The Stranger Themes

The main themes in The Stranger are absurdity, colonialism, and free will.

  • Absurdity: Meursault’s struggle reflects Camus’s broader philosophical concerns about the apparent absurdity of existence. The fundamental forces that influence events remain mysterious.
  • Colonialism: The novel takes place in French-colonized Algeria, where the tensions between citizens of French and Algerian ancestries figure in the plot’s turning point. 
  • Free will: Meursault’s lack of religious engagements arises as a central concern in the novel’s second half. Meursault experiences this secularism as a kind of freedom, and yet he is, in a literal sense, imprisoned. 

Themes

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

The Stranger, with The Myth of Sisyphus (1955; Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942), is Camus’s great apology for the absurd. Camus himself described it as an “exercise in objectivity, the impersonal working out of the logical results of the philosophy of the absurd.” According to Camus’s philosophy at this time,...

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The Stranger, with The Myth of Sisyphus (1955; Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942), is Camus’s great apology for the absurd. Camus himself described it as an “exercise in objectivity, the impersonal working out of the logical results of the philosophy of the absurd.” According to Camus’s philosophy at this time, life has no meaning; there is no hope for it ever to have meaning. There is no eternity; therefore, all must be done in this life. Indeed, this very thought brings happiness to Meursault at the end of his trial. Passive and indifferent to the forces of life, Meursault exemplifies a life without meaning, an idea that was to attract a world at war, and especially the French people, victims of a humiliating occupation.

In the midst of this hopeless universe, Camus nevertheless shows a poetic appreciation of the Mediterranean atmosphere in which he grew up. Camus’s evocation of the sun at the moment of the murder is lyrical, although it has been judged by some critics as a contradiction to the absurd and indifferent universe created up until this moment. The sea likewise appears in all its sensuality as Meursault and Marie bathe, the symbol also of life, and of evasion. Camus ends the book on a lyrical note, as Meursault, facing a starry night, would be willing to begin life again, and finally feels happiness in his acceptance of the absurd, like Sisyphus, whom, says Camus, one must imagine as happy in the futility of rolling his rock endlessly uphill.

Themes

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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064

Absurdity

Absurdity is a philosophical view at which one arrives when one is forced out of a very repetitive existence. As Camus says in “An Absurd Reasoning” from his essay collection The Myth of Sisyphus:

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.

This description characterizes Meursault perfectly. The essay collection explains the philosophy of the absurd, and the novel demonstrates the theory.

Meursault’s repetitive life runs smoothly. Then, little by little, Meursault’s happy stasis is pulled apart by the rest of the world’s movement, and collapse begins. His mother dies, and with her, a sense of stability he has had his whole life. He becomes involved with Marie, who asks him whether he cares for her and in asking nearly breaches his safe isolation. Raymond insists upon being his friend. Salamano’s dog just disappears, thus disrupting a parallel repetitive rhythm. He shoots a man, and the law demands that he die. Each subtle disruption of Meursault’s desire to be indifferently static brings him to a mental crisis. This crisis is resolved when he comes to understand the utter meaninglessness of his individual life within the mystery of the collective society. The events of his story only make sense that way. Any other explanation leads him to theology—represented by the chaplain—or fate.

In an expression of Camus’s humanist logic, neither theology nor fate can offer men of intelligence (men like Meursault, willing to use only bare logic to consider the question of life) an explanation for the absolutely senseless things that humans do—war, murder, and other heinous acts. The alternative, therefore, is absurdity. Meursault recognizes the “truth” that life is meaningless. That means life is just what one makes of it while being conscious of two certainties—life and death. In doing so, Camus argues, one would uphold traditional human values because they safeguard one’s life. In other words, human values (what we understand today as “human rights”) lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. When one is truly willing to face this truth, one can be happy. Unfortunately, Meursault is executed before he can live in this fashion.

Colonialism

There are no hints which suggest that the novel takes place in a colonized country. There are, however, hints that racial tensions exist between French-Algerians and “Arabs.” From the first page the reader knows that the novel is set in Algeria and that the date of publication is 1942. Therefore, it can be guessed that the novel occurs in a colonized setting. In addition, the narrator hints at the racial tension by telling the story as if it took place solely among some French people who happened to live in Algeria. Meursault only associates with French-Algerians, and the only people he names are French-Algerians. Then, for no apparent reason, he shoots an Arab man.

While it could be argued, and usually is, that the issue of race and colonialism is not an important theme to the novel (because the novel is about the larger concern of absurd individuality), it is still important to note its existence. First, none of the Arab characters in the book, including the murder victim, receive a name. In fact, the nurse at the nursing home is given no other attribute aside from having an abscess that requires her to wear bandaging on her face. The reader sees her as marked by this condition, and she is described as an “Arab.” The reader gains little information about her. Another Arab woman is Raymond’s girlfriend. She accuses him of being a pimp, and he beats her. She has no name. In fact, Meursault comments on her name, saying, “When he told me the woman’s name I realized she was Moorish.” It does not bother him that his “friend” is having relations with an “Arab,” nor does it bother him that Raymond wants to mark her for cheating on him. He wants to cut her nose off in the traditional manner of marking a prostitute. Finally, her brothers and his friends begin to follow Raymond. It is this nameless group of Arab men whom Meursault, Masson, and Raymond encounter at the beach. One member of the group is found by Meursault alone and is shot.

The issue of race is the most troubling and unresolved issue of the novel. If one reads the novel solely in terms of the theme of absurdity, the action of the story makes sense—in a meaningless sort of way. However, read in terms of a lesson on human morality and the ethics of the Western tradition wherein a white man goes through a struggle—or agon—in the land of the “Other,” then the story is very contradictory and highly problematic. Meursault certainly does arrive at a “truth,” but that arrival was at the cost of a man’s life as well as a ruined love.

Free Will

Though the possession of a free will is taken for granted by most people, the presentation of its “freeness” in The Stranger is rather unsettling. Meursault consistently expresses his awareness of his own will as free. In some instances, this might be interpreted as indifference, but Meursault is decidedly, perhaps starkly, free. He does not feel the temptation to encumber his reasoning with considerations or dogmas. For example, he is never worried and is repeatedly doing a systems check on his body—he declares states of hunger, whether he feels well, and that the temperature is good or the sun is too hot. These are important considerations to Meursault, and they pass the time. Conversely, the magistrate is frustrated, tired, and clings to his belief in God. Meursault discerns that the magistrate finds life’s meaning only through this belief. But when the magistrate asks if Meursault is suggesting he should be without belief, Meursault replies that it has nothing to do with him one way or the other. This is because the only things that should concern Mersault, he decides, are elemental factors, such as keeping his body comfortably cool.

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