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...
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