I was surprised how quickly I made it through this book. I read it on my kindle, though, so I didn’t actually know that it was only 123 pages, and sometimes it takes kindle a while to calibrate for my reading speed. So yes, this is a fast yet good read that I did enjoy in part because it was of a length and a quality that I could just continuously read until the end and feel the satisfaction of having received the entire story all at once.
First of all, I had to do some research into the life of the author and the meaning behind the book and in the process I learned some big new words such as existentialism. While Camus denied that he was an existentialist, he seems to have written enough pieces containing that philosophy that critics often shuffle him into that camp. Camus was born in French-Algeria which makes the vivid setting of The Stranger make perfect sense. He contracted tuberculosis like all the authors did, back in the day, and for a time was a member of the French Communist Party, though he was eventually expelled after being labeled a Trotskyite. He then became an anarchist.
Ok, enough of the author bio. Despite not considering himself an existentialist, Camus seems to have written a good example of existentialism in The Stranger. This might be one of the rare books in which an utterly boring, unassuming and unambitious character doesn’t sink the entire thing for me. In fact, much like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim I found myself eerily connecting with the protagonist and his apathetic attitude to everything around him. (I certainly hope I don’t end up on death row for failing to show sorrow at my mother’s funeral.)
The main character is a man named Meursault, living in what appears to be lower-middle class Algeria, in an apartment complex with a host of interesting characters. He lives alone, though after having indifferently buried his mother he hooks up with pretty young Marie and the two of them hit it off rather well.
Unfortunately for Meursault, he gets involved in the feud his neighbor Roger has going with a group of Arabs over the treatment of an Arab woman who Roger suspects has been cheating on him. This sordid business eventually culminates in Meursault killing the brother of the Arab woman in the disorienting heat of the midday desert sun. This lands him on trial for premeditated murder. During the trial, the prosecution spends as much time analyzing Meursault’s apathetic behavior at his mother’s funeral as they do examining the facts of the shooting, ultimately to paint the picture of Meursault being a hardened, soulless criminal. He is eventually condemned to die as a result of this.
In the final scene of the book, Meursault is confronted by the prison chaplain who urges him to confess his sins and give himself to the mercy of God. Meursualt, who has up until this point been calm and indifferent to everything else going on around him finally loses his temper at this point and seizes the chaplain by the collar to tell him that no one has the right to judge him or his actions, and that God and religion both are a waste of his time.
Camus once said about his book,
I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.
and it is very true of Meursault. He doesn’t play the game of society, at least, society as it was in the 1940’s. When Marie asks him if he loves her, he answers truthfully, ‘it doesn’t matter, but not especially’. When she asks if he would marry her, he answers that he would if she wanted it, if it would make her happy. He doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, or show much sorrow at her passing because they didn’t get on especially well in her later years and he had to send her to a home, because of a lack of ability to properly care for her himself. He doesn’t show any sort of moral dilemma when Roger beats his mistress, and no remorse at killing the Arab. Meursualt doesn’t conform to the normalcy of society, and for that, he is sentenced to death.
In this message, the existentialism shines through, the belief that only the actions of the individual with free will matter. The book also carries Absurdist philosophies in Meursault’s condemnation despite him not having been at all the man that the town paints him as, as well as Meursault’s belief that everything is ultimately meaningless.
For such a short book, The Stranger certainly packs a punch, and a lot of philosophical meaning. It was a good read.
The next book on my reading list is The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione.