Where does The Stranger fit into literary history?
The first half of the twentieth century gave birth to a large range of important and diverse literary pieces. Literary Modernism raged in the Anglo-speaking areas of the world, which included many major Western European cities. Although Literary Modernism typically is boxed in with an arbitrary ending date of around the time of World War II, Modernism cannot be explored in a vacuum. Therefore, there are some ways there this novel has some Modernist qualities, but also as will be explained below, its classification as a philosophical text makes the novel timeless as it grapples with basic human concerns of identity, fate, community, justice, etc.
World War, and the Disfiguration of Western Consciousness
The Stranger was published many years after World War I, but the World War’s effects were still being felt at the time of this novel’s publication. Even though the novel’s publication coincided with World War II, the problems that the novel explores are more likely to be products of the ideologies formed after World War I. World War I disfigured Western consciousness due to the scale of the war and the impact it had on the entire world (not just militaries and geopolitics). At the time of World War I, the general public was not as desensitized to the atrocities of war as it is today. The new ways of waging war moved like a shockwave, not only affecting the soldiers. World War I saw the beginning of a more mechanized warfare, and a more dehumanizing warfare, in which combatants did not necessarily see the “whites of their opponents’ eyes.” In addition, the roots of modern chemical warfare were planted during World War I. All of these atrocities challenged the preconceived notion that going to war was a glorious thing, and much literature has been written that addresses that point. The United States was affected by World War I in a unique way namely due to the unhealed fissures of the American Civil War, which were still fresh in the consciousness of America (both militarily and in the general public). While The Stranger does not deal with the United States, it is important to realize that World War I was something that did not affect only Europe, which is generally the focus of common historical narratives about the war. Ultimately, the entire Western world was changed from the trauma; new philosophies emerged, including a refreshed rendition of nihilism by Friedrich Nietzsche. World War I is typically tied to Literary Modernism, which is commonly an America-centric literary category, but as we see—the war’s grasp was wide.
French and Arab Conflict in Algeria
The French settlement of Algeria is an important piece of historical context that is necessary to understand some nuances in the novel. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during Europe’s “Scramble for Africa,” the French colonized a predominately Arab Algeria, resulting in an ideological, economic, and cultural clash. The rampant colonization of many parts of the non- European world by imperial European governments engendered struggles between the indigenous inhabitants and the colonial settlers. The reader of The Stranger needs to be aware of the French and Algerian Arab conflict because it helps to see how Meursault’s crime becomes more than just a murder but perhaps an ethnic statement. For Camus, the French-Algerian Meursault’s murder of a (probably) darker-skinned Algerian of a different cultural background might take on further significance by symbolizing the colonization of Algeria by the French—and thus the destruction of a previously dominant Pre-French Algerian culture.
Philosophy and Literature, a General Discussion
The relationship between philosophy and literature needs to be addressed in order to analyze The Stranger. While there are some pieces of fiction that are philosophical, not all literature is philosophical. And of course the opposite is true. There are pieces of philosophy that resemble prose fiction, but of course there is no reason for all philosophical writing to do so. Philosophy and literature share an interesting relationship because literature is a wonderful medium in exploring philosophical choices. For example, Camus is actively exploring many philosophical problems in his novel, which we must not forget is manifest fiction. The purely philosophical quality of the novel allows it to be timeless insofar as the novel’s interpretation does not rely on knowing too many historical and cultural particulars. What is most important to remember is that fiction can be a great vehicle for exploring philosophy because philosophically tinged fiction can be more accessible than musty philosophical tomes that do not appeal to a wide variety of readers. The following are some specific issues raised in The Stranger:
Existentialism has multiple definitions and can be at times a very nebulous concept. There are, however, some common elements to be found in varieties of existentialism. Such elements include the individual, the individual’s right and obligation to make choices rather than relying on “fate,” “destiny,” “Providence,” or any other external force, and the problems inherent in existing in an irrational world. Camus wrote at length on the idea of an individual faced with an irrational world (the absurd) in his book The Myth of Sisyphus, which was published in the same year as The Stranger. Camus’s theory of the absurd deals with the result of the individual’s trying to live his life in such a way that anything he does will have an effect on his existence. In the theory of the absurd, Camus suggests that the world is irrational so that any type of rational action is meaningless, and hence the absurd is born. Camus’s theory of the absurd also makes his philosophical classification difficult, as one would be hard pressed to call Camus a pure existentialist.
Fatalism suggests that human action does not matter because the world is ruled by destiny or fate. This figures into the plot and theme of The Stranger, as Meursault seems to be trapped in a series of inevitable events. Fatalism is commonly associated with existentialism insofar as both concepts address free will. While fatalism does not share a directly oppositional relationship with existentialism, they are commonly held as opposites because fatalism denies free will, while existentialism denies any external force like destiny.
