|The Stranger by Albert Camus
Camus was born 11/7/1913 in Mondovi, Algeria.
The Stranger was completed in 1940 and published in 1942
Major influences in life and writing
Philosophy of moralism – concerned with judging the goodness or badness of human action and
character – leads to his ideas of the absurd.
2) Absences of God or belief in a God (struggling to make life meaningful in the face of God is
absurd – life is meaningless)
3) Moralist philosophers particularly Jean Paul Sartre
Foreign author’s and philosophies of the 1930s such as nihilism (an extreme form of skepticism
that denies all existence in God and advocates the destruction of social organizations).
5) Faulkner/Hemingway styles of writing and concepts
6) War/conflict in French Algeria
Camus fought stubbornly against war and against French prejudice of Arabs
Arabs considered 2nd class citizens and treated as a conquered people – tensions between French
institutions and Arabs are taken into account in The Stranger and all of Camus’ writing.
All led to combined philosophy associated with Camus of Existentialism and the Absurd
I. Existentialism is a philosophical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. It emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe. Existence is unexplainable. Stresses free choice and responsibility for one’s actions. Actions must give meaning. While there is diversity of positions associated with existentialism (a precise definition is impossible), it suggests one major theme: a stress on individual existence and consequently on subjectivity, individual freedom and choice. Nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reacted against the philosophers since Plato (where the highest ethical good is universal) to insist that the individual’[s highest good is to find his or her own unique vocation. In terms of moral choice, existentialists have argued that there is no objective, rational basis for decisions; they stress the importance of individualism in deciding questions of morality and truth. Most existentialists have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible but that life’s most important questions are not accessible to reason or science (in The Stranger, Meursault’s shooting of the Arab and refusal to accept God). 20th century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his own philosophy. Explicitly atheistic and pessimistic, his philosophy declared that human life requires a rational basis but the attempt is a “futile passion.”
“The Absurd:” irresolvable paradox between objective judgment (uninfluenced by emotions and personal prejudices) of an action and the subjective motivation (personal, unaffected by the outside world) behind performance. It is what arises when man’s search for meaning in life is met by the truth that there is no meaning – that it is not bad and it is not good; it simply is! ** Disappearance of truth/goals leads to the absurdity of existence. The Absurd is a pointless quest for meaning in a universe devoid of purpose. The feeling of absurdity is the separation between man and his life, an actor walking out on stage and not recognizing the scenery or knowing the lines of the play he is supposed to speak, a sense of permanent displacement and un-belonging.
Camus’ major influence
Philosophical influences of Jean Paul Sartre (who coined the term to fit his philosophy of pessimism
Nihilism (extreme form of skepticism – no belief in God, advocates destruction of all social
Theory of the absurd
War/conflict in French occupied Algeria – against war and French prejudice of Arabs
Existential Philosophy in As I Lay Dying and The Stranger
Stresses the importance of individualism in deciding questions of morality and truth.
Highlights the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe
Suggests the difficulty in attempting to understand human life “it is a futile passion.” In fact existence is unexplainable.
The outlook on life is often pessimistic and pointless
As I Lay Dying
The journey itself is pointlessness (Addie says in her chapter that it is simply revenge that is exacted and not really her wish to be buried with her family (p. 173)
The pointlessness of language, again in regard to Addie (who in fact many critics say is the main character of the novel). She says that words mean nothing. When she talks about motherhood, love, “Words were shapes to fill a lack…” She’d been tricked by words (p. 172-173) This pointlessness of language is also evident when there is a blank space (where a word should be). (p.173). Addie is talking about the disconnection between beings and the inadequacy of language to unite them, the inefficiency of communicating by “swinging and twisting and never touching” each other with words. Addie’s chapter is full of musings about the uselessness, or inadequacy, of words, certain words like ‘motherhood’, ‘fear’, ‘pride’, ‘love’, ‘sin’, and ‘salvation.’ These words for heavily weighted concepts strike Addie as so far from adequate that those people who had never experienced the concepts embodied by those words must have made them up. Describing her experience with Cash, her first child, Addie says:
That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had fear; pride, who never had the pride. (171). Her condition of deadness, speaking from the void between is and not-is makes her the perfect vehicle for Faulkner to describe the indescribable, approach the unapproachable, express the inexpressible, as he so gracefully does, does-not.
As for The Stranger, it is Meursault himself. To him, life was just a series of tangible actions all isolated from one another. He was all about in the moment feelings with no connection to emotions at all. For example, he could or could not have shot the Arab. Neither mattered that much necessarily. Either action (shooting or not shooting) was pointless because the results didn’t matter. That is also true with his relationship with Marie (marry her or not…it didn’t matter) and also with the chaplain (accept God or not). His other choices include his involvement in Raymond's affairs, his trip to Masson's beach house, and his taking of Raymond's gun. After committing murder, Meursault struggles against society's attempts to manufacture and impose rational explanations for his attitudes and actions. This struggle is embodied by Meursault's battle with the legal system that prosecutes him.
