Have you ever wondered about the meaning of life? Were you overwhelmed by the confusing answers and explanations found in religious texts, philosophical essays, or maybe even on Yahoo answers? If the answer is yes, then look no further than the absurd, a philosophy pioneered by Algerian author Albert Camus. In absurdist philosophy the persistent question over the meaning of life is asked but never answered. In his novel The Stranger, Camus gives us an unflinching revolutionary depiction of an absurd man living an absurd life. The Stranger is essential reading for anyone disillusioned with the repetitious and tired-out characters and themes of what seemed to dominate literature before Camus, and longing to enter the world of the absurd.
The story, set in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, is split into two parts. In part 1, Meursault, the main character who also narrates the book, attends his mother’s funeral. He then describes the events that took place after the funeral. He runs into an old co-worker, Marie, and starts a love affair with her. One day at the beach with Marie and his friend Raymond, he runs into Arabs, enemies of Raymond, and shoots one to death. Afterwards, part 2 of the book begins, in which Meursault tells us the events of his trial and his final verdict. The story is told in past tense from Meursault’s point of view.
Meursault is an original and profound character very different from those of Romantic and Victorian era heroes such as Victor Hugo’s Marius or Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, with whom the reader may be more familiar. Camus has given us a character that requires strength and resolve to understand. It can be very easy for the reader to read The Stranger and think of it simply as a story of a murderer who goes to trial and is sentenced. This reader, along with Meursault’s contemporaries, such as the prosecutor in the book and his own attorney, will see Meursault as nothing more than a “monster.” However, for all his silence and nonchalant attitude, Meursault harbors within a philosophy that is difficult to realize and accept. Meursault is the epitome of the absurd man. He understands life as very few others can. He is quiet and indifferent, continuously reminding the reader that nothing in life matters. His honesty is as unrelenting and blinding as the sun. He offers no explanations for his crime or his life, because according to him it really doesn’t matter. In order to understand Meursault, the reader must approach the book without judgment and must be open to seeing the world in a new but harsh light.
The Stranger is a slim novel with short, to-the-point sentences and a straightforward plot. However, it is deceivingly simple because the novel is, in fact, a philosophy. By describing the events of his life and his relationships with the other characters, Meursault exposes the reader to absurdist philosophy. And even though Meursault himself admits that “life isn’t worth living,” throughout the text he claims that he is happy. It can be almost impossible to reconcile these two facts, but that is exactly why Meursault’s simplicity is a façade. The book challenges the reader to consider a new reality about life.
Fortunately for the reader who is inspired by The Stranger and wishes to explore Camus’s works even further, the author went on to publish many more books and essays. His crowning achievement is still, however, The Stranger, although the book is not without its faults: for example, Meursault reveals that he never knew his father in the last part of the book. This explanation is an attempt by Camus to humanize Meursault and to provide some explanation for his actions and disposition. Unfortunately, the revelation conflicts with Meursault’s nature, which doesn’t like to explain anything because, as Meursault understands, nothing really matters. All in all, The Stranger’s true success lies in subtly revealing to the reader a representation of the world that many may feel exists but are too scared to openly embrace. In his translator’s note, Matthew Ward explained that “The ‘simplicity’ of the text is merely apparent and everywhere paradoxical.”