The Stranger Introduction
In A Nutshell
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What's the first thing you think of when we say the word "absurd"? A baby rhino trying to act like a baby goat? Fashion week? Maybe an eleven minute long homage to 80's sitcoms starring a bearded psychopath? Or how about a platypus (have you ever really looked at one)?
Okay—try this absurd tidbit on for size: a man loses his mom, murders a dude on a beach, and is sentenced to death.
The Stranger—or L'Étranger, if you want to be all authentically French about it (pro-tip: lose the beret and the baguette)—is an absurdist novel about a bonafide weirdo named Meursault. This charming guy shoots and kills a man, Johnny Cash-style, just to watch him die.
But this ain't just a feel-bad book about a cold-blooded seaside murder. Camus uses all the events leading up to the shooting (and Meursault's subsequent trial, and prison sentence) to explore issues of meaning and meaninglessness in life. In other words, Camus's book is about Philosophy with a capital P.
So who was this Camus guy, anyway? He was a trés famous French thinker known for his philosophy of the absurd, which is a cousin of the philosophy of existentialism. But don't go saying that Camus was an existentialist—having his philosophical musings pegged as existentialism was a huge pet peeve of Camus' back when he was alive (and channeling Humphrey Bogart).
These days, Camus is most famous as the author of three big-deal novels: The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956). Starting on The Stranger is a good call: Camus' later novels kept getting more complex… which is not to say that The Stranger is lightweight. After all, it explores a philosophy that states that the world is devoid of all rational meaning.
But at least one absolutely rational decision came about because of Camus' scribblings. In 1957 the Nobel Prize Committee gave him the Nobel Prize for Literature for his generally "important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."
And once you read The Stranger, you'll understand that handing Camus the big daddy of all literary prizes is the exact opposite of absurdity. It makes 100%, no-questions-asked sense.
Why Should I Care?
What do you have in common with Meursault, the murderous, semi-sociopathic, unlikeable, unloving, chain-smoking, detached, sun-averse protagonist of The Stranger?
The answer is, uncomfortably, more than you'd think.
We're guessing that you, dearest Shmooper, are a totally lovely individual that wouldn't do hideous things like lose interest during your mother's funeral or shoot some random guy in ice-cold blood. Actually, we're sure of it.
But we're equally sure that you—like all of us—have felt weird moments of questioning and detachment. We're talking about everything from those terrifying midnight episodes where you stare at the ceiling and think, "What does it all mean?" to thinking "Oh dang. Is that me?" when you hear your voice in a recording, to that deflated feeling you get after something big occurs—your birthday, a break-up, an election—and you wake up the next day and everything seems… exactly the same as it was before.
Those moments are weird, and you feel weird within them. Or, to put it another way: life is pretty strange, and you often feel like a stranger (The Stranger, in fact) within it.
Yes, Meursault is a guy who is emotionally incapable, socially unaware, and understands relationships only in the context of the physical. He's like Sherlock Holmes or Lisbeth Salander, but weirder and not a detective.
But this stranger is also an introspective philosophical rebel. And the philosophy that he and Camus promote—the philosophy of absurdism—states 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.
That might sound kind of insane (and super lonely) to you. But that, friends, is exactly the point. Absurdism doesn't say "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Absurdism says, "When life gives you lemons, eat that lemon as if it was a dang apple."
This philosophical stance isn't everyone's cup of tea (or mouthful of lemon pulp). But it can be useful, when faced with the hyper-bizarre stuff that life can lob in your direction, to be able to think, "Huh. That makes no sense whatsoever," and leave it at that.
So while we definitely don't advocate that you treat Meursault as a role model, we do think that adopting his—and Camus'—philosophy can be strangely (hey-o!) comforting.
Or, you know, you can just read The Stranger because it's a crazy-important and seminal text of the 20th Century and helped Albert Camus win a Nobel Prize. It's a win-win situation… unlike a lot of the absurd situations you come across in this crazy, messed-up world.