The Stranger is written in a forthright, matter-of-fact, and unadorned style. There's little color to the novel... even though it has some poetic qualities. Without the occasional irony or sarcasm, however, a reader might even mistake its simplicity for boringness. The novel is peppered with bone-dry observances like this:
Then he offered to bring me a cup of coffee with milk. I like milk in my coffee, so I said yes, and he came back a few minutes later with a tray. I drank the coffee. Then I felt like having a smoke. But I hesitated, because I didn't know if I could do it with Maman right there. I thought about it; it didn't matter. I offered the caretaker a cigarette and we smoked. (1.1.13)
It kind of sounds like he's about to launch into saying, "I had this dream. I was in my house, but it wasn't my house, you know? Then there was a cat, but like it was a cat with a dog's face." It's half-mesmerizing and half yawn-inducing.
Don't be fooled. Because the novel is told by Meursault (half-man, half-lizard/robot), the tone is necessarily defined by his voice. What seems "boring" is really an incisive insight into the main character. We are forced to see the world the way Meursault does; as a series of monotonous, timed, unexciting events. This makes the tone of the last two pages (when Meursault lets loose, existentially) all the more exciting.
How do you know what "philosophical literature" is? Easy-peasy: it's not easy-peasy. In fact, it leaves you scratching your head and wondering (uncomfortably) "What is life, maaaan?"
The Stranger is philosophical literature at its baffling best—it uses a fictional story to promote or explore one specific philosophy: Absurdism, in this case. You're going to hear a lot of people saying that The Stranger is existentialist fiction, and then you're going to hear a lot of other (rather angry) people railing about how, no, Camus was adamantly not an existentialist.
So here's the thing: very few "existentialist" philosophers were willing to accept the label of "existentialist," starting with "The Father of Existentialism," Søren Kierkegaard, who basically went to his grave declaring that hey, he wasn’t an existentialist.
The reason it's hard to get any one definition of the philosophy is that there isn't a clear one: different thinkers promoted different ideas, and Existentialism evolved and morphed back and was generally the Mystique of philosophy. The point being, just because Camus said he wasn't an existentialist, that doesn't mean we can't talk about his novel in the light of both Absurdism and Existentialism. (This, of course, gets into a much larger and very fascinating argument as to whether a piece of literature should be analyzed with regards to the author's intent, or whether, once it leaves the pen/typewriter/screen, it stands on its own. But that's another issue.)
So most of this module talks a good deal about Absurdism. The skinny, as you've probably heard by now, is that the world lacks order and meaning, so looking for it is totally futile. The world is absurd and without logic. Great. So far, this is right on par with the brand of Existentialism at the time—Jean-Paul Sartre's brand, that is.
(Gossipy aside: Camus and Sartre were good buddies at first, but they differed in their views of the world. They both rejected religion and determinism, but Camus was more of a fan of man—he was a humanist—and not willing to sacrifice morality as a fundamental concept. Sartre was more focused on notions of choice and metaphysical being.)
But enough of the abstract brouhaha; let's talk about the nuts and bolts of The Stranger. It's easy to see the Absurdist aspect—Meursault's conclusion at the end of the novel is the main tenet of that philosophy. But let's see where Sartre’s Existentialist influence peeks in and where it is challenged.
Let's start with the issue of actions. Sartre believed that man was only his actions. Existentialism was based on the principle that existence precedes essence; you define yourself at each given moment by acting at each given moment. Now check out the courtroom scene. Meursault's attorney asks whether the man is on trial for killing the Arab or for burying his mother without emotion. The prosecutor responds that "between these two sets of facts [exists] a profound, fundamental, and tragic relationship."
In many forms of Existentialism, there is no relationship between these actions. Meursault defines himself by burying his mother, and again, later, defines himself by killing the Arab—but there is nothing linking them, no essence defining Meursault other than that created momentarily by his actions.
But perhaps Sartre's most important idea was that of radical personal freedom—the freedom to choose. We don't know about you guys, but we see a lot of that coming through at the end of The Stranger, especially in those last few lines. Meursault declares that all he has left now is to wish for a crowd of spectators—but he doesn't. One explanation for this (and we go into more detail in Meursault's Character Analysis) is that the point isn't for Meursault to feel less alone—it's that he can choose whether or not to be less alone. That he is able to choose, that he is aware of this ability, and that this is what defines his revelation, sounds a lot like Sartre.
So that—phew—was a long explanation for why the genre is "Philosophical Literature." But philosophy kind of demands that you spend a bit of time mulling it over; it's what makes philosophy philosophy (and makes philosophy majors universally the brooding type).
Before you start humming The Doors' "People Are Strange," hold up. We're not just dealing with Meursault being a total weirdo; we're dealing with translation, colonialism, and existential angst.
Let's start with: "What is the title?" In case you didn't know, Camus was French; so he wrote The Stranger in French, and, because it seemed appropriate, gave it a French title: L'Étranger. Here's where things get tricky—in the translation. "L'Étranger" could have easily been translated as "The Foreigner" instead of as "The Stranger," and actually is in some cases.
Translations aside, it's more fun to argue semantics. Let's run with this "foreigner" bit. Our main character, Meursault, is a French man living in French Algiers. In some senses, yes, this makes him a foreigner to the land, but the text establishes that in fact his family has lived there for several generations—in a colonialist capacity, yes, but they've still been around. They know Algeria. More likely, Meursault is a metaphorical foreigner. We know this guy is detachment personified, so it's easy to argue that he's a foreigner to society, to common, human customs—he's an "outsider" (yet another possible translation for the title, by the way).
This is based on the word "foreigner," but the same thing applies to the title The Stranger. Meursault is a stranger among other people because he is so isolated from them—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and, by the end of the text, physically (he's imprisoned).
He's strange. He's the strangest. He's the stranger.
The Stranger ain't your run-of-the-mill philosophical novel (is there such a thing?). It's a philosophical novel that delves deepity-deep-deep into the Big Questions surrounding colonialism. And since this is French colonialism we're talking about—specifically French colonialism in the 20th Century—you'd be hard pressed to find a better location that Algiers.
The Stranger traces a year in the life of a young clerk working for a shipping company in 1940s Algiers. The setting—both time and place—are important to understand one vital piece of background information about The Stranger: Meursault may "officially" be on trial for killing a man, but he's actually on trial for his character, and it is for this character that he is convicted.
How could this be? Notice that Raymond got off for beating his (Arab) girlfriend since she cheated on him. Clearly, "character" is an important part of the law system of this time and place. Because the woman was a cheater—and an Arab—she deserved to get beaten in the eyes of the law. Because Meursault has poor character (he is remorseless and cold), he deserves to be sent to the guillotine.
But this doesn't begin to address why Meursault's murder of an Arab seems to not matter to these people. The answer here is racism. Brief history lesson: The French started "colonizing" (invading) Algeria in 1830. By the time we get to the 1940's, Algiers, the city in which The Stranger takes place, is French territory.
The point is, in Meursault's world, the French are considered superior to the Arabs. Killing an Arab was a minor offense, but not obeying French and Christian customs was apparently punishable by death. That's why Meursault's trial is so important—and so interesting to watch. When Meursault himself says he's been convinced of his own guilt, he's probably not talking about murder at all.
The way Meursault sees the world is kind of like a scientist looking under a microscope: the scientist doesn't look for the beauty or the allusions in the mold or microbes that she's checking out, but you better believe she sees everything.
Frivolous language is absent, but Camus' descriptions are meticulous. With this painstaking attention to detail, we get everything from the roundness of Marie's breasts to the contours of the evening sky:
Soon after that, the sky grew dark and I thought we were in for a summer storm. Gradually, though, it cleared up again. But the passing clouds had left a hint of rain hanging over the street, which made it look darker. I sat there for a long time and watched the sky. (1.2.8-10)
The sentences are clipped, and the is vocabulary simple. At times, it even seems childlike, but there are also moments of profound clarity and expressiveness—and it can be really pretty ("a hint of rain hanging over the street" is nice). But it's also almost clinically detached... like Meursault himself.
Perhaps more than facial expressions, the sun is an apt indicator (and perhaps, predicting device for us, much like Punxsutawney Phil). However, also like Punxsutawney Phil, these predictions are vague and hard-to-read. Depending on its intensity, the sun either makes Meursault sleepy, angry, happy, or resentful. Or Dopey. Or Sneezy. For a guy with a limited range of emotions to begin with, this is quite extensive. It’s almost as though Meursault is using the sun as an excuse to justify every feeling he has. And the murder he commits.
So let’s take a look at this murder bit. Just as Meursault is about to turn around, to leave the beach altogether, we hear this line: "But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back." "But," he says. He would have left, but the sun was too intense. The sun "[makes him] move forward" toward the spring (and therefore, toward the Arab).
What kind of guy lets the weather dictate his actions? As we’ve seen many times before, Meursault is a "path of least resistance" kind of guy. He’s also mentioned that his "physical needs often [get] in the way of [his] feelings." We see these both at play here; it’s easier for Meursault to step towards the cool water and away from the sun, and his feelings of apprehension (probably about the impending showdown at high noon) are inhibited by his physical need to cool off.
It’s also perfectly reasonable to claim that Meursault is like an element of nature himself. After all, he claims at the end of the text that he’s found a kinship with world – that it is so much like himself, a "brother," really. Additionally, if all living beings are made equal by death (which Meursault argues at the end of The Stranger), then he is just a creature of the world himself; it makes sense, then, that he’s subject to his physical surroundings. We shouldn’t think of him as any sort of higher level being – just as an animal with physical needs, pains, and desires.