Nihilism is another philosophical concept that is suggested in the novel. Nihilism is essentially a theory in which a person believes in nothing—life is meaningless (has no purpose) and all concepts and actions are empty. Meursault seems to be a proponent of nihilist thought.
The body of thought known as Skepticism exists within the larger corpus of Epistemology— the study of how we know things. Typically, Skepticism deals with whether or not we can know or believe that we know that we have any knowledge about a thing. This novel almost forces us to adopt a skeptic’s view; especially as we question and potentially deny the information that we are given. Through the exploration of Skepticism, Camus pulls the reader in and implicates them in the text. Also, the reader can sense that Meursault is skeptical of his own observations and life experiences—all and all layering the various ways Skepticism works in the novel.
Major Literary Qualities of The Stranger Ambiguity
Ambiguity is a multifaceted term that suggests that the meaning of a text may be otherwise. Most ambiguity in day-to-day life is linguistic ambiguity, in which wording poses an interpretive problem to the reader. Yet, ambiguity is more than just uncertainty in the meaning of words. Ambiguity can also apply to plot details and actions. For example, Meursault’s uncertainty of when his mother died is a moment of ambiguity. Camus’s styling of plot details can also be described as ambiguous because it offers the reader a host of interpretations, but with a feeling of unease as to making a solid interpretation.
Narration and Point-of-View
The Stranger is narrated from the first-person point of view; Meursault is both narrator and protagonist. He is most likely an unreliable narrator. The reader can sense Meursault’s uncertain perception of life events. There are also times when Camus, the author, and Meursault, the narrator, disagree. The omniscient view of the author must be held more reliable than the limited perspective of the first-person narrative. The first person point of view in The Stranger is instrumental in conveying Meursault’s psychological status. The reader can imagine this novel’s being told from a third person point of view, and how it would lack such vivid psychological feeling.
Plot is an artifice contrived by an author to deliver a fabricated series of events to the reader. It is the backbone of a fiction text, the vehicle by which all other elements, especially theme and meaning, are conveyed. Without plot, the elements of fiction would involve characters sitting or standing in their setting, doing nothing and having nothing happen. Plot can be linear, in which all the events follow each other in some kind of normal time sequence, or nonlinear, in which events follow a scattered (yet still artificially contrived) pattern. There is also a recursive plot structure, which repeats common plot features. The plot of The Stranger is somewhat linear, but it becomes non-sequential and recursive with a number of time jumps and recounts of information.
Conflict is most easily understood as a tensioned relationship between two forces or presences in the story: one character versus another character, once character versus a group, one character versus a social or natural force, etc. Conflict is the essential element to all plot structure; without conflict, the plot is a mere series of events, whether linear or nonlinear. Conflict is what allows action to build to a climax, and the resolution of the plot is, of course, the resolution of the conflict. In The Stranger the reader can identify various conflict groupings, which show tension and propel the plot. For example, Meursault is in conflict with himself and his perceptions and worldview. Meursault is also in conflict with what could be described as the greater society, which takes the form of the legal system. Conflict can be very simple in nature, or it can be deep and complex where one character experiences various conflicts from various fronts simultaneously.
A paradox is a relationship between at least two ideas seems contradictory at first glance; upon further analysis, however, there is found some kind of truth that reconciles the apparent contradictory relationship. One paradox that appears in The Stranger is Meursault’s view of the relationship between the executioner and the condemned.
The Stranger (l’Étranger, Written 1938, Published 1942; 1946 English)
The first of “The Absurds” written by Albert Camus, The Stranger defines Camus for most Americans. The novel is simple, with none of the diversions common in popular literature. The main character is not a hero, has no true love affair, and the pursuit of money and power never enters into the story. The Stranger is an honest atheist, willing to accept his life as it happens.
Camus’ title, l’Étranger, has been translated poorly, in my opinion. The U.S. title, The Stranger, implies the main character, Meursault, has been viewed as a “strange” or “odd” person for some time. The other possible meaning is that no one knows him; Mersault is a stranger even to those who think they know him. These definitions do not seem adequate. The U.K. title, The Outsider, only serves to confuse readers more.
Meursault is the archetype of a middle-class man. He works as a clerk, rents an apartment, and draws no attention to himself. He is, if anything, ordinary. Meursault might even be boring. He lacks deep convictions and passion. If he is estranged from any aspect of French society, it is religion — he does not believe in the symbols and rituals of faith.
Is the main character estranged? “Cela m’est égal.” Meursault views life as one might a movie. No matter what occurs, “It’s all the same to me.” He is not a stranger, but rather an observer without an emotional connection to the world.
