The Stranger by Albert Camus is one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read.
It’s set in Algeria, where a Frenchman, Meursault, does not cry at his mother’s funeral, kills an Arab man on a sun-drenched beach near Algiers, and is sentenced to death in part because the court decides that a man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is of low character.
Camus explained in 1955 that Meursault “is condemned because he does not play the game.”
The novel showcases Absurdism, a branch of philosophy that dwells on the juxtaposition of our desire to find meaning with the impossibility of doing so in a purposeless world. Camus, along with philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, suggested there are three solutions:
- Suicide, to escape the absurdity as soon as possible. Camus thought this was a bad idea because cutting short our only shot at experience makes our brief existence even more absurd.
- Belief in something transcendent, usually spiritual or religious, but recently trendy simulation theory falls into this category as well. When we can’t find meaning in this life, we comfort ourselves by pretending it exists elsewhere. Somebody somewhere must know what the heck is going on.
- Acceptance of our situation. Yes, it’s absurd; no, nobody has the answers; but it’s all we’ve got and nothing matters, so go for it. Dial up the freedom and let ’er rip. This was Camus’ recommendation.
“I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so?”
Throughout the book, Camus presents pieces of this absurdist life view. His intermingling of the traditional story elements of character, setting, and plot with this philosophy puts power in the punch. The ideas sink deeper into readers’ brains than they would if read in a philosophy book. This particular attempt to understand existence is not just somebody’s, it’s Meursault’s, whom we’ve come to know in the course of the story. We know there’s nothing special about him beyond his highly clarified worldview, and his everyman-ness makes us sit up and pay attention. His view might matter more to us than daily headlines about predicaments that bear no resemblance to ours.
Here’s Meursault again, in the same tirade against the chaplain:
“Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate … The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too. What would it matter if he were accused of murder and then executed because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral?”
Speaking of that murder, one of Camus’ best lines is the one that concludes Part One, when Meursault kills the Arab man on the beach. The line not only advances the plot, it demonstrates again that all people, no matter their life philosophy, crave happiness. Here’s the lead-up and the line:
“The trigger gave. I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”
Wow. So simple, but so true, and that’s what has us nodding.
We’ve all been pulled in directions we couldn’t believe we were going, felt ourselves on inexorable paths, found ourselves in disbelief by where our lives have gone. Most of us don’t kill anyone, but we make other mistakes and sometimes know what we’re doing as we’re doing so but can’t stop the mistakes anyway. We even repeat the same mistakes in the same disbelief. These are all knocks on the door of unhappiness, and what a succinct way to put it.
Notice that Camus violated the dictum to never start a sentence with a conjunction. The passage would not be as powerful if the final sentence began, “It was like knocking…” No, we need the “and” in front, and it needs to be preceded by a period, not a comma. This was a matter of style, not grammar. Camus got it right.
by Albert Camus
Is it Ever Okay to Start a Sentence With ‘And’?
Sure it is, and Camus proved it! How gratifying to see none other than Merriam-Webster agreeing:
“It’s perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with ‘And,’ as well as the other words that we are often taught to avoid such as ‘but’ or ‘or.’ …
“Whether or not one should avoid using certain words at the very beginning of a sentence is one of those tidbits of grammatical information that nestles in some corner of our brains, dimly but persistently reminding us that we are probably doing something wrong.”
The Stranger Review
at Book Analysis
An accessible overview, from which:
“…there’s something deeply human about the way Meursault reacts to his world. It might not seem that way, but his point of view, distaste for emotion and religion, are a kind of coping strategy, as well as a worldview, that I find relatable. … It is his honesty more than anything that’s shocking. To be able to say outright what one believes, or doesn’t, is bravery all its own.”
Lost in Translation: What the First Line of The Stranger Should Be
by Ryan Bloom
Without a doubt: maman, not mother. From Bloom’s article:
“‘Mother died today’ remained, and it wasn’t until 1988 that the line saw a single word changed. It was then that American translator and poet Matthew Ward reverted ‘Mother’ back to Maman. One word? What’s the big deal? A large part of how we view and—alongside the novel’s court—ultimately judge Meursault lies in our perception of his relationship with his mother. We condemn or set him free based not on the crime he commits but on our assessment of him as a person. Does he love his mother? Or is he cold toward her, uncaring, even?”