Meursault devotes significant attention to the different colors of the sky, the sun’s rays at different times of the day, the beach, the ocean, etc. In this book, green is usually associated with happy moments, which we know from the vague and undecipherable line: "The sky was green; I felt good." Red colors are associated with anger (like the Arab on the beach scene) or sex (like Marie’s dress). It’s probably no coincidence that these two are linked (as they are with Raymond and his ex-mistress).
Appearing in both Part I, Chapter Five and in Part II, Chapter Three, this woman arouses Meursault’s curiosity because of her peculiarity and meticulousness. Intrigued by her machine-like qualities, he tries to figure her out by studying her at the diner and then following her afterwards. Later, seeing her stare in court at him without emotion, Meursault is unnerved. This woman seems to move along in her own world, set in her ways and oblivious to society’s judgments. In many senses, she symbolizes the mechanisms that define Meursault. She operates on the same basic principles, but the outcome is very different for her than our protagonist – she blends in as a spectator at the trial.
The obvious symbolism here is Christianity, but the crucifix is more than that in this novel. It also represents the Afterlife, society’s acceptance of it, and man’s collective search for a higher order or meaning that renders significant an otherwise absurd life. In stark contrast to the Absurdist that is Meursault (and Camus), the crucifix also represents everything that Meursault does not believe in. Rejecting it twice (once from the magistrate judge and the second time from the chaplain), Meursault detests the notion that his life must have any rational explanation or significance. Meursault defies the game society plays in a futile attempt in search of meaning – something larger and grander. He does not believe in it, and is content without it.
Not just a place where Meursault’s life is on trial, the courtroom also symbolizes society’s forum in The Stranger. The judge is the self-proclaimed "moral umpire," calling the shots. The jurors are representatives sent by society to cast their judgments (and stones) at Meursault. The entire trial symbolizes society’s attempt to rationalize a universe – or a chain of events – without order. The verdict represents society’s rejection of Meursault’s nonconforming ways.
Appearing at Meursault’s trial in Part II, Chapter Three introduces a young reporter wearing gray flannels and a blue tie who studies Meursault intently with his very bright eyes, betraying no emotion. Meursault confesses that this gives him "the odd impression of being watched by [him]self." With that subtlety, we note that this calm young reporter represents either Meursault or Albert Camus – either way, an Absurdist.
Laughing and swimming are the two actions that remind us that, in fact, Meursault actually is human after all. Meursault is strangely attracted to laughter, as we all are in some way, we suppose. He finds Raymond instantly friendly – once the man laughs. His heart melts and he wants Marie – yes, in that way – each time she laughs. For Meursault perhaps, laughter symbolizes innocence, simplicity, and nonchalance. (Yes, everything good.) What is true of laughter is also true for swimming. Meursault loves to swim. Marie adores swimming. The two meet while they were swimming, and Meursault essentially makes his first move while in the water. Carefree, wholehearted goodness? You bet.
Come on—you thought someone as solipsistic, narcissistic, and (sure) sociopathic as Meursault would yield the narration to anyone else? This is the Meursault show, and the POV highlights this fact 100%.
Meursault is our narrator, and he tells it as he sees, feels, and thinks it. Not a hint of third-person omniscience exists... because the story is purely subjective from Meursault's point-of-view. Even though he's observant, Meursault makes no attempt to empathize with or understand the other characters. As the story progresses, we move from description laced with introspection to purely introspective recounting.
Deliberately frozen in an isolated state, Meursault is content not making sense of the world he lives in. Society expects him to cry at his mother’s funeral; he doesn’t. Marie asks him to marry her; he feels indifferent. Raymond requests him as a character reference; he says "Yeah, okay." Basically, his entire response to life is "meh."
Meursault does a lot of things not because he wants to, but because he doesn't have reasons not to do them. (For example: his entire friendship with Raymond.) Booker says that "the falling stage" is when the hero "falls" under a dark power. In this case, Meursault seems to have been under whatever "dark power" (basically passivity and indecision) for quite a bit of time.
For a while, things proceed improbably well after Maman’s funeral. Meursault gets to "frolic" (bow chicka bow bow) with Marie on weekends, and spends time wining and dining with Raymond in the evenings. Eventually, the three go away to Raymond’s friend’s beach house for a weekend of fun. Meursault is happy, which in itself counts as recession from the dark power.
He literally gets imprisoned. It’s the most perfect Booker stage three ever.
For Meursault, the solitude of prison is incessant. He hates not being free, and now, with the death sentence, it seems that he will never be free again. Meursault has given up to the "dark power" of passivity and mental weakness (at least in Camus’ eyes, it seems).
