1942 was a big year. It was that year that…
- the US really entered into World War II to fight Germany, Japan, and Italy;
- the Manhattan Project began;
- Bing Crosby recorded his famous album White Christmas;
- Disney released Bambi;
- the movie Casablanca came to theaters;
- Jimi Hendrix was born;
- and Albert Camus published The Stranger.
The Stranger – or L'Étranger, if you prefer to go with the original French title – is a novel about an odd fellow named Meursault. (Don't know how to pronounce that one? Click here.) In a heated moment, Meursault shoots and kills another man on a beach. Camus uses the events leading up to the shooting, and Meursault’s subsequent legal trial and incarceration, to explore issues of meaning and meaninglessness in life. In other words, Camus's book is about BIG IDEAS.
Camus was a famous French thinker known for his philosophy of the absurd, a close cousin to existentialism. (BTW, throughout his life Camus swore that he was not an existentialist. He was a bit touchy on the subject, actually.) Today, Camus is most famous for three big novels: The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956). The Stranger is a great introduction to Camus, because his later novels kept getting more complex.
Through The Stranger, Camus explores his own pet philosophy: the absurd. In short, absurdism says the world is devoid of rational meaning. But you can read more about that in our discussion of "Themes: Philosophical Viewpoints." The Nobel Prize Committee quite rationally thought Camus should win some money, so they gave him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, not for The Stranger per se, but for his generally "important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."
Why Should I Care?
OK, so at first it seems like this "stranger," Meursault, is just a guy who is emotionally incapable, socially unaware, and understands relationships only in the context of the physical. He sounds kind of like Sherlock Holmes or Lisbeth Salander, but weirder and not a detective. Before you slap the "loser" sign on his forehead, take note that, actually, the stranger is an introspective and, to some degree tortured, philosophical rebel. And the philosophy that he and Camus promote – the philosophy of absurdism – doesn't only apply to this book. A lot of people in the real world are big on absurdism, so you might as well use this short book as an opportunity to learn what it's all about.
Absurdism essentially says that the world is so nonsensical, so absurd, that you can’t expect to find meaning in it anywhere. There’s no logic, no rationale, no governing order. "Pshaw!" you say. Well, just for fun, let's take the devil's advocate position. People on the absurdist bandwagon might ask you, "Where’s the logic in 12th century Europe when everyone got together and decided to kill people who didn’t believe in their religion?" According to the absurdist point of view, the humans throughout history have done some pretty nonsensical things.
The Stranger concludes that, because of this absurdity, we can’t find meaning in the world. Now that you've read the book, it's up to you to decide if the world is indeed absurd.