I have been finished with Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” for a week or so now, but have been unwilling to post about it because I’m not sure what to say about it. I think most of what I wanted to say is here. It is the first category (a book you read in high school) in our Classics Challenge 2016. I’m going to tell you this post has spoiler after spoiler, so don’t read if you don’t want the entire book ruined.
I know there should be more that I want to say, because the book has left me oddly unsettled. There is much more to this novel than I remember. So I wonder why I can’t put my thoughts into words.
On a surface level, which is probably how I read this novel the first time as a teenager, the novel is the story of a Frenchman, Meursault, who has a decent job, a girlfriend, friends and a place to live. It’s not an exciting existence, but it represents a level of success and stability most people would wish to achieve. But those things don’t matter to him. What seems to matter most is that he be free to do what it is he wants.
The novel opens with the famous line: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” She was at a home for the aged and Meursault was distanced both physically and, perhaps more important, emotionally from her for years.
Meursault, who tells the story, drifts through his days. He has a girlfriend, Marie, and some crazy neighbors, but seems to have no meaningful connection to any of them. His friendship—which is too strong a word—with his neighbor Raymond becomes his undoing. Of course, Meursault wouldn’t see things that way. For Meursault, life is a series of events, some better than others, but they don’t have any meaning for him outside of each moment. He feels what he feels when he feels it and when he doesn’t feel something he doesn’t feel it and doesn’t concern himself with it. Meursault says it himself in so many words late in the novel: “I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment or the immediate future to think back.”
So Raymond, who likes to slap his girlfriend around, asks for Meursault’s help to get out of a little trouble. It seems the brother of Raymond’s girlfriend—known in the book only as “The Arab”—is out for revenge.
Meursault and Raymond find themselves on the beach one day and they see the Arab. There is a confrontation, but it ends without violence. Meursault returns to the beach a bit later, and finds the Arab on the beach, alone, and, finding a gun in his own pocket, Meursault kills the man. It’s a scene I reread several times, looking for a motive, but there doesn’t seem to be one.
When he is tried, he is judged not on what he did but on who he is. Witness after witness tells the court that Meursault is disconnected from the world and the people in it. A doctor tells the court Meursault has no soul. He is, of course, convicted and sentenced to death.
At this point, Camus puts Meursault into a jail cell where his musings become Camus’ platform for his philosophy. It’s not existential, it’s something else, though smarter people than I have tried to explain it. Camus says he’s an absurdist—he uses the word many times throughout the book—and perhaps that’s the point. At the end of his life, absurdly, Meursault realizes he loves being alive. He hopes that at the end of his life, his execution will inspire some sort of emotion in those who watch it. That will give his death a purpose.
Of course, I might have this all wrong. People have been debating the meaning of this book since it was printed in 1942. And there isn’t one satisfying answer.
What’s unsettling about this book? A little bit of everything. Meursault’s life, his pointless murder of the young man, his too-late realization about the preciousness of life, if that’s even what happens. (I think it’s also intriguing to note that Camus was writing this while the world was at war. It seems an odd, navel-gazing work to be written at such a time in history.)
Perhaps this is the difference in reading a book at such different stages of life: What once seemed appealing is now disturbing.
Interestingly, in looking at all the “Best Books of 2015” lists—after I had chosen and started reading “The Stranger”—I was struck by the title of one work: “The Meursault Investigation.” It is a re-imagining of “The Stranger,” told through the eyes of the Arab’s brother. I’m reading it right now and will write about it soon.
What did you reread? Post a comment below.