The Stranger Analysis

  • Meursault’s first-person perspective provides minimal access to his inner thoughts and feelings. Meursault himself doesn’t seem to have that access, which gives his narrative voice a stilted, matter-of-fact quality.
  • Camus set The Stranger in Algeria in the 1940s, when the country was still under French colonial rule. Both the domestic abuse Raymond perpetrates and the murder Meursault commits are racially charged because their victims are both Arab.
  • During the vigil, Meursault gets the “ridiculous feeling that [the other mourners] were there to judge me.” This foreshadows the trial in part 2, during which Meursault is criticized for his behavior at the vigil.

Literary Style

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Psychological self-examinations are common in French first-person narratives, but Camus’s The Stranger gave the technique of psychological depth a new twist at the time it was published. Instead of allowing the protagonist to detail a static psychology for the reader, the action and behavior were given to the reader to decipher. Camus did this because he felt that “psychology is action, not thinking about oneself.” The protagonist, along with a failure to explain everything to the reader, refuses to justify himself to other characters. He tells only what he is thinking and perceiving; he does not interrupt with commentary. By narrating the story this way, through the most indifferent person, the reader is also drawn into Meursault’s perspective. The audience feels the absurdity of the events. However, other characters, who do not even have the benefit of hearing the whole of Meursault’s story as the book’s readers do, prefer their ideas of him. They are only too ready to make their judgments at the trial. Moreover, they readily condemn him to death as a heartless killer without regret.

Structure and Language

Camus’s narration was immediately recognized as extremely innovative. His language, while recognized as similar to the American “Hemingway style,” was seen as so appropriate to the task as to be hardly borrowed. The style that Camus uses is one of direct speech that does not allow much description. He chose that style because it backed up his narrative technique. The reader is focused on the characters’ reactions and behavior as they are related through Meursault.

Camus also divided the story at the murder. Part 1 opens with the death of Maman and ends with the murder of the Arab. In part 2 of the novel, Meursault is in prison and at the end is awaiting his execution. The division reinforces the importance of Meursault in the universe of the story. Normality is jarred throughout the first part until it dissolves into chaos because of the murder. The second half shows the force of law entering to reestablish meaning and therefore bring back order through the death of Meursault. The structure and the language, then, are technically at one with the greater theme of absurdity.


Environment is a very important element to Meursault. He reports the heat of rooms, the way that the sun affects him, and all the other conditions of the habitat he lives in. The story itself is set around the city of Algiers and the beach. It is always daytime and the sun is always out. Curiously, in the universe of The Stranger there is no night, no darkness outside of mental obscurity. Things happen overnight, but no plot action occurs in the dark. The only moment when darkness does threaten is at the start of the vigil, but the caretaker dispels the darkness with the electric light. Other things that happen overnight include private encounters with Marie (we assume) and the verdict, which is read at eight o’clock at night. However, the novel’s events occur during the day, long days that are hardly differentiated from each other. Such facts of time emphasize the absurdity of Meursault; everything is meaningless except for the current state of the body in the environment.


This technique is used to indicate a happening before it occurs, and this foretelling can be foreboding. A disturbing moment for Meursault, as well as the unsuspecting reader, occurs while Meursault is sitting near Maman’s coffin. “It was then that I realized they were all sitting across from me, nodding their heads, grouped around the caretaker. For a second I had the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge me.” Later, in part 2, it is precisely his behavior at this funeral with which the state prosecution is concerned. The way in which Meursault honors his mother has everything to do with his guilt. In other words, the sense of judgment he felt from those sitting across from him at the funeral vigil foreshadowed the solitary condemnation at the trial.

Places Discussed

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Algiers is the coastal capital of Algeria, a country in North Africa. Although not specifically described, Algiers serves as a general backdrop not only to the main action but above all to Meursault’s struggle with the collective forces of nature arrayed against him.


Raymond, Meursault’s friend, has a bungalow on a beach outside Algiers. When the sun beats down on Meursault, the reflecting light gouges into his eyes, the lazy sea waves turn him lethargic, the fiery beach presses him forward, and the cloudless sky pours a sheet of flame on him. Under this onslaught, he has no other choice but to react in self-defense, first, by erasing the source of the attack (the Arab man and his shining knife) and then by firing four additional shots for the four elements of nature.


Meursault awaits his execution in a tiny prison cell. Only a confined space can allow him to concentrate on the essential and to think philosophical thoughts, unmolested by outside distractions and pointless discussions. After his final metaphysical revolt he is ultimately at peace, as evidenced by the stars shining on his face like a celestial projector, instead of the relentless and punishing sun, and by the heat now being replaced by the refreshingly cool night breeze on his cheeks. This Meursault calls “the benign indifference of the universe.”


Marengo is a retirement home and cemetery located some fifty miles west of Algiers. Before and during his mother’s funeral Meursault shows a strange callousness and lack of sorrow about her death. The unbearable heat and the blinding glare of the sun further aggravate this insensitivity, as he matter-of-factly attends the ceremony. Apparently unmoved by the occasion, he also observes the arid landscape around him, noting the green cypresses, the red soil, the humming insects, the rustling grass, and the various smells.

