Study Guide

The Stranger Themes

By Albert Camus

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    The Stranger reflects Camus’ philosophical stance as an absurdist. Is there a logical meaning to life? Is there some higher order or law governing it? Some rational explanation to the chaos and nonsense? Can we make sense of life at all? The answer from The Stranger to these questions is a categorical "No." There is no truth, no certainty, nor any unwavering, non-relative laws in life—and there is no sense in pursuing such impossibilities.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    1. It is difficult for Meursault to explain his motivation(s) for killing the Arab. Are the reasons he cites irrational? Are they justifiable? 
    2. Based on absurdity as defined in The Stranger, can an absurdist live a good, meaningful life without believing in the possibility of it rationally? 
    3. From an absurdist’s viewpoint, is Meursault more "free" in prison or outside of it?

    Chew on This

    Meursault views his murder of the Arab as something that just "happened" at the sun-drenched beach: irrational and without premeditation. If you believe in the concept of responsibility is involved, this action is utterly indefensible. But if you're an Absurdist, Meursault’s explanation is at least possible.

    Critics have stated that Absurdism is essentially meaningless because acceptance of it entails a life without meaning. This is incorrect; within the tenets of Absurdism, life can be meaningful despite its not having a rational order.

  • Mortality

    The Stranger opens with an announcement of death; Salamano’s old dog is in a state of (super-gross) decay; the protagonist murders a guy, and is then sentenced to execution. 

    Death is everywhere in this book—maybe this is Camus’s way of forcing us to confront the approximately one bajillion varying attitudes on this universal (yet distinctly absurdist) theme. In The Stranger death is inevitable and does not lead to an afterlife. The novel concludes with the revelation that death is what makes all men—scratch that: all living creatures—equal. Everyone has to die, therefore no one man is privileged over any other man (or even, say, scabby dog).

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How does Meursault’s view regarding death changed over the course of the book? In what ways has it stayed the same?
    2. In what sense is murder and execution one and the same in The Stranger?
    3. At the very end of the book, Meursault’s epiphany is spurred on by reminiscing about his mother’s love affair near her own death. What are some possible conclusions he has drawn? Why does he ultimately accept and welcome his own demise?

    Chew on This

    From the beginning to end, Meursault’s view towards death has morphed and matured from indifference, to fear, to acceptance.

    Rather than investigating the actual crime committed, the prosecutor basically puts Meursault on trial for being indifferent to his mother’s death. To the prosecutor, the trial was meant to convict a cold-hearted rebel, not to address the heinousness of either "crime."

  • Isolation

    The Stranger's Meursault is an insanely isolated guy. He's isolated from society, from friends, from his lover, from human emotion, and eventually from normal logic.

    But don't start feeling sorry for him. His isolation is self-prescribed; Meursault isn’t exiled by any means—he separates himself. Of course, at first he doesn’t view this as a choice at all; isolation is simply the path of least resistance, the series of activities that requires the least activity and effort. By the end of the novel, the narrator realizes that he has the ability to choose; that if he wants, he can wish for a large crowd of people: he can desire to be less alone. Or he can stay as he is. But at least he's conscious of his own ability to decide.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. The physical layout of the visiting room in prison symbolizes the chasm between upstanding citizens of society and immoral criminals in prison. Do you find Meursault more or less detached when he is in prison as compared to when he was free?
    2. Is isolation damaging to Meursault, or freeing? (Which kind of isolation, by the way? Societal? Emotional? Which impacts him the most?)

    Chew on This

    Content as a spectator in life, Meursault can be considered solipsistic—he's pretty sure that his self is the only self that can really be known to exist. This is his own irrational response to an irrational world.

    The event most characteristic of Meursault’s detachment to this world is his refusal to see his mother one last time.

  • Sadness

    At funerals, we expect sadness. At a murderer’s trial, we want to see some remorse. Have you ever asked why our expectation and desire converge? Should a son be sad at his mother’s funeral? Should a murderer be remorseful? What if the rebels don't want to abide by these rules society has imposed? Should they die for their lack of sadness or remorse? This main character sure does. And Camus explores why that is in The Stranger.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. We expect sadness at a funeral and remorse at a murder trial. Why do you suppose this is, and why does Meursault fail at both?
    2. At the end of the book, Meursault has claimed that "Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over [his mother]." What understanding has Meursault reached?
    3. Meursault states that shooting the Arab was "like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness." In Meursault’s mind, what is the cause of this unhappiness? Is it that he will now be condemned? That he has just killed a man? That he feels guilty himself? If he knows it’s going to lead to unhappiness, why does he do it?