Along with the title, Camus took care in naming the main character. Meursault’s name is symbolic of the Mediterranean. Mer means “sea” and Soliel is French for “sun.” The sea and sun meet at the beach, where Meursault’s fateful act occurs.
Analysis of the novel begins by recognizing the story’s basic structure. There are three deaths which mark the beginning, middle, and end of the story. First, Meursault’s mother dies. This death occurs before the narration starts, but marks the start of Meursault’s downfall. In the middle of the tale we have the death of an Arab. The defining events in The Stranger are set in motion by Meursault’s apparent murder of the Arab. One day, walking toward a cool stream, Meursault is blocked by an Arab. It seems the Arab draws a knife, as Meursault sees a flash of light from the blade. Meursault then kills the Arab, believing this to be an act of self-defense. At the end of the novel, Meursault is executed, the third death.
Readers should note an Arab is killed. Arabs were traditionally the targets of racism in Algiers. The “more French” one was, the more important the individual. The culture and religion of Arabs were deemed simple and barbaric. This explains why it was more upsetting to the court that Meursault was not respectful of their societal norms… killing an Arab was a minor offense. Not seeking Christian forgiveness or mourning properly for his mother were the far worse crimes. The surface structure of the novel leads many to assume the act of manslaughter is Meursault’s prevailing crime; it is not. Had he explained himself, and seemed more “Christian” to the court, all might have been forgiven.
Meursault is an anti-hero, according to some scholars. His only redeeming quality is his honesty, no matter how absurd. In existential terms, he is “authentic” to himself. Meursault does not believe in God, but he cannot lie because he is true to himself. This inability to falsify empathy condemns him to death. While Meursault allegedly executed for killing an Arab, he is hated for not expressing deep emotion when his mother dies. Meursault has faith in nothing except that which he experiences and senses. He is not a philosopher, a theologian, or a thinker. Meursault exists as he is, not trying to be anything more than himself.
Meursault, the novel’s hero, a “stranger” to the system of Christian morality insofar as he cannot comprehend it, is certainly not an “outsider” neither consciously choosing to remain outside society nor being rejected by it. On the contrary, Meursault is the perfect model of a young lower-middle-class pied-noir, with an ordinary desk job, and with the ordinary insider’s simple taste for watching a banal film, having a drink at the local bar, going to the beach, lying in the sun. He is very much inside the French Algerian colonial scene, living the most ordinary of lives, not at all a social reject an in no way a rebel… at least not yet. — Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 43
Why did Camus’ readers recognize Meursault as a plausible character? After two World Wars and other sufferings, many people came to (or tried to) live life much as Meursault does. They lost the will to do more than exist. There was no hope and no desire. The only goal for many people was survival. Even then, the survival seemed empty. We learn how empty Meursault’s existence is through his relationships. He is not close to his mother; we learn he does not cry at her funeral. He does not seem close to his mistress, Marie Cardona. Of his lover, Meursault states, “To me, she was only Marie.” There is no passion in Meursault’s words.
Mother’s Death: Event 1
In America, unlike most European countries, employment lacks security. Taking personal leave seems risky to many individuals. Therefore, Americans might relate differently to Meursault’s embarrassment when he must request leave from work to address his mother’s death. European readers have indicated to me a different understanding of Meursault’s embarrassment: death is simply disquieting.
Upon arrival at the seniors’ home where is mother resided, Meursault learns the administrators arranged for a religious service. He is told that his mother requested such a service. Curiously, Meursault doubts this assertion, but does not say so. The caretaker then asks if Meursault wants to view his mother’s corpse. Meursault declines to have the casket opened. The caretaker asks why, clearly shocked that a son would not want to say a proper goodbye to his mother.
Instead of being depressed and mournful, Meursault drinks coffee and smokes in a relaxed manner. This leaves the impression that Meursault is insensitive, or that he did not love his mother. Meursault’s calm exterior during these formalities later plays a role in his conviction and sentencing for murder. Meursault accepts life and death without seeking a deeper meaning.
Interestingly, an old man from the senior home attends the burial of Meursault’s mother. The man is referred to as her fiancé by others. I do not know if the man was her romantic interest. If he was, then a reader might conclude Meursault was not close to his mother and representations of him as distant are reinforced.
Almost a tangent within the story, Meursault encounters Marie Cardona on his way to the beach for a swim. There is no indication of a close relationship between the two, but they are acquaintances. As neither has plans, they spend the afternoon and night together. They go to the beach, as Meursault had planned, and then to a theater to watch a film. Later, they have sex; they do not make love — it lacks the emotional depth expected in a romance.
When Marie suggests marriage, which seems without context, Meursault responds with a “whatever” of sorts. He admits he probably does not love her. He places no value on marriage. Meursault’s character is established as cold and disconnected. While on trial, as the prosecutor refers to Marie as his mistress, Meursault’s narration declares, “To me, she was only Marie.”