Swimming Pool

The swimming pool is part of the harbor complex. Rather than mourn over his mother’s death, Meursault spends the next day with a female former coworker at the pool. The two then go to a movie theater to see a comedy and lastly to his apartment, where they spend the night together.

Detention Center

This is the jail in which Meursault is held before his trial. He and his court-appointed lawyer discuss his defense, which, given his general apathy, does not look promising. Progressively, as he understands the purpose of his imprisonment, he adapts to his new environment by killing time and by sleeping.


This is the room in which Meursault’s trial takes place. Again, the heat is stifling, increased by the hour of the day and the large crowd of spectators and reporters. Again he responds and reacts in an all-too-aloof and unconcerned manner. This is why he is considered a “stranger,” quickly found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Examining Magistrate’s Office

The first time Meursault is formally interrogated, the nondescript, ordinary room is so hot, with flies buzzing around, that he nods to any statement, from accepting Christ as his personal savior to being vexed over having shot a man.

Historical Context

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Resuming a policy of imperialist expansion after the Napoleonic era, France invaded Algeria in 1830. The French soon controlled the city of Algiers and some coastal areas, but not until 1857 did they subdue the whole region. France sent settlers to colonize the conquered region, but even as late as 1940, the French in Algeria were outnumbered nine to one. During World War II the Algerians fought on the side of Germany, which occupied France. However, they were not too keen on resisting the Americans, and when General Eisenhower landed in November of 1942, he met little resistance. That invasion prevented Camus from leaving France and joining his wife in Algeria until the liberation of France in 1944. Throughout the rest of the war, the Algerian independence movement grew due to contact with other Westerners—British and American soldiers.

The independence movement continued to grow after the war but was violently put down by French troops. The struggle escalated when the National Liberation Front (FLN) wrote a new constitution in 1947. Unable to deliver on the promise of the new constitution, the FLN began a war of independence with France in 1954. By 1962, Charles de Gaulle agreed to grant the country independence.

World War II

World War II was in full swing in 1942, since America had declared war on Japan and Germany in response to the Pearl Harbor attack. However, the Allied cause did not look good. France had fallen to the Germans, and British troops were pushed from their holdings in the Pacific to India by the Japanese. On the Russian front, the Germans seemed to be on the verge of capturing Stalingrad when they attacked in February. This attack took the form of a gruesome siege. There was still hope, however, because both the British and the Russians refused to give in. Geography aided the Russians, and the superiority of the Royal Air Force made the siege of Britain hazardous.

Summer began, and the Allies started to gain against the Axis Powers. American troops were more successful than not in flooding the Allies with needed supplies through their base in Iceland. June brought real progress when the American Navy met the Japanese in the Battle of Midway. This decisive victory ended Japanese expansion in the Pacific and irreparably crippled their naval strength. In November, Eisenhower led a joint British-US force in a landing in Algeria. In Russia, the Germans were still unable to claim victory since the Russian army was refusing to give way. In the end, Russia lost 750,000 soldiers throughout the year. The Germans gained against the Russians only to lose all but eighty thousand men, who survived by cannibalism and surrendered by February of 1943. Slowly the tide was turning against the Germans.

Literary Techniques

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The Stranger is probably the most original of all of Camus’s works. A narrative rather than a novel, it was really executed in the spirit of a “new novel” that writers of the 1960s, influenced by Camus, were to discover. Actually the story is the fragment of a tale, with many pieces left to the reader’s imagination. The very fragmentation suggests the lack of coherence in the world of the absurd. The choice of language and style conveys Meursault’s indifference and apathy. The absence of the passe simple, the past tense traditionally used in literature and present, is here replaced by the passe compose, or conversational past. The author makes free use of indirect speech and thus accentuates the gulf between what is happening and what Meursault is thinking.

The novel is divided into two parts, with parallel structure. Critics generally consider the first part as superior and more original. It is here that Meursault describes the lack of relationship between the world and himself. The second part deals with his trial and contains more irony and lyricism, with particular emphasis on solar imagery and poetry. In both parts, however, Camus shows his skill in narration as well as in lyricism.

Social Concerns

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The Stranger was the first great novel to emerge from French Algeria. The Arab presence figures prominently in the story and stresses kinship, rivalry, and bloodshed. The violence expressed in the murder of the Arab man by Meursault brings out the violence in Arab-European relations. The Arabs, however, were not natural enemies to the French, and the one who is killed in the story represents his race as a model of silence and contemplation. The tact that Meursault murders him needlessly shows that murder is not the solution to the Arab-European conflict, which was to erupt into warfare in the 1950s, and in which Camus took a side opposed to native independence.

Camus also addresses the question of justice in Meursault's trial. Actually, it is a parody of justice, for he is tried not for killing a man, but for not having wept at his mother’s funeral. Throughout his trial, he is robbed of his own identity, never really allowed to speak, and his lawyer uses the first person in his place. Meursault represents the person persecuted by society because he refuses its falseness and hypocrisy. He will have no part of its artificiality and will not become involved in its game. In the end, he is convicted on a technicality, showing that the trial is a meaningless formality.

