A French author born in Algeria just before the outbreak of World War I, Albert Camus considered the history of his times a history of “murder, injustice, and violence.” He lost his father in the Battle of the Marne, grew up in the shadow of a world war, and participated in the next world war as a member of the French resistance movement.
Athletic and intellectually gifted, Camus played football while attending the University of Algiers, where he studied philosophy and the Greek classics, planning to become a teacher. In 1937, however, at the age of twenty-four, he was stricken with tuberculosis, which led to four years of enforced inactivity while he recuperated. During this period, he began to write and to formulate the philosophy that would underlie his novels, plays, and essays. In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
As much a philosopher as a creative writer, Camus is closely associated with the atheistic branch of existentialism, a philosophy emphasizing humanity’s consciousness of its mortality and its consequent need to find meaning in a universe that seems indifferent and inhospitable to such a quest. Camus believes that there is no god, hence that life has no purpose. Things—human beings, plants, animals—simply live and die as part of a natural process that has no transcendent meaning or value. Human beings are distinguished from plants and animals only by virtue of the fact that they are conscious of their own mortality. Alone among all living things, human beings know that they must die. This awareness pushes them to seek explanations, to try to find meaning in what is essentially meaningless. Camus and other thinkers describe this situation as “the absurd.” Human beings—seekers of meaning in a meaningless universe—live in a condition of absurdity.
Meursault, in The Stranger, is not at first a seeker of meaning, nor is he particularly aware of his own mortality. He simply sleepwalks through life, as many do, ignoring the inevitability of death and the implications of mortality. Camus argues that most human beings live in this condition for as long as they can, going about their daily routines like automatons, refusing to think, seeking solace in simple physical and material pleasures. However, most are doomed to be awakened to their condition when something—the death of a loved one, perhaps, or a serious illness as in his own case—disturbs their routine.
For Meursault, the event that forces him out of his complacency is the killing of the Arab—not the murder itself, a meaningless event brought about by a natural response to the sun and danger, but its aftermath. When society condemns him, Meursault realizes that he is not being condemned for taking a human life but for refusing to accept the illusions society promotes to protect itself from having to acknowledge the absurdity of the human condition. In effect, Meursault is condemned to death for failing to weep at his mother’s funeral.
After he is condemned, Meursault could fall back on the illusions proffered by society through its priests and clergymen—hucksters and shills, as Camus thought of them. To do so would have been intellectually dishonest. In fact, the novel’s real turning point occurs when the priest visits Meursault in his cell. Here, for the first time, Meursault shows passion, revolting against the priest’s effort to impose on him the platitudes and false certainties of religion. Meursault chooses, instead, to accept his condition; he refuses to deny the reality of his impending death. In doing so, he discovers the one tie that links him to all other beings: death. Once death, or the inevitable cessation of existence, is recognized as the single inescapable condition of existence, life, however meaningless it might ultimately be, becomes valuable. However, whatever value life has must be imposed on it; people must engage it actively. Ironically, Meursault learns this too late.
The Stranger is a deeply disturbing novel. From its famous dispassionate opening—“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”—to its conclusion, where Meursault expresses the hope that on the day of his execution he will be greeted by “a huge crowd of spectators,” all hurling at him “howls of execration,” the novel challenges assumptions about life and literature. Just when it appears that Meursault can be dismissed as a callous egoist, he reveals complexities of emotion common to all; he merely refuses to pretend to feelings he does not possess. When Meursault becomes enmeshed in the legal system, Camus shows how society is more concerned with appearances than with any meaningful concept of justice. When Meursault, instead of repenting and seeking solace in some transcendent reality, refuses to acknowledge the possibility of anything beyond the immediate facts of his situation, the heroism of his attitude is made clear.
Camus’s style in this novel is disturbingly flat and objective, an anomaly for a first-person narrative. It has often been suggested that Camus was influenced by Ernest Hemingway in this respect. With this curiously flat style, Camus suggests that in an absurd universe all things have equal value. Nothing in the entire universe is intrinsically more meaningful than anything else.