    Chew on This

    The remorseless Meursault is just as guilty as the criminal who, in order to save himself, becomes remorseful for his crime after the fact.

    Meursault feels no sadness over death because he believes to grieve over someone’s departure from a world that has no meaning would be nonsensical.

  • Man and the Natural World

    These days, society doesn't the new age-y wisdom, "Seek to be one with nature." But society in The Stranger finds that wisdom kind of objectionable... and even punishable by death. Meursault is almost a force/element of nature, and his actions are often dictated by the slightest changes in weather. 

    But because he blames the scorching sun as the reason for murdering a dude, he gets a trip to the guillotine. One of the many, many questions The Stranger asks is the extent to which man is affected by nature (or can be said to be one with nature).

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Does Meursault behave as if he is an element of nature? What drives this connection?
    2. At times the sun makes Meursault sleepy; at other times, it makes him angry or annoyed. Is there any rationale to this?
    3. Meursault is rather connected to nature, yet incredibly detached from humans. Is this illogical, or does it somehow make sense that man is in tune with the earth?
    4. Do you find Meursault’s appeal to "the weather" a valid defense for the murder?
    5. Trace the ups and downs of Meursault’s mood by pinpointing changes in the weather or the temperature or the sky. There is clearly a correlation, but does correlation necessarily mean causation?
    6. How do Camus’s descriptions of the weather or nature foreshadow events in the book?

    Chew on This

    Because Meursault narrates The Stranger, we can’t trust the description of events—in particular the day at the beach when the Arab is killed.

    The heat of the sun can be seen as a strong enough influence on Meursault to explain why he killed the Arab.

  • Religion

    According to Absurdism, religion is constructed by man in an attempt to create meaning to a senseless existence. Acceptance of religion (and of the possibility of an afterlife) would mean that man effectively escapes death. Absurdists think this is a super-destructive belief, because only the realization and acceptance of impending death allows man to live to his fullest. 

    The Stranger's "hero" directly accuses a chaplain of "living like a dead man." Yowch. He challenges the social construct of religion even before his own death, refusing to "waste any last minutes on God."

    Questions About Religion

    1. The chaplain’s actions are understandable—as a holy man, it is his job to convert; but why is the magistrate so intent on proselytizing Meursault?
    2. What does the magistrate mean when he calls Meursault an "antichrist"? Does this have more to do with the fact that Meursault is unfeeling, or the fact that he is an atheist?
    3. For what purposes do the French Algerians (besides Meursault) use religion? Why does Meursault reject it?
    4. Why does Meursault flip out and choke the chaplain while in jail? How does this run-in with the chaplain spur his later epiphany regarding life and death?

    Chew on This

    In the world depicted by Meursault, religion is the single most harmful social construct.

    Meursault doesn’t see religion as inherently harmful, but does reject its use by men like the chaplain and the magistrate.

  • Women and Femininity

    The hero of The Stranger displays a detachment not only from the nebulous idea of society, but also from women. He doesn't cry at his mother’s funeral. He doesn't sympathize with Raymond’s ex-girlfriend when she is brutally beaten. He doesn't love his own girlfriend, even though he admittedly enjoys her (sexy) company. This highlights both his robot-like detachment and the fact that he gets the majority of his pleasure from, well, pleasure.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Meursault seems extremely attuned to the physical nature of his relationship with Marie, but not so much the emotional. Does Meursault’s emotional landscape with respect to Marie change at all over the course of the book?
    2. What is the effect of women in The Stranger constituting only minor roles? Are these roles even necessary?
    3. Check out the nature of Perez’s relationship with Maman as compared to Meursault’s relationship with Marie. Are they similar? Different? (Age doesn’t count as a difference. Nice try, though.)
    4. Why in the world does Marie stay with Meursault? Why does she ask him to marry her? Is she blind!? Desperate!? Blind and desperate!?
    5. Why does Marie fade out from the story as the book progresses? Why doesn’t Meursault think about her in prison?

