Alber Camus is a French novelist, essayist, and dramatist. He is regarded as one of the finest philosophical writers of modern France. His work is characterized by a vigorous, concise style, and is based on the philosophy of existentialism that developed after World War II, concerning the futility and meaninglessness of human life. Camus was born in Algeria, and was educated at the University of Algiers. His studies were cut short because of his illness. In his early years, he worked in the theater and also in journalism. During World War II he was active in the French Resistance and from 1945 to 1947 was editor of Combat, an underground paper. Camus’ thought and philosophical influence can be best understood in his outstanding novel, The Stranger.
When reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger one must think a lot about the real meaning of the title, especially that this novel is considered to be one of the great pieces of literature and philosophy in the twentieth century at the same time.
The Stranger is the story of a man who commits a crime in the situation of self-defense, but yet, simply gives in to the accusations brought against him in an unfair trial, and does not attempt to bring about any evidence of his innocence, turning himself into a victim. For the reader, especially a reader who believes that one has to be practical in handling life and its problems, this act of victimization is totally irrelevant and purposeless.
The readers is at first given the shivers with the opening pages when the narrator says, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (p.3). And the reader starts to wonder whether this is a serious novel or whether it is a farce which aims at turning tragic situations into tasteless fun. However, the novel turns out to be much more serious than expected, and Monsieur Meursault turns out to be an individual whose individualism is unprecedented, and whose sense of belonging to the world is very critical. The reader then just starts wondering whether this man really belongs to the world he is living, describing, and eventually leaving. The answer is yes and no at the same time.
Monsieur Meursault exists in this world, but he does not belong to it in the sense that people usually belong. He is a man who knows the world, a man who knows life and lives it, but he is not by any sense committed to it, particularly not to its social and economic meanings. He gives no attention to anything, and whatever happens in it is fine with him. He has reached a degree of anxiety where he has finally desolated himself from the world around him and submitted himself to approval of whatever comes. Monsieur Meursault is the stranger, because he is a stranger to this world. He is not a stranger in the sense that he does not know, but a stranger in the sense that he has chosen to be different. Choice, here, has to be emphasized, for constitutes the essence of this man’s life who has at full freedom and will chosen to be alienated, living the world through a different perspective which he believed would entitle him to deliverance and happiness.
Happiness by itself is a critical term here that has to be dealt with carefully. Did Mr. Meursault really feel anything towards any person? His mother’s death did not move him, nor did it stimulate his basic instincts as a human being, and definitely, his murdering the native. Right after he shoots the man he says, “I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy” (p. 59).
The cold blooded manner in which he acts towards his victim is also scandalous and strange, when he says, “Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knowing four quick times on the door of unhappiness” (p. 59).
Apparently, Monsieur Meursault was aware of what he was doing, aware of every act he committed, since his descriptions make it clear that he was conscious and that he was responsible too. He was a man who was trying to live his life in his own way, and it happened that this was not the way others did. Therefore, he is a stranger to the others, because his moral code and behavior are totally different.
Nor is Meursault suicidal. It is true that he does not defend himself in court as he should, yet he was a man who sought happiness in life. His happiness lied in taking life as it was, for better or worse, not actually thinking of changing it. He considered life altogether to be an absurd thing, and rather, thought that his real happiness was in the second chance that death would provide him, just as it was provided for his late mother, “Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again” (p.122). He projects the same feelings and sympathies over himself when he says, “And I felt ready to live it all again too” (p.122).
As a stranger, Meursault’s ultimate feeling of life and humanity is depicted when he expresses his wish that there might a crowd at his execution, “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to with that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” (p. 123).
The irony is just self-expressive. Meursault’s existence was inside himself, not inside the human culture or civilization. His codes were his, and only his, not shared by others. His happiness was also a subjective feeling, and so were his grievances. He did not abide by the codes of others; rather by his own codes. He did not care to express grief over death because he took death as part of existence, not as a challenge to it. He was a stranger in the sense that he was alienated from the others. He was alone by all means, but perhaps not lonely. After all, he had his social life, his friends and his love. Yet all these constituted part of his world, just as life, death and meaninglessness of life did. Meursault lived every act he committed, was responsible for everything, and felt no regret for anything. He simply found happiness in his actions, and was ready to live them all over again.