Killing an Arab: Event 2
Meursault encounters Raymond Sintés, his neighbor, and a local thug (pimp), within their building. Raymond invites Meursault and Marie to the beach, where a friend owns a house. Raymond also asks Meursault to write a letter to a “girlfriend” with whom Raymond is known to fight. An astute reader might conclude the young lady works as a prostitute controlled by Raymond.
When Meursault, Marie, Raymond, and Raymond’s friends approach the local bus stop, several Arabs are at the stop — including the brother of Raymond’s “girlfriend.” There is a general unease and distrust between the groups. Arabs are considered a lower-class of citizen than the French Algerians. Raymond, despite his nature, occupies a higher place in society than the Arabs.
Once at the beach, the group encounters the Arabs again. This would be unusual, since Algerian beaches were segregated by social status. A fight between the groups ensues. Raymond is cut with a knife and the French return to the beach house. Readers might wonder why the French Algerians would return after the fight, but it was considered important to keep the Arabs aware of their position. The French minority oppressed the Arabs through intimidation.
Here, Camus makes use of a real incident in his life, which marked him enough to reproduce it as one of the key scenes in l’Étranger. On the strand at Bouisseville near Oran, where the beaches were segregated by mutual unspoken consent, one of Camus’ friends had a run-in with a group of Arabs which eventually involved a knife, a cut, a revolver, but no one dead. Camus himself was involved in this macho scene, although not in the fight itself. — Introducing Camus; Mairowitz, p. 51
Bandaged, Raymond returns to the beach with Meursault. Raymond carries a gun, intent on revenge. While walking, Meursault calms his companion and takes the gun. The incident seems over, as Meursault’s personality indicates a certain calm and logic. Yet, Meursault continues to walk, returning to the site where the Arabs were encountered.
“The light shot off the steel [knife] and it was like a gleaming blade slashing at my forehead. It seemed as if the sky opened up from end to end to rain down fire.”
Meursault does not kill in cold blood, though his motivation for returning to the beach can be questioned. The sun reflects off the Arab’s knife and Meursault shoots. Why did he shoot four times? As narrator, he does not describe himself in immediate danger. Could it have been fear? He does not explain his actions.
Algerian race relations must be understood as they relate to The Stranger. Killing an armed Arab was not senseless, but rather an act of superiority. Without witnesses, Meursault could create any tale he wished and be found innocent of murder. Instead, he accepts what he has done without feigned remorse. The French cannot have a citizen admit he killed an Arab for little or no reason.
Trial and Execution: Event 3
Meursault is arrested and charged with murder. Curiously, he does not choose a lawyer and one is appointed to him by the court. Within existentialism, choice is an important concept. Meursault’s willingness to accept an appointed defender illustrates that he sees no defense for his actions.
When his lawyer suggests Meursault should argue that he was upset by his mother’s death and in a state of shock, Meursault refuses to embrace the lie. Meursault clings to the truth as he has experienced it, not as society wishes it.
During an examination by a court magistrate, Meursault is asked if he believes in God. He responds honestly, stating that he does not. The magistrate is stunned by this.
“All men believe in God! Do you want my life to be void of meaning?”
The case against Meursault proceeds without his input; he is an observer from the dock. He watches as his character is insulted and the facts of the murder misinterpreted. Yet, he does not protest to save his life. Meursault seems to want his life terminated. The truth, that a flash of sunlight reflecting off a knife resulted in a quick reaction, is considered absurd by court observers. Also, Meursault admitted to the investigator that he fired more than once.
Knowing that Camus opposed the death penalty, there are several questions regarding the execution of Meursault. Was the execution a comment upon society? Was it a rejection of someone lacking the same morals as his society? Or was the execution a form of suicide?
In the end, Meursualt is fascinated by guillotine, as was Camus. He details its workings in journalistic fashion.
His meeting with the prison priest allows Meursault to again assert his lack of faith before he is executed.
The Essay- 500-600 words
Novelists and playwrights often use their characters and plots as vehicles to test the application of a philosophical, political, or social idea. In a well-structured essay, explain how Camus and Kafka explore philosophical problems (such as identity, free will, nihilism, existentialism, etc.) in their work.
Literary Elements to Review
First Person Point-of-View
Reliability – the trustworthiness (or lack thereof) of a narrator. Typically, narrators are considered reliable, unless their accounts prove to be faulty or misleading; then they are deemed unreliable.
Prolepsis – anticipation; It’s the calling forth of incidents or events that take place later in the story. Flash-forward is the most common form of prolepsis, but images and figures of speech may likewise anticipate future events.
Flash-forward – a scene that interrupts the present action of a narrative in order to preview future events; a form of prolepsis