Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

The success of The Stranger has been matched by an unceasing flow of criticism. Most of that criticism has been a positive affirmation of Camus’s place as a master of French literature. One reviewer even described Camus as the writer America had been waiting for since Hemingway. The criticism has...

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The success of The Stranger has been matched by an unceasing flow of criticism. Most of that criticism has been a positive affirmation of Camus’s place as a master of French literature. One reviewer even described Camus as the writer America had been waiting for since Hemingway. The criticism has also had the effect, good or bad, of rendering the novel a moral treatise. This occurred early on when Jean-Paul Sartre reviewed the work in 1943 and said, among other things, that with this work “Albert Camus takes his place in the great tradition of those French moralists.” Philip Thody, in a more recent article, says this is a misleading approach to The Stranger since in moral terms the novel is full of contradictions, whereas if read for its absurd theory, no breakdown exists.

Taking the cue from Sartre, other reviewers of the 1940s matched the novel with Camus’s writings in The Myth of Sisyphus and criticized Camus’s ability to handle Heidegger and Kierkegaard. Richard Plant, however, did not seem to need the heavy guns of philosophy to enjoy the novel, according to his 1946 article “Benign Indifference.” Instead, he claims, the novel presents the protagonist’s philosophy as “nothing but a rationalization of his sublime indifference.” Unfortunately, Plant seems to grow confused and therefore moves very quickly to compare Camus with the American style of writing. Plant says that the way Camus handles the shooting of the Arab should serve as a model to Americans of the “tough school.” Finally, Plant says, “Camus emerges as a master craftsman who never wastes a word.”

During the 1950s most critics were more concerned with Camus’s political stance in response to the Algerian independence movement as well as his disagreement with French intellectuals—namely Sartre. The strife of the decade, accompanied by ailing health, gave Camus a horrendous writing block and left him silent but for a few rare occasions. Critics generally enjoyed The Plague of 1947 and The Fall of 1956. His Nobel prize was seen as well deserved.

Two exceptions to the above were Norman Podhoretz and Colin Wilson. The latter wrote a book in 1956 detailing the trend in modernity, and its fiction, toward a hero who stood for truth. Wilson entitled this work in honor of Camus’s novel— in its British translation—as The Outsider. This character is defined as follows:

The Outsider’s case against society is very clear. All men and women have these dangerous, unnamable impulses, yet they keep up a pretense, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider because he stands for [this] Truth.

Sartre wrote similarly about the phenomenon Camus’s Stranger represented. However, Sartre believed such a being had a place in society whereas Wilson was simply recording a literary trend.

Podhoretz was also interested in this new hero. In 1958, he credited Camus with the correct identification of this new hero. “It was, of course, Camus who first spotted the significance of [the] new state of nihilism and identified it, in The Stranger, with the pathological apathy of the narrator Meursault— the French were far in advance of the Americans in seeing that the ‘rebel’ was giving way in our day to the ‘Stranger.’”

Camus’s death in 1960 shifted the discussion surrounding his work to an automatic respect, followed by criticism. Exemplifying the criticism that arose in the face of his death, Henri Peyre wrote in a 1960 article, “Camus the Pagan,” “the works of Camus, as they stand interrupted by fate, utter a pagan message which is to be set beside that of the great pagans of antiquity and that of some of the modern pagans to who Christianity owes an immense debt of gratitude.” If Camus could be said to have had a religion, it would have been atheistic humanism. Writing in a 1962 introduction to “Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays,” Germaine Bree commented: “Camus’s rapid rise to celebrity between 1942 and 1945 is unparalleled in the history of French literature: The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and the two plays Caligula and The Misunderstanding, together with Camus’s role in the Resistance and the widespread interest in his Combat editorials, started his career in meteoric fashion.”

By the 1970s, criticism had returned to traveled, but still fruitful, paths of inquiry. In 1973, Donald Lazere wrote, “The Stranger, like the Myth, asserts the primacy of individual, flesh-and-blood reality against any abstract notion that claims to supersede it.” But then with the rise of Post-Colonial criticism, there was a turn to aspects of The Stranger that were not often discussed. Philip Thody, in “Camus’s L’Etranger Revisited” (1979), wrote that despite the fact that Camus championed the cause of Algerian independence in his journalism, he did not escape or confront colonialism in his fiction. For support Thody points to the obvious and striking absence of names for Algerians. Neither the nurse (who has an abscess), Raymond’s girlfriend, nor the Arabs (who follow Raymond) have names. They are simply part of the scenery affecting Meursault when he pulls the trigger.

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