What are the major themes of The Stranger by Albert Camus?

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Major themes of The Stranger include alienation, absurdity, and French colonialism. Meursault is the titular stranger, a young shipping clerk living in Algiers in the 1940s, when it was still a French colony. Meursault's life is dull and empty, and Meursault takes little pleasure in living. He believes that the world is an absurd place ungoverned by reason and that his actions—including killing the Arab man—mean nothing. Meursault's beliefs reflect Camus' existential philosophy.


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sandyschuer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Another theme in Camus's The Stranger is the conflict between the individuality of experience and the inevitable judgements of others. Meursault's experience is not typical, but instead of being allowed to be unique, he is compared to others.

In part 1, when Meursault is at the funeral, he is aware that his actions are being judged, but he does not feel the same need to judge others. He is indifferent about his neighbor who beats his dog, and he befriends a man who justifies violence against women. There are other peculiarities about Meursault, such as his lack of reaction to his mother's death or his disinterest in typical activities like going to the cinema with his girlfriend.

In part 2, the trial serves as a review of what happened in the first part of the novel. Meursault's accounts of events are different from those of the witnesses at the trial. His justification for not visiting his mother, like his account of the incident with the man on the beach, does not make sense to the other people in the courtroom.

This impossible difference between being-for-itself and being-for-others is also an existential theme of Jean-Paul Sartre's works. Meursault, like all of us, depends on his understanding of other people to inform him about how to act in the world. His unawareness of the perspectives of others is the main problem for him during his trial. He is unprepared when his life is seen differently by others; his identity is something beyond his control, outside of his personal experience.

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Domenick Franecki eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One of the themes of The Stranger is human alienation from oneself, each other, and from society as a whole. Meursault, the protagonist, is a symbol of this alienation because he is a Frenchman living in Algeria, a Muslim country in which he does not really fit in. He is also so alienated from himself that he does not mourn his mother's death at the beginning of the novel. The novel begins, "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know" (page 3). He is so alienated and distanced from his emotions that he is unable to mourn his mother's death. 

Another related theme is the meaninglessness of existence. Camus was an existentialist writer, who believed that humans must make their own meaning in a world that is essentially without meaning. The Stranger has many absurd elements to it, such as the way in which Meursault's response to the magistrate waving the crucifix about his head is to think, "I was hot and there were big flies in his office that kept landing on my face" (page 68). The magistrate tries to convince Meursault that God will forgive him for committing a murder, but Meursault finds the magistrate's reasoning absurd and meaningless because Meursault does not believe in God. Even the murder that Meursault commits is meaningless, and he does not provide any reason for killing his victim aside from his feeling pestered by the sun. His actions are without reason, as he feels as though he lives in an absurd world in which nothing is governed by reason. 

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