Meursault’s "rebirth" is one of character... and actually signals his impending death. The nightmare he escaped isn’t death by guillotine, but the weakness of fearing that death. Meursault finally makes a decision—to be free from despair (even though, yeah, he's still locked up).
This redemption is complete; Meursault emerges a hero because he doesn't need the rest of the world and its dictates. Take that, world.
Meursault is unaffected by his mother's death, living the same mundane life he always has, clerking at the shipping company, rendezvousing with a new girlfriend, and passing time with buddies doing random, light-hearted things. Boring. Wake us up when Meursault laments his mother's death or professes his love to Marie like a normal, hot-blooded guy, please. He is totally unreal.
Who toils on in such a banal existence like that, without any ambition? Who smokes and doesn't shed one single tear at his own mother's funeral? And who goes to a comedy movie with some random girl he met at the beach the day after said funeral? We get the sense that Meursault is a depressed sociopath. Actually, this novel would be more interesting if he in fact turns out to be a sociopath. Wait a minute… does he?
A bit intoxicated by the wine at lunch time, Meursault, Raymond, and Masson take a stroll down the beach. Confronted by the two Arabs who had been following Raymond for a week now, the men fight. Raymond hits one of the Arabs, the brother of his ex-girlfriend. The Arab slashes Raymond's mouth and arm with a knife. Masson punches the other Arab face down into the water. An alcohol-fueled, interracial fight (or any fight, really) screams "conflict," which is super-convenient, since this is the "conflict" stage.
After Raymond comes back from the doctor's, he and Meursault decide to get some air down by the beach. The two again stumble upon the Arabs. Raymond feels compelled to shoot the one who attacked him, but Meursault talks him out of it. Raymond then hands Meursault his gun for safekeeping (or for what will obviously be some later shooting). We can just smell how complicated it's going to get now that a gun is introduced. After all, didn't Chekhov say "If you hand a gun to Meursault, that weirdo is totally going to blow some Arab dude away with it?"
We told you that gun would come into play. A detailed, play-by-play description of a murder on a hot beach? Yeah, this is definitely the climax.
Also, notice how the text uses short, staccato sentences to describe the tension-filled action? That's another hint that you're in climax-land.
At first Meursault is under the delusion that his case is "simple." Ha.
Meursault's own attorney doesn't understand him; the magistrate judge invokes Christ to save his hardened soul... and the prosecutor is intent on sending him to the fiery pits of Hell. Witness after witness stands to testify to Meursault's good moral character. The courtroom is packed with sweaty bodies in the dead of summer. With his closing remarks, the prosecutor calls Meursault a "monster" and asks the jury for his "head." Oh yeah, he also says that Meursault is morally guilty of killing his mother.
Just what is going on?! With much sweat and heavy heart-pounding, we wonder if Meursault will be found guilty. (Our bet is on yeah.)
After only forty-five minutes of deliberation, the foreman of the jury comes back into the courtroom to read the verdict. Meursault hears a muffled voice somewhere, and then the presiding judge informs him that he has indeed been sentenced to death. Oops.
Where is the justice in this "falling action"? Was this just? Does anyone care? Probably not, and heading up the "doesn't really care" team is our protagonist: Meursault himself.
On what is presumably one of Meursault's last dawns before the execution, he awakens peacefully to the wonderful smells of summer earth. He doesn't have to search long and hard for the fortune cookie message; just as his mother rebelled against dying, he also has to confront his impending execution.
Emptying himself of all hope, freeing himself from the shackles society seeks to place upon him, Meursault emerges worry-free. Whoa—is this a final, hopeful twist to an otherwise bleak and absurdist tale?! Yup, this is exactly what Camus has delivered... and with a double dose of calm, no less.
Meursault is finally at peace with the philosopher residing inside him. Whether this is a cognitive, psychological, philosophical or logical triumph (or all of the above?) we walk away rejuvenated by the courage Meursault exhibits now. Our baby boy Meursault is really growing up. But alas, the story ends here... as does Meursault. Womp womp.
We experience the everyday life of Meursault through his eyes and narration. Basically, Meursault doesn’t really care for his mother (or her death). He loves to have casual sex on the beach with an ex-coworker and he hangs out with a greaseball guy named Raymond.
The nightmare starts when Meursault shoots and kills an Arab at the beach. The nightmare continues for a year in prison, while Meursault awaits trial. The nightmare springs to life when, following trial, Meursault is sentenced to death by guillotine. Just call it Act II: The Nightmare.
We’re with Meursault when—at the crack of dawn—not far from his execution day, he experiences a kind of transcendence or enlightenment. Rejecting society and embracing himself, he emerges triumphant.
Friedrich Nietzsche: The Anti-Christ (2.1.13)
Fernandel—A French actor and singer (1.2.2, 2.4.2)