puts it, that everything is transient.” I don’t think the realization that everything is transient is crushing or dark. Transience is beautiful. Transience is what makes life special. Knowing that things will pass is an even greater reason to imbue them with significance. I like to think that impermanent, imperfect, small things are full of meaning. Meditation at Lagunitas by Hass is a poem I love that touches on this theme.

    My problem with absurdism is how it’s framed. Yeah, you might as well say screw it and be happy. I mean, okay, yeah, you can do that. But why don’t you LOVE it and be happy instead? Why don’t you love the mystery of the universe? What if it’s not a tragic thing that life is crazy and absurd? What if it’s that craziness and absurdity that makes life not bleak but beautiful?

    And what if there IS meaning in this life?

    I remember Camus said something like, the meaning of life is whatever stops you from killing yourself at this very moment. I mean, yeah, okay. But again, that’s so bleak. We don’t have to view life that way.

    I looked around your website (super cool, by the way), so I know you’re a Vonnegut fan. I liked this quote from The Sirens of Titan: “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

    And, even better, this one from Dune, which is a paraphrase of Kierkegaard: “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” Maybe it’s better to stop thinking about absurdity and meaning, and start living and being actually present, rather than being detached like Meursault, instead. I guess this goes back to Hass: imperfection and transience. Small moments and the beauty of things that will fade. Blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do agree with that, and it IS pretty bleak lol. I like your way of thinking about it! I’ve been trying not to get all bogged down and attempt to live in the present with mindfulness and all of that kind of stuff. Also, I still need to read Dune haha

      Like

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful review of The Stranger and the bind that existentialism puts us in. I like your focus on the epiphany (though perhaps an epiphany that washes away all hope is an ironic epiphany at best), although I find Meursault undercuts his pristine indifference when he follows it with an admission of loneliness and the abject desire for howls of execration. Something like the Freudian “return of the repressed” going on there at the end. I think this makes for a better book, as Camus both presents and calls into question Meursault’s presumed epiphany. For my own quirky take on the novel, see this post: https://shakemyheadhollow.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/camuss-stranger-hero-or-sociopath/ 🙂 Gary

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with that– existentialism in my view is simultaneously hopeless and uplifting. I’d consider myself an existentialist, or, well, more technically, an absurdist as Camus designated himself, but I also at the same time wish I was not

      Liked by 1 person

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