Elements, Philosophy, and Viewpoints in The Stranger
The Stranger is probably Albert Camus’s best known and most widely read work. Originally published in French in 1942 under the title L’Etranger, it precedes other celebrated writings such as the essays The Myth of Sisyphus (1943) and The Rebel (1951), the plays Caligula (1945) and The Just Assassins (1949), and the novels The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956). Set in pre-World War II Algeria, The Stranger nevertheless confronts issues that have preoccupied intellectuals and writers of post-World War II Europe: the apparent randomness of violence and death; the emptiness of social morality in the face of an irrational world; a focus on existential and absurd aspects of the human condition. Through the singular viewpoint of the narrator Meursault, Camus presents a philosophy devoid of religious belief and middle-class morality, where sentience and personal honesty become the bases of a happy and responsible life.
What perhaps strikes the reader first about The Stranger is the unemotional tone of the narrator, Meursault. The novel begins: “Today, mama died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the retirement home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Deepest sympathy.’ That tells me nothing. It could have been yesterday...” Meursault’s flat response to the death of his mother conveys a sense of resignation, one supported by his lack of ambition at work and his indifference in personal relationships. Save for his tirade against the chaplain at the end of the novel, Meursault remains rather monotone throughout; his only pleasures are immediate and physical: the taste of a café au lait; the warmth of sun and water; the touch of his fiancée, Marie. Thus, from the opening words, Camus projects his remarkable philosophy through an unremarkable protagonist: since death is both arbitrary and inevitable, and since there is nothing beyond death, life only has importance in the here and now, in the day to day activities that make up our existence. Camus’s simplistic narrative style, influenced by the journalistic tradition of Hemingway and his own experience as a reporter, helps to convey the sense of immediacy that lies at the foundation of his philosophy.
From a literary standpoint, The Stranger offers aspects that complement both modern and traditional sensibilities. With regards to the former, the story is presented as the subjective experience of a first-person narrator. We do not know his first name, what he looks like, or precisely when the action of the story takes place. He does not divulge much information about his past, nor does he attempt to present a cohesive view of, or opinion about, the society in which he lives and works. Such qualities are in stark contrast to the Realist novel tradition represented by such nineteenth century writers as Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), whose works attempt to reproduce a complete account of French society through the eyes of a moralizing, omniscient third-person narrator.
In a more classical vein, The Stranger offers order and balance. The novel is organized into two parts of equal length, and the central episode of the book—the shooting of the Arab—is both preceded and followed by five chapters. Themes are maintained with strict focus: the story opens with the death of Meursault’s mother, the murder lies at the exact center of the book, and the novel concludes with the death-sentence of Meursault. Within the story Camus creates scenes of explicit parallel and contrast. The tears and fainting of Thomas Pérez at the funeral, for example, offer a foil to Meursault’s lack of emotion. The noise of Salamano cursing his dog directly precedes the screams of the Moorish woman as Raymond beats her; both relationships share qualities of physical love and abuse. One might argue that Camus’s sense of literary balance is an attempt to put into practice an existential philosophy: the only order in a disordered world is the one we create for ourselves.
The Stranger and its author...
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