Structure (parts of the novel juxtapose each other)
Part I - covers 18 days: funeral, love affair, murder (insignificant days in the life of Meursault)
Focus is on a reality that is unaffected by the outside world
Meursault is content to exist - physical stimuli is his source of enjoyment (moved only by
*Beginning of Meursault’s conscious life
Part II – covers about a year: trial and jail sentence (trial not so much about his crime as it was his
Trial judges Meursault’s crime and life
Objective reality of Meursault and subjectivity of courts (p.86 and 94)
* Self realization (change in character) (p.80-81 beginning of change; p 84, 87, 90, 93, 97,
121, 122 – actualization of the change; complete at end of novel.)
Sharp, concise sentences
Simple action verbs
Very little dialogue -
Little cause / effect relationship between one sentence and another
Use of Time:
Past tense mostly (as if being told in retrospect)
Part I rapid time
Chapter 6, Part I (time slows p.56)
Part II, slower accumulation of time
Tone: funeral/office/weekend – indifference/apathy: illustrating absurdity of life. The normal reaction would be vastly different. Tone change occurs when physically stimulated – p25, p20, p34, p50-52
Salamano/Dog: love/hate relationship provides strong ironic contrast to the relationship he has with Marie.
Meursault doesn’t love Marie because it does not matter
Salamano’s dog is all that matters
Crying of Salamano troubles Meursault (“for some reason I thought of Maman”) – goes to bed
without eating, physical stimulus (eating) was incapable of enjoying – clashed with emotions
The irrationality of the Universe: Though The Stranger is a work of fiction, it contains a strong resonance of Camus's philosophical notion of absurdity. In his essays, Camus asserts that individual lives and human existence in general have no rational meaning or order. However, because people have difficulty accepting this notion, they constantly attempt to identify or create rational structure and meaning in their lives. The term “absurdity” describes humanity's futile attempt to find rational order where none exists. Though Camus does not explicitly refer to the notion of absurdity in The Stranger, the tenets of absurdity operate within the novel. Neither the external world in which Meursault lives nor the internal world of his thoughts and attitudes possesses any rational order. Meursault has no discernable reason for his actions, such as his decision to marry Marie and his decision to kill the Arab.
Society nonetheless attempts to fabricate or impose rational explanations for Meursault's irrational actions. The idea that things sometimes happen for no reason, and that events sometimes have no meaning is disruptive and threatening to society. The trial sequence in Part Two of the novel represents society's attempt to manufacture rational order. The prosecutor and Meursault's lawyer both offer explanations for Meursault's crime that are based on logic, reason, and the concept of cause and effect. Yet these explanations have no basis in fact and serve only as attempts to defuse the frightening idea that the universe is irrational. The entire trial is therefore an example of absurdity—an instance of humankind's futile attempt to impose rationality on an irrational universe.
The Meaningless of Human Life: A second major component of Camus's absurdist philosophy is the idea that human life has no redeeming meaning or purpose. Camus argues that the only certain thing in life is the inevitability of death, and, because all humans will eventually meet death, all lives are all equally meaningless. Meursault gradually moves toward this realization throughout the novel, but he does not fully grasp it until after his argument with the chaplain in the final chapter. Meursault realizes that, just as he is indifferent to much of the universe, so is the universe indifferent to him. Like all people, Meursault has been born, will die, and will have no further importance.
Paradoxically, only after Meursault reaches this seemingly dismal realization is he able to attain happiness. When he fully comes to terms with the inevitability of death, he understands that it does not matter whether he dies by execution or lives to die a natural death at an old age. This understanding enables Meursault to put aside his fantasies of escaping execution by filing a successful legal appeal. He realizes that these illusory hopes, which had previously preoccupied his mind, would do little more than create in him a false sense that death is avoidable. Meursault sees that his hope for sustained life has been a burden. His liberation from this false hope means he is free to live life for what it is, and to make the most of his remaining days.
The Importance of the Physical World: The Stranger shows Meursault to be interested far more in the physical aspects of the world around him than in its social or emotional aspects. This focus on the sensate world results from the novel's assertion that there exists no higher meaning or order to human life. Throughout The Stranger, Meursault's attention centers on his own body, on his physical relationship with Marie, on the weather, and on other physical elements of his surroundings. For example, the heat during the funeral procession causes Meursault far more pain than the thought of burying his mother. The sun on the beach torments Meursault, and during his trial Meursault even identifies his suffering under the sun as the reason he killed the Arab. The style of Meursault's narration also reflects his interest in the physical. Though he offers terse, plain descriptions when glossing over emotional or social situations, his descriptions become vivid and ornate when he discusses topics such as nature and the weather.
