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Albert Camus—The Stranger

Since I finished Camus’ The Stranger I have wanted to have more to say about it than to quote the Cure’s “Killing an Arab.” But perhaps it’s because I’ve studied my share of existentialism; or perhaps it’s because I have grown accustomed to that special despair that characterizes post-war continental literature; or perhaps it’s because I’m cold and heartless: I feel I have little to say.

Meursault is a good existentialist. He is affected by the world hardly at all. He does not grieve over his mother’s death; he feels no pang of injustice as his neighbor beats his dog; he is nonplussed by his friend Raymond’s plots to emotionally and physically batter his Arab ex-girlfriend; he is completely unsentimental about his own girlfriend Marie and says he would just as soon marry her as not because, as he says, “It didn’t make any difference to me.” For Meursault one choice made in life is the same as any other. Without regret, which requires historical-consciousness, and without doubt, which requires hope, Meursault lives day-to-day as if it is the only day. This is what makes him a good existentialist.

So Meursault lives free for the novel’s first half, but Raymond’s plot is one that pulls everyone from its periphery to its center. One thing leads to another, and senselessly, incredibly, Meursault murders an Arab. For the novel’s second half, Meursault lives in prison. Yet his life is such that the only change about him is that he is paler from being locked away from the sun. In prison, Meursault lives in memory. “A man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored.” Through his examination, his trial, and until the eve of his execution, he remains not bored. He is so not bored that it maddens a judge and a priest. They make Meursault’s repentance is a test of their faith, not of his own. The judge implores him to repent, begs him to admit that God exists, and exclaims, “Do you want my life to be meaningless?” as if Meursault’s atheism were such an affront to the judge that it denies God for him, as well. The priest acts similarly. But Meursault, for his part, does not play that game. At the novel’s conclusion, he embraces eternal return: The only other life he might want to live would be one in which this this one remains his.

I wonder: Could anyone write The Stranger today? Such a simple, yet sophisticated novel. Yet it is weighed down by so much despair. Continental life in the 1950s was burdened by so many reminders of death that to live on the cusp of existence, without future and without past, even to embrace anarchy as the only real option for society, seemed in many ways truly viable. Regardless of how or whether one believes that God is the sole hope for mankind, to give up on history and to forsake children as symbols of hope: these are truly significant things to forsake.

I don’t think The Stranger is a book in which to take hope. (Are novels ever books in which to take hope?) Some reader may do so, I’m sure: perhaps she will believe the judge or the priest represents hope if only someone like Meursault would reach for it. But I think Meursault’s nihilism is purer than that. If Jesus is any hope at all, he is an empty one. For Camus here, anything other than experience, anything other than the sun that warms and tans, anything other than desire—is foreign.

 

Comments

oh [fricative expletive]!
i saw your title, got excited b/c i had the stranger checked out for months but hadn’t yet got to it, resolved to read it since you had clearly gotten something out of it, then saw the plot giveaway.

:( I am sorry I gave away the plot. But if it’s any consolation, the plot’s pretty conventional, except for the murder. I wanted to write how the plot was lifted from The Brothers Karamazov, but there’s little enough evidence for that, and besides, all Camus had to do was watch a few Gregory Peck movies to get this one down. If you’re reading it in French, as I didn’t (the trans. I read was pretty good though) it’s supposed to be great. I wouldn’t’ve given away plot points if I didn’t think it was worth reading regardless.

no worries…it’s what i get for putting off reading it for so long. i was going to try reading it in french, which is probably why i put it off.

When you do get to it, do tell what you think. Kathy read The Stranger before I did and was frustrated with Meursault—for good reason. If she ever gets around to writing, she may explain. When I get back to fiction-that’s-not-Harry Potter again, it’s a good chance I’ll read The Plague. This was my first time to read Camus, and I am happily impressed.

i don’t know much about camus except—i think—that he was a football/soccer goalkeeper. he didn’t get too much play in psychology world, especially when compared with sartre, who actually gets space in personality psych textbooks that cover existential psychology. of course, personality psychology is kind of marginalized, and existential psychology is marginalized further still.

the cure were having farewell tours when i was in high school. (i remember people driving to dallas to catch them one last time.) however, it seems they still exist, what’s up with that?

I remember that tour and wanted to go, but I coudln’t afford the trip. Since then, they’ve released at least two records and toured as many times. I guess farewell is a long, long, word in the touring world.

Apparently Camus’ played keeper because his grandmother would check his shoes to make sure he didn’t wear them out too fast. He said, according to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “I learned . . . that a ball never arrives from the direction you expected it. That helped me in later life, especially in mainland France, where nobody plays straight.”

Sartre gets play everywhere. Makes me nauseous.

it’s now been 10 years since i’ve read the stranger and the plague…some day i may re-read them.

i remember that they meant so much to me then…yet, not enough to remember them now.

at one time in my life all the books i had not read haunted me…(this still happens)...but now the books i have read and forgotten haunt me just as much.

i used to think i had a really good memory…when all i had to remember were the 5 novels that i’d read and found meaningful…now, i realize that i am not the elephant i once thought i was

i think after having been away from academia for a while now, i have a more emotional response to (relationship with?) the books i read. hence my problem with old meursault and probably just existentialism in general. maybe i need more brain exercise…mustn’t become such a delicate flower…next thing you know i’ll be joining oprah’s book club.

not that there’s anything wrong with that. :)

There’s something incredibly wrong with it if someday I turn on Oprah! and there you are, jumping in a circle with two dozen other women, shouting “Anna! Anna! Anna!” just because you all read Anna Karenina!

If that happens, you better make sure you come home with a car that Oprah gave you.

:)

I see that Camus’ style has rubbed off on you. I like a lyricism that sticks and moves like Sugar Ray Robinson.