Wait Bod, you can read?
I know, I know. I’m just as surprised as you are.
A radical centrist with no opinions goes around, doing nothing.
Meursault, a young office worker in north Algiers, receives news that his mother has passed away. He ventures to the nursing home, where the staff try to console him. At his mother’s funeral, while everyone’s crying, Meursault sits in annoyed silence, not understanding why everyone else is sad.
Coming back to his hometown, Meursault meets a former coworker of his, Marie, and the two immediately go on a date. After seeing a comedy, they go back to Meursault’s apartment for ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) and begin a relationship. Meursault’s neighbor, Raymond— a purported pimp— invites him over for dinner. Raymond tells Meursault about his girlfriend, a Moor (Arab) who’s been “unfaithful” to him. Raymond talks about how he’s beaten her multiple times while Meursault listens, not passing judgement because he’s a good friend.
One day, Meursault and Marie overhear Raymond having a fight with his girlfriend. Raymond hits her and throws her out onto the street. A policeman comes over and asks what’s going on, slaps Raymond, and leaves.
Sometime later, Raymond invites the couple to spend a day on the beach at his friend’s coastal bungalow. On the day of their departure, Raymond notices that his girlfriend’s brother seems to be following him. On the beach, Raymond and Meursault get into a confrontation with the brother and his friend, and Raymond produces a pistol. Meursault, being a #shooter4life takes the gun from him, and tells him he’ll intervene if need be. Later, Meursault walks on the beach alone and comes across the brother from before. He interprets the Arab’s flash of a knife as a threat, and shoots him five times.
The second part of this novel is kind of weird, since it’s mostly a reflection on the events of Part I. In that sense, there’s only really half a book’s worth of content in this half-book.
After the shooting, Meursault is arrested. The magistrate attempts to get him to repent in the name of Jesus, but Meursault, being an edgelord, tells him God isn’t real. At his trial, numerous people from earlier in the novel are called to the stand to testify to his character. Basically all the testimony points to him being a sociopath, and the prosecutor calls for his execution.
Meursault is convicted and sentenced to death (clearly, “the truth will set you free” does not apply to murder confessions). As he awaits his execution, he muses in his cell about the abject meaninglessness of life. The prison chaplain visits and questions him about his belief in the afterlife. Meursault tells him to fuck off, and the chaplain leaves. The novel ends with him looking forward to his execution, hoping that people cheer his death.
Quick note: I am not qualified to teach philosophy in any capacity. Alright, glad we got that out of the way.
To understand The Stranger, you have to understand why it was written in the first place. The entire book is basically one long (pretty short) exposition of Camus’ brand of existentialism. Which then raises the question: “what the fuck is existentialism?”
The earliest existentialist works are attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (fitting that he wrote about the meaninglessness of life, since his name literally contained the empty set). Kierkegaard, a prolific sadboi with an unhealthy fascination of death, published numerous works in which he criticized what he regarded as the misplaced comforts of society. Kierkegaard saw various institutions, such as family, marriage, and the church, as distractions from the true meaning of life. That being, of course, that life has no meaning at all; thus in the words of Kendrick Lamar, “y’all priorities fucked up, put energy in wrong shit.” In Kierkegaard’s mind, the resolution to this issue was to take a “leap of faith” in God, devoting one’s life to religion.
Then we got Heidegger, but he was kind of a nazi and I don’t know anything about him, so we’ll skip over that.
Finally we get to our mid-20th century French boys, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, the more well-known of the two, popularized existential philosophy in continental circles. Sartre’s main point was that a lack of inherent meaning in life gives humans a large amount of free will, but that this free will also means that we’re responsible for using it. In particular, Sartre got real mad at what he called “bad faith”— a lack of cognizance of one’s own freedom, and a subsequent external attribution for the content of their life. Kinda weird that a commie had the whole “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality, but he also hated consumerism, so it kind of makes sense.
Then we got the big man on campus (or should I say the big man on Camus). Camus also recognized the absurdity of life, but went about resolving it in a different way. According to him, people have three main choices: deny absurdity, embrace absurdity, or kill yourself. He was very much against the third option, which also made him one of the first philosophers to formally study Logic. In Camus’ eyes, the only way to be content in life is to admit your situation and make the best of it. Like Kierkegaard, he held strong contempt for the Church. Rather than endorsing God, though, Camus was all-in on hedonism. He thought that people were too focused on living a “correct” life, or altogether a different life, rather than just living.
Another thing that comes up when talking about Existentialism is the idea of an existential crisis. An existential crisis occurs when people come to certain realizations: that life has no real meaning, and that the social rules, roles, and customs which bind us don’t have much weight. Due to this lack of guidance, people must then come to terms with the fact that life is full of possibilities, and that choices they make directly affect the path that they go down. The trouble comes with physical limitations on living (generally around 80 years), and the lack of available information on which choices eventuate to which outcomes; the uncertainty induces anxiety. People begin to reevaluate their life and struggle to make decisions moving forward, fearing that they might choose wrong. These crises are usually resolved by accepting that choosing blind from a wide set of options is basically the human experience, and that the general uncertainty of life means everyone’s playing on the same field, more or less. So take comfort in the fact that everyone’s just as lost, confused, uncertain, and indecisive as you are. Well, some of us more than others, but you get the point.
Shout-out to my boi Oliver for teaching me some of this.
So the first (and correct) way of interpreting The Stranger is using all the stuff I wrote above and drawing connections (mind map, anyone?). Once you know what Camus’ general outlook was, all the weird shit in this book begins to fall into place. Meursault’s distaste and lack of understanding of social customs is a symptom of his “enlightened” realization of their emptiness. The reason he appears so indifferent to everything is because he accepts (and is thus unphased) by the absurdity of events around him. His cool demeanor and targeted focus on basic pleasures, even in the event of broader “tragedies” simply demonstrate that (in Camus’ eyes) his priorities are in order. His fate at the hands of the French magistrate is a metaphor for the general public’s fear at the questioning of social customs. They don’t like Meursault since he casts doubt on what they consider to be essential constructs, so they wish to put him to death.
Special treatment is given to the topic of religion. The only time in the novel that Meursault gets even close to being angry is in his conversation with