The Stranger
Camus, Albert. The Stranger (L’Etranger). Penguin Books, London, 1969.
The Stranger is the story of Patrice Meursault, a young bachelor growing up in French Algeria. In many ways, he lives a normal life for single man in his twenties: working as a clerk in an office; hanging out with the various local characters, and picking up girls at the local swimming pool. However, behind this seemingly normal facade he is very different from anyone else.
Meursault does not have any of the ‘normal’ societal values that are expected of him. His first words in the book are “Today I received a telegram. It read, ‘MOTHER DIED TODAY’”. He tells this in a very matter-of-fact way, and does not seem particularly upset by his mother’s death. He goes to the funeral, but he refuses to see his mother’s body, does not shed a tear, and smokes during her burial. After he arrives home, he begins a sexual relationship with Marie, one of the girls at the swimming pool, the very same day.
This relationship is also not a normal one. Marie loves him and wants to get married. He on the other hand, is only interested in sex and physical pleasure and does not feel any respect for the institutions of love and marriage. Meursault’s friends are also not very normal. They include people such as a pimp and a man who horribly abuses his dog. He does not believe in making moral judgments, and refuses to call the police when the pimp is beating one of his prostitutes: “I do not like police.” The first part of the book goes on in much the same way, until he is jailed for shooting an Arab in self-defense.
The first half of the book, up until his arrest, is structured as a simple first person narrative. Meursault tells of a sequence of events in chronological order, with no personal reflection or flashbacks in time. The writing is simple and unadorned; very few adjectives that could convey an opinion are used. Although it is written in first person, Meursault tells the story with such detachment that it seems like the book is written in objective third person. This makes the story seem very strange, yet highly readable and compelling.
The second half of the book is very different. There is little action in this part of the story, and most of the narrative is now personal reflection. As Meursault languishes in prison awaiting his trial, he thinks extensively about how he is different from society and how he does not fit in with the rest of the world. At his trial, the prosecutor brings out evidence about how Meursault did not cry at the funeral of his mother, rather than trying to prove him guilty of shooting the Arab (of which he is obviously innocent). Meursault is therefore put on trial for his values, rather than for his supposed crime. His impassiveness and objectivity shock the jury, and he is convicted and sentenced to the guillotine.
Since he has made an appeal, he now must spend many months in solitary confinement, not knowing what his future will be. In these long months, he manages to crystallize his feelings about society into a more concrete philosophy. He realizes that society’s moral code is meaningless to him, and that life has no special meaning. Therefore, neither does death, and he can relax about his own possible fate. Near the end, he meets the prison chaplain, who is trying to get him to think in Christian terms, and in a sudden catharsis, unleashes his rage against the meaninglessness of society upon the chaplain, clearing his mind of all hate and anger. He then realizes that there is nothing wrong with death, and finishes his story in a state of calm resignation, at peace with himself.
Although the book centers around one character, Patrice Meursault, he is used as a reflection on the absurdity of society. Therefore The Stranger is a book about the values of society told through the eyes of a man who does not conform. Although many readers consider Meursault to be repulsive due to his lack of values, that is not necessarily so. Just because he is different does not automatically mean he is evil, and it