The Stranger – Albert Camus

December 30, 2006

I’ve just finished my third, or perhaps fourth, lifetime reading of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. This doesn’t include the “original manuscript” of what became that book, A Happy Death, which I’ve also read.

Camus influenced me enormously when I was younger. I’ve read all of his major works, from his first published novel, The Stranger, to the posthumously published The First Man. I’ve also read philosophical works like The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, as well as his short stories, notebooks, and his essays, including the the anti-capital punishment piece “Reflections of the Guillotine” (Camus was notoriously against capital punishment).

The Stranger begins with one of the most famous openings in literature:

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

The narrator, Meursault, almost drifts through his life without specific direction, but enjoyably living day to day. He works, eats, smokes cigarettes, swims in the sea, has sex. He is also almost infuriatingly apathetic, recognizing that what he thinks, what he does, ultimately doesn’t matter. He isn’t intentionally cruel or uncaring in his actions, it’s just that he accepts the “non-sense of the world,” without judgement. Ultimately, he is simply a spectator of, and in, his life. Yet in observing, he also seems more aware of what is going on within that life than many other people are of their own lives.

At the time he wrote this, Camus was heavily exploring the idea of the Absurd in three pieces: a novel (The Stranger), a play (Caligula), and a philosophical work(The Myth of Sisyphus). And Meursault is the essence of the Absurd Hero.

God, in the Absurd — or any source of divine direction — doesn’t exist, nor does it even come into the picture. In Camus, it is simply assumed that there is no divine presence and no kind of universal logic.

The Absurd is “the pointless quest of meaning in a universe devoid of purpose,” and this feeling of absurdity is portrayed as “the separation between man and his life,” or a permanent sense of displacement, of not belonging.”

It’s easy to identify with feelings of being a stranger in your own life.

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