Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

“I may not have been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.”
~Albert Camus, The Stranger

Plot summary

“The title character is Meursault, an indifferent French Algerian (…). He attends his mother’s funeral. A few days later he kills an Arab man in French Algiers, who was involved in a conflict with a friend.

Book cover for The Stranger. Photo: lungstruck (CC BY 2.0)
Book cover for The Stranger. Photo: lungstruck (CC BY 2.0)

Meursault is tried and sentenced to death. The story is divided into two parts, presenting Meursault’s first-person narrative view before and after the murder (…).” More on Wikipedia

“Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder (…), Camus explored what he termed ‘the nakedness of man faced with the absurd’.” More on Goodreads

On Albert Camus
Book cover for The Stranger. Photo: Helena Perez García (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Book cover for The Stranger. Photo: Helena Perez García (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a representative of non-metropolitan French literature. His origin in Algeria and his experiences there in the thirties were dominating influences in his thought and work. Of semi-proletarian parents, early attached to intellectual circles of strongly revolutionary tendencies, with a deep interest in philosophy (only chance prevented him from pursuing a university career in that field), he came to France at the age of twenty-five. The man and the times met: Camus joined the resistance movement during the occupation and after the liberation was a columnist for the newspaper Combat. But his journalistic activities had been chiefly a response to the demands of the time; in 1947 Camus retired from political journalism and, besides writing his fiction and essays, was very active in the theatre as producer and playwright.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • The outsider within
  • Full responsibility for one’s actions
  • Indifference towards life

In January 1955 Albert Camus wrote: “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” ~Published in Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice by David Carroll (2007, p. 27), quoted from Wikipedia

As I mentioned in the introduction to My Top 30 Books list, Albert Camus’ L’Étranger / The Stranger (US) / The Outsider (UK) (1942) has made a deep impact on my further reading since I first acquainted with the novel during my high school years. There are several reasons for why the novel is remarkable. For starters, in my view, the UK title The Outsider comes closer to capturing the essence of Meursault’s character.

First, the protagonist is shown as a human capable of perceiving oneself similarly to other people, from the outside. It seems that Meursault is able to distance himself from the personal conceptualization and view himself as if he were like any other person.

Second, and this is inter-linked to the first point, Meursault seems to be able to evade several biases of psychology. I think this was one of the crucial issues for me. I think that humans live too much within themselves and seldom can we make objective evaluations on the actions of others, since our own viewpoint gets in the way of our judgment. If we were capable of distancing us from the standpoint we hold onto and to consider differing perspectives, we could learn and not be preconceived and full of ourselves.

I believe there are as many so-called truths as there are humans, so about 7 billion incoherent perspectives and unfortunately many believe their views to be the ultimate truth and nothing but the truth. Human errors and biased conceptions hinder our ability to get along better and to be kinder towards other individuals.

Third, Meursault is sort of anti-fundamentalist in his characterization. He evades all labels and categorizations as he probably wouldn’t agree on anything particular. He is able to stand up and be responsible for his actions, that he doesn’t take things personally and regards the death sentence as justified. It can be that he is “standing outside of himself”, that this reasoning only comes natural once one adopts a viewpoint that there is absolutely no deviation from justice. If one commits murder, one has to stand for trial, end of story.

I guess the world would be a much agreeable place if we all were even slightly more like Meursault, and I’m not talking about the murder. However, I guess, we could argue about the meaning of life and existentialism until hell freezes over and not reach an understanding.

I’m slightly troubled by what Albert Camus referred to under “existentialism” and especially what he understood under “the game” in the following quote: I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game” (see David Carroll).

So, what in your view is the name of the game? And don’t fool me, I knew you started singing Abba’s song The Name of the Game out loud this very minute 🙂 That’s not what we’re after, is it? Is it perhaps related to societal norms? I believe it is. The fact that Meursault in not able to weep at his mother’s funeral makes the world turn upside down. He does something out of the ordinary – the precise thing that is not expected of anyone in that particular mourning state of mind – and fails at social pressure and expectation. But is Meursault punished for his lack of social norms? I assume that is the relevant question. Perhaps indifference is not valued in our day and time but it brings essence to life necessary for taking us further and enabling us to remain sane for a little longer.

Meursault could be a hero of dispassion. He does not go for extreme sports to get a kick out of life, but instead he finds liberation in the act of indifference. Someone would probably state that in the end he is a coward, but I believe he is fully committed. He owns to responsibility and comes to the extent of freedom only attainable by few.

There is an interesting interlinkage between the concept of “being good” and “indifference”. Could it be that by holding onto an indifference of character one is able to be more good than without the indifference towards oneself? But be mindful since “indifferent” can be interpreted in so many ways. In my interpretation, it holds a connotation similar to “lack of feeling of one’s own supremacy”, “lack of joy” and “unability to find contempt in the everyday life” or “boredom of existence”.

L’Étranger is a cry out for existentialism! If one makes an error – in this case commits a murder – one has to agree that there will be consequences no matter who you are or what you seem to represent. Justice will deal with you. Naturally this applies best in an environment when justice follows rule of law and included judicial independence.

Without further ado, the novel speaks for itself, so there is nothing more to add. Take a walk on the wild side and open your spectrum of the world, and maybe give a chance to indifference, at least once in a while.

Famous quotes on existentialism

“The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists.”
~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.”
~Anton Chekhov

“He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”
~Jean-Paul Sartre

“Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”
~Friedrich Nietzsche

A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope.”
~Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
~Samuel Beckett

“Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”
~Kurt Vonnegut

“Some care is needed in using Descartes’ argument. “I think, therefore I am” says rather more than is strictly certain. It might seem as though we are quite sure of being the same person to-day as we were yesterday, and this is no doubt true in some sense. But the real Self is as hard to arrive at as the real table, and does not seem to have that absolute, convincing certainty that belongs to particular experiences.”
~Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

“If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance.”
~Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt

“Believe me there is no such thing as great suffering, great regret, great memory….everything is forgotten, even a great love. That’s what’s sad about life, and also what’s wonderful about it. There is only a way of looking at things, a way that comes to you every once in a while. That’s why it’s good to have had love in your life after all, to have had an unhappy passion- it gives you an alibi for the vague despairs we all suffer from.”
~Albert Camus, A Happy Death

“I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.”
~P.G. Wodehouse

More existentialism related quotes on Goodreads.

More information
– David Carroll (2007): Albert Camus the Algerian – Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice, Columbia University Press, link retrieved on 16 November 2016
– Sam Jordison: November’s Reading group: The Outsider by Albert Camus, published in the Guardian on 6 November 2013, link retrieved on 16 November 2016
– Alice Kaplan (2016): Looking for The Stranger, University of Chicago Press, link retrieved on 16 November 2016
– Lucian Robinson: The Outsider by Albert Camus – review, published in the Guardian on 9 December 2012, link retrieved on 16 November 2016
– John Williams: Review: ‘Looking for “The Stranger,”’ the Making of an Existential Masterpiece, published in The New York Times on 5 September 2016, link retrieved on 16 November 2016
– Kim Willsher: Camus letter to Sartre discovered revealing buds of early friendship, published in the Guardian on 8 August 2013, link retrieved on 16 November 2016

Other novels and stories by Camus
  • Caligula (1939)
  • The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
  • The Plague (1947)
  • The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (1951)
  • The Sea Close By (1951)
  • The Fall (1956)
  • Exile and the Kingdom (1957)
  • A Happy Death (1971)
  • The First Man (1994), published posthumously

“I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.”
~Albert Camus, The Stranger

Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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