Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1312
Understanding Meursault: Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in large part for the prescience of The Stranger. The novel was noted for the way it captures the delusion, nihilism, and malaise extant in Europe during World War II. Refusing to act in accordance with rhyme or reason, Meursault is an enigmatic character whom students and scholars have puzzled over for decades. As the protagonist of this philosophical novella, Meursault—his perspective, behavior, and development—exemplifies the absurdist philosophy Camus created.
- For discussion: What are the most important choices Meursault makes in the text? Why does he make those choices?
- For discussion: How do his choices impact himself and those around him? To what extent do the choices Meursault makes have consequences?
- For discussion: Describe Meursault’s relationships with others. How does he build connections with, or distance himself from, those around him? What does the novella suggest about the nature of human relationships?
- For discussion: Engage in a close reading of Meursault’s final words to the chaplain and thoughts about his execution. What is Meursault’s attitude toward his choices and the society around him?
- For discussion: Consider Mersault’s unique qualities, most importantly his lack of feeling. To what extent do they reflect Mersault as a character? What do these qualities say about him, rather than as a reflection on an individual’s place in society?
A Portrait of Colonialism: Though the novel addresses the nature of the human experience at large, it is also grounded in the context of Camus’s life and times. Born impoverished in French Algeria in 1913, Camus reported on poverty for an anti-colonialist newspaper in Algiers during his early career. In writing The Stranger, Camus fictionalized the Algiers of his time, allowing his characters, their experiences, and his philosophical ideas to examine the social order therein.
- For discussion: What social orders exists in the book? How does government or organized religion impact Meursault’s actions and worldview?
- For discussion: How is social class manifested in the book? Who exercises social privilege, and what seems to give individuals power?
- For discussion: How does the text distinguish between characters of French descent and those of Algerian descent? How does ethnicity affect different characters’ experiences in the text?
- For discussion: According to Meursault, why did he kill the man at the beach? Is his account trustworthy? Are his actions justified?
- For discussion: According to the prosecutor, what has Meursault done to deserve imprisonment and execution? Is his punishment justified?
Nonconformity and Moral Judgment as Themes: In part 1, Meursault doesn’t conform to the social expectations of French Algeria. He doesn’t emote when attending his mother’s funeral and even attends a comedy the next day, he behaves apathetically towards Marie, and he watches as Raymond beats his former mistress. In part 2, the French Algerian government and citizenry hold a trial to consider both his illegal actions and his moral nonconformity.
- For discussion: Describe the social expectations demonstrated in part 1. In what ways does Meursault conform to or reject these standards?
- For discussion: Does Meursault realize that he doesn’t conform? When are his social transgressions accidental, and when are they intentional?
- For discussion: To what extent is Meursault convicted for murder, and to what extent is Meursault convicted for nonconformity? Is Meursault’s conviction justified? Why or why not? Are the proceedings of his trial just? Why or why not?
The Stranger as a Vehicle for Absurdism: Disillusioned by the horrors of World War I, thinkers and writers flocked to Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. When Camus arrived, he selected a literary form en vogue at the time to convey his own worldview: the philosophical novella. The Stranger offers students the opportunity to consider how literary and rhetorical devices convey absurdist themes in the text.
- For discussion: Describe the primary settings Meursault inhabits. What do they suggest about his values? What do they suggest about the values of the society around him?
- For discussion: Consider the ways in which Meursault’s character develops over the course of the text. What do the changes in Meursault reveal about the values of absurdism?
- For discussion: Which literary or stylistic devices does Camus employ in the text? How do these devices develop characterization and themes in the text?
- For discussion: Which rhetorical elements are at play in the text? To what extent is Meursault a reliable narrator?
- For discussion: Are you ultimately swayed by the absurdist worldview presented in the text? Why or why not?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Novel Presents a Cynical, Disempowering Worldview: The tragic and unthinkable number of deaths wrought by World War II influenced many of the darker themes in The Stranger, such as the futility of free will and the meaninglessness of human life.
- What to do: Remind students that absurdism is just a set of ideas put forward by a small group of thinkers. Camus is not necessarily more right or wrong than any other philosopher.
- What to do: Remind students that Camus’s ideas—and those of other existentialist writers—were historically contingent. Viewed against the backdrop of two world wars, the apparent grimness of their ideas is more readily understandable.
- What to do: Expose students to other philosophical ideas for contrast.
- What to do: Invite students to bring in real-world examples of individuals having an impact in the society around them. Compare and contrast the values and practices at play in their examples with those exhibited by Meursault.
The Protagonist Is Unsympathetic: Rare is the student or scholar who finds Meursault to be a sympathetic character. He is notable for his unfeeling nature, complicity in domestic abuse, and irrational violence.
- What to do: Explain to students that the human condition is complex, and people can’t be entirely reduced to either “good” or “bad.” Meursault gives readers a chance to consider the unsympathetic aspects of the human nature that exist in everyone.
- What to do: Invite students to be philosophers themselves, analyzing when, how, and why Meursault behaves unethically.
Violence Is Rampant and Then Minimized: At the heart of the plot of The Stranger is a grotesque act of domestic violence followed by an irrational murder. Importantly, those around Meursault gloss over these incidents, criticizing Meursault’s social unconformity rather than his brutality.
- What to do: Remind students that most read The Stranger as critical of the colonial society in which Meursault lives. The absurd manner in which violence is minimized is exactly the point of the text.
- What to do: Engage students in creative writing and/or thinking to imagine the story from the perspective of the victimized characters: Meursault’s mistress and her brother. How would they perceive and recount the events of the novel? How might they view the justice dispensed in part 2?
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Stranger
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on light and nature. Light is a predominant motif in The Stranger, punctuating both time and Meursault’s shifting perspectives, and Meursault often describes his worldview in terms of his interactions with natural elements.
Focus on attitudes toward mortality. Between Maman, Salamano’s dog, and Meursault’s impending execution, death is a preoccupation for many in the text. How does Meursault’s attitude toward death develop in the text? What perspectives does he get from others?
Focus on gender relationships. Invite students to consider the women who play secondary roles in The Stranger. How are colonial and absurdist themes expressed and developed through their characters?