Prison – cage in which all peoples exist (all people are under a death sentence) a sentence of existence. Meursault accepts prison.
Sea - signifies freedom and the source of life – primal force – fundamental rhythms of existence lie within the sea
Sun – giver (Meursault loves the sun; basks in its warmth in response to his physical needs – beach see ch. 6)/taker (lethal furnace of destruction – funeral/vigil, shooting of Arab, trail see ch. 6) of life.
The Courtroom: In the courtroom drama that comprises the second half of The Stranger, the court symbolizes society as a whole. The law functions as the will of the people, and the jury sits in judgment on behalf of the entire community. In The Stranger, Camus strengthens this court-as-society symbolism by having nearly every one of the minor characters from the first half of the novel reappear as a witness in the courtroom. Also, the court's attempts to construct a logical explanation for Meursault's crime symbolize humanity's attempts to find rational explanations for the irrational events of the universe. These attempts, which Camus believed futile, exemplify the absurdity Camus outlined in his philosophy.
The Crucifix: The crucifix that the examining magistrate waves at Meursault symbolizes Christianity, which stands in opposition to Camus's absurdist world view. Whereas absurdism is based on the idea that human life is irrational and purposeless, Christianity conceives of a rational order for the universe based on God's creation and direction of the world, and it invests human life with higher metaphysical meaning. The crucifix also symbolizes rational belief structures in general. The chaplain's insistence that Meursault turn to God does not necessarily represent a desire that Meursault accept specifically Christian beliefs so much as a desire that he embrace the principle of a meaningful universe in general. When Meursault defies the magistrate by rejecting Christianity, he implicitly rejects all systems that seek to define a rational order within human existence. This defiance causes Meursault to be branded a threat to social order.
Death and Decay: The different characters in The Stranger hold widely varying attitudes toward decay and death. Salamano loves his decaying, scab-covered dog and he values its companionship, even though most people find it disgusting. Meursault does not show much emotion in response to his mother's death, but the society in which he lives believes that he should be distraught with grief. Additionally, whereas Meursault is content to believe that physical death represents the complete and final end of life, the chaplain holds fast to the idea of an afterlife. An essential part of Meursault's character development in the novel is his coming to terms with his own attitudes about death. At the end of the novel, he has finally embraced the idea that death is the one inevitable fact of human life, and is able to accept the reality of his impending execution without despair.
Watching and Observation: Throughout the novel there are instances of characters watching Meursault, or of his watching them. This motif recalls several components of Camus's absurdist philosophy. The constant watching in The Stranger suggests humanity's endless search for purpose, and emphasizes the importance of the tangible, visible details of the physical world in a universe where there is no grander meaning. When Meursault watches people on the street from his balcony, he does so passively, absorbing details but not judging what he sees. By contrast, the people in the courtroom watch Meursault as part of the process of judgment and condemnation. In the courtroom, we learn that many of Meursault's previous actions were being watched without his—or our—knowledge. The Arabs watch Raymond and his friends with implicit antagonism as they walk to the bus. Raymond's neighbors act as spectators to his dispute with his mistress and the police officer, watching with concern or petty curiosity. At times, watching is a mysterious activity, such as when Meursault watches the woman at Celeste's, and later when she watches him in court. The novel's moments of watching and observation reflect humanity's endless search for meaning, which Camus found absurd.
Conflict: the way Meursault experiences life vs. the way in which society expects him to experience it.
Title: stranger/outsider to society. P.98, 84 – voice stripped, cannot speak for himself.
Chapter 6: Climax of the novel
Symbols of doom
Arabs across the street
Conflict between Raymond and Arabs represents French/Algerian conflict.
Trouble waking symbolizes doom
Negative portrayal of sun – disaster to come
Sun is symbolized as a knife
Marie’s perception of he day (claims it is beautiful) and joy is contrasted by Meursault’s gloom (the sun stabs at him and slaps him in the face) and by symbols of doom.
Expectant; pointing toward danger or disaster
Irony: “funeral” face
Sun as a Character and Symbol
Slaps him in the face
Sun’s weight is unbearable
Feels beaten down by it
Light stabs at his eyes
Use of Time
Camus slows time, covering more details, p.50
Last Two Lines (see book)
Ends not so much with murder of Arab as with Meursault’s return to consciousness
Aware that he has committed an act of prime importance which before had no meaning
Jolted into knowing that he has desecrated the calm of the beach
Each shot into the Arab is undoing a life of rhythmic drifting – he begins his conscious life.
Meursault’s Pleasures Altered
Sun does not have same effect
Sea p.59 “The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath.”