Literary Precedents

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Camus has often been compared to Pascal in his existential questioning and anguish, although Pascal was a firm believer in immortality. Among his nineteenth-century predecessors are the skeptical Vigny, and Stendhal, whose The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le noir, 1830) also contains a mistrial and a condemnation on technicalities. Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Man Condemned to Death (Le Dernier jour d’un condamne, 1829) also contains the reflections of a man in prison. Meursault’s crime is similar to that in Samuel T. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). Germaine Bree sees in Meursault an echo of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov, “whose real crime was not the one that he is tried for, but one which will lead him to a new level of awareness” (The Brothers Karamazov [Bratya Karamazov], 1879–1880). Finally, the short, unconnected sentences of the entire narration are most like Hemingway, who was a great influence on many mid-century French authors.


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The only one of Camus’s novels to have been adapted for the cinema is The Stranger, produced by Paramount in 1967 and directed by Luchino Visconti. Emmanuel Robles, a friend of Camus’s, also shared in the screenplay, which was quite faithful to Camus’s text. There is a short film, Albert Camus: A Self-Portrait, produced by Fred Orjain, which shows Camus talking about the theater and which also gives some views of Algeria. There are a number of sound recordings of Camus’s voice, where he reads selections from The Fall (1956), The Plague (1947), and The Stranger. The 1950 film Panic in the Streets, directed by Elia Kazan, although not directly inspired by Camus, treats the same theme of the plague as in Camus’s The Plague.

Media Adaptations

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There has been only one adaptation of Camus’s novel to the screen. Directed by Luchino Visconti, L’Etranger was produced in 1967 by Paramount Pictures. The film failed to capture Camus’s style, but fortunately, the role of Arthur Meursault is executed brilliantly by Marcello Mastroianni, and Anna Karina delivers a fine performance as Marie Cardona.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Donald Lazere, The Unique Creation of Albert Camus, Yale University Press, 1973.

Henri Peyre, “Camus the Pagan,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 25, 1960, pp. 65-70.

Richard Plant, “Benign Indifference,” in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 29, No. 20, May 18, 1946, p. 10.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “An Explication of The Stranger,” in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Bree, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 108-21.

Philip Thody, “Camus’s L’Etranger Revisited,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 61-69.

Colin Wilson, The Outsider, Houghton Mifflin, 1956.

For Further Study

Robert J. Champigny, A Pagan Hero: An Interpretation of Meursault in Camus’s ‘The Stranger’, translated by Rowe Portis, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969. Champigny analyzes Mersault through several readings which show the character as innocent but whose characteristics set the stage of his guilt. Champigny also argues that Meursault’s reaction to his guilt make him a hero.

Raymond Gay-Crosier, “Albert Camus,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 72: French Novelists, 1930- 1960, edited by Catherine Savage, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 110-35. The article presents an overview of the life and works of Albert Camus.

Adele King, Notes on L’Etranger: The Stranger or The Outsider, Longman York Press, 1980. King offers an introduction to the novel, detailed summaries of the chapters, and brief critical commentary that touches on the most important parts of the novel: theme, historical context, structure, style, etc. An invaluable aid.

Patrick McCarthy, Camus: A Critical Study of his Life and Work, Hamish Hamilton, 1982. A book-length investigation of Camus’s life and works, placed within the historical context of war and struggle.

Norman Podhoretz, “The New Nihilism and the Novel” in his Doings and Undoings, Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 159-78. According to Podhoretz, Camus was the first writer to identify the transition of the hero in twentiethcentury fiction from rebel to stranger. In so doing, Camus spotted the significance of the new nihilism and identified it.

Jan Rigaud, “Depictions of Arabs in L’Etranger,” in Camus’s L’Etranger: Fifty Years On, edited by Adele King, Macmillan, 1992. In a collection of essays that spans many approaches to the novel—literary influence, textual studies, comparative studies—Rigaud’s article highlights an important and often overlooked aspect of The Stranger.

English Showalter Jr., The Stranger: Humanity and the Absurd, Twayne, 1989. A readable introduction to the novel that offers historical context, the work’s importance, and an introduction to critical reception of the novel. The second half of the study presents a close reading of the novel.


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Bree, Germaine, ed. Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. An early collection of essays by outstanding critics. Includes a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s influential “Explication of The Stranger.”

Ellison, David R. Understanding Albert Camus. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. An overview of the development of Camus’s themes and writing style. Focuses on Camus as a literary man whose works embody a consistent philosophical outlook. Especially useful for first-time readers of Camus.

King, Adele, ed. L’Étranger: Fifty Years On. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Twenty original essays by leading Camus scholars. Offers a variety of viewpoints and provides a valuable companion to a study of the novel.

McCarthy, Patrick. Albert Camus: The Stranger. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the novel. McCarthy is especially good on the novel’s political aspects and on how Camus manages to transform an unsympathetic protagonist into an Everyman.

Rhein, Phillip H. Albert Camus. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Relates The Stranger to the whole of Camus’s philosophy and focuses on the novel as a reflection of that philosophy. Provides an enlightening companion volume to Ellison’s Understanding Albert Camus.

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Critical Essays