    Chew on This

    Meursault’s actions in and attitude towards his relationship with Marie is representative of his actions and attitudes in general: he is motivated only by the physical and concerned only with himself.

    There are no positive examples of sexual relationships in The Stranger. Camus argues that, to the absurdist, sex is at best irrelevant, and at worst destructive or hurtful.

  • Society and Class

    Detachment from society is one thing, but nonconformity—or refusal to play by its rules—is another. A detached guy is deemed cold and pathetic, but a blatant nonconformist is deemed amoral. Are conformity and morality one and the same? Are society’s rules necessarily in the right? For The Stranger's hero, his freeing revelation is based on the notion that, in a senseless and meaningless world, society, its rules, and its morality are... senseless and meaningless.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Take a look at our lovely ensemble cast in The Stranger. Are these characters (besides Meursault) conformists, or nonconformists?
    2. The French Algerians condemned Meursault for having no social conscience. How might it be easier to condemn a nonconformist? Is the nonconformist more guilty than a conformist that commits the same crime? Do the French Algerians think so?
    3. Why was Meursault intrigued by the odd little "robot" woman who shares a table with him at Celeste’s diner? Is she a nonconformist as well? Does Meursault identify with her to some extent?

    Chew on This

    Meursault is unfairly tried because he is judged by one, arbitrary set of societal values—most prominently the tenet that emotional displays are the necessary and correct response to traumatic events. The irrationality of the absurdist’s world stems from this very fact: that any one given rubric can be applied as a standard to all people.

    Meursault only exiles himself from society because he doesn’t understand its constructs. He is not, and in fact, cannot be free to choose; he is hindered by his ignorance.

  • Friendship

    You wouldn't think that The Stranger would be big on friendship and companionship. And it's not... really. The novel’s apathetic hero approaches what other characters think of as "friendship" with a detached and indifferent air. He falls into friendships if being friends is easier than being strangers, but would rather remain strangers if that takes less effort than having a conversation. Friendship ends up being something that happens to the main character, rather than something he creates. Of course, one could always argue that this means it isn’t friendship—or even companionship—at all.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Doesn’t it seem like Salamano is better friends with his dog than Meursault is with Raymond? What does this say about the nature of friendship?
    2. Does The Stranger draw any distinction between friendship and companionship?
    3. Why does Maman start a new romance with Perez so close to her death? Do you agree with Meursault’s explanation?
    4. Salamano replacing his dead wife with a dog might be considered a little ludicrous. What does this mean from an absurdist’s point of view?
    5. Meursault acts not for good reason, but because there’s no reason not to act. How is that reflected in his friendship with Raymond?

    Chew on This

    Just as Perez and Maman tried to escape death via a blossoming romance, Meursault escapes boredom through his friendship with Raymond.

    Meursault uses other people to satisfy his needs. This is actually no different than what other, "normal" characters do in The Stranger—it’s just that Meursault is more willing to admit it. At the end of the day, he’s just like any other person, without the mask of social niceties.

  • Passivity

    The Stranger (or at least Meursault) conveys the message that passivity is an acceptable way of experiencing life and treating others. For the most part, our main man is an observer—a spectator—of life and its events. He feels detached and alienated from his dead mother. He doesn’t love the woman who wishes to marry him. And, though he participates in life, he observes twice as much. The Stranger explores the thin line between indifference and acceptance; the novel features this character’s transformation from the former to the latter—a positive transition, in Camus’s world.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Meursault constantly reiterates that, after a while, one can get used to anything. Okay, sure—but what’s the point of such a harped-upon notion? How does this play into Meursault’s concluding revelation?
    2. What is the difference between indifference and acceptance in The Stranger?
    3. Meursault explains many things (such as his never having much to say, or his brutal honesty in response to Marie’s questions about love and marriage) by appealing to his detached passivity. Does this justify any of his objectionable actions? Is passivity an affliction or a desired state of mind, in Meursault’s view?

    Chew on This

    From passive contentment to a new absurdist understanding of the world, Meursault’s journey has been one of enlightenment and acceptance.

    Meursault’s supposed enlightenment at the end of The Stranger is actually a false revelation; he does not commit to this new outlook, rather examines the possibility of doing so. He is still too passive to act.