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
Genre: classics, philosophy
My Rating: 5/5 stars
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.”
(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.”
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!
If you liked this post, consider subscribing to Frappes & Fiction. I post about the books I read (even if they’re not fiction), the books I think YOU should read, and anything else on my mind.
(I’m also on social media!)