Albert Camus was one of many 19th- and 20th-century authors who subscribed to an atypical life philosophy. Since the rest of us are too busy conforming to think for ourselves, these authors helpfully illustrated their theories in the form of weird and boring novels.
The Stranger (L’Etranger in French) embodies Camus’ not-so-boring view that the human tendency to search for meaning in life—which, he contends, has no meaning—is absurd. His “Absurdist” school of thought is reflected in both the narrator and plot of The Stranger.
Meursault, the Algerian/French narrator, is an unlikely protagonist by the usual standards. He doesn’t wield a bow and arrow or wow us with his brains. He’s not even really, really, really, ridiculous good-looking.
Instead, Meursault is defined by his apathy and passivity, appearing wholly devoid of emotion—by chance or by choice. He betrays no reaction at any point in the story: not when his neighbor beats his dog, not when his other neighbor beats his girlfriend, not when his own girlfriend proposes marriage, not when he kills an Arab man on a beach, and not even when he is sentenced to death by guillotine.
Cuz, you know. *SHRUG*
And he’s not even the strangest character in the book. There’s nothing so unhelpful as a string of weirdos coming to your defense when you’re accused of murder (and totally guilty). Unless it’s the prosecutor in your trial concluding that you have no soul.
Camus’ intent was not to depict a nihilistic character—merely an irrational one, inhabiting an irrational world. Meursault’s actions don’t make sense, just as existence doesn’t make sense. In the most memorable moment of the novel, Meursault senses that his own lawyer is uncomfortable around him and describes his wish
to assure him that I was just like everyone else, exactly like everyone else.
(J’avais le désir de lui affirmer que j’étais comme tout le monde, absolument comme tout le monde.)
I’m pretty sure that’s what Marilyn Manson said, right after he started collecting African masks made of human skin.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All time?
I find it challenging to care about a story when even the narrator doesn’t. Viewed as a long philosophical essay (instead of a short novel), though, I could manage more praise.
Un moment après, elle m’a demandé si je l’aimais. Je lui ai répondu que cela ne voulait rien dire, mais qu’il me semblait que non.
Toute la question, encore une fois, était de tuer le temps. J’ai fini par ne plus m’ennuyer du tout à partir de l’instant où j’ai appris à me souvenir.
Je tenais cette vérité autant qu’elle me tenait.