The Stranger Themes
The main themes in The Stranger are absurdity, colonialism, and free will.
- Absurdity: Mersault'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: Mersault's lack of religious engagements arises as a central concern in the novel's second half. Mersault experiences this secularism as a kind of freedom, and yet he is, in a literal sense, imprisoned.
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.
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 explained the philosophy of the absurd, and the novel demonstrated 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 priest—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 entire section is 1,309 words.)