Albert Camus: The Stranger
A book review from Camus’ classic 1942 novel
I’ve read the Myth of Sisyphus before, but I was curious how existentialism would show itself in a novel. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but I did enjoy reading it and has interesting themes.
The story is divided roughly into two parts. It starts with the main character, Meursault, attending the funeral of his mother. Later, he ends up murdering a man in self-defence, and the second part is his trial and time in prison.
The story is quite bizarre. The protagonist isn’t a character that creates warmth. He lacks any kind of grief towards the death of his mother, and in the end, he doesn’t have any remorse for killing a human being. He doesn’t fit into the hero archetype, but he’s not evil either. He seems to live in a state of nihilism, where nothing matters.
His state is quite peculiar, however. For example, Nietzsche describes two types of nihilism, active and passive. The active being the traditional existential mode of being, and passive is a sort of depressive outlook on life from the realization of a meaningless world. But Meursault is neither. His state is somewhere in between, a state of complete indifference.
Camus is branched an existentialist, but more accurately, his philosophy was more in line with the Absurd. It is about the disconnect between the subject and the world. We’re rational and meaning-making creatures in an irrational and meaningless universe. A big part of the plot is Meursault being confronted with expectations from the world, but never fitting into them. A constant mismatch between what he is and what the world wants him to be.
He is constantly dragged into different situations, but he never seems to play an active role in what’s going on. He simply seems to drift in the story and ends up being somewhere by his lack of conviction. I initially thought this was an example of lacking authenticity, a negative example of the active pursuit of meaning and choice. I don’t that’s the case, however. That would be a more traditional existential take.
The novel is trying to showcase the Absurd and forces us to face it because we’re inherently projecting our own values into the character. Wishing he would act differently. But as the story illustrates, there is no right way to live, because there is no grounding of any meaning. The Absurd has to be embraced, just like Meursault does at the end, facing his death:
“For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”
With this, he finds peace and concludes that he is happy. And his happiness comes directly from his attitude to the Absurd, just like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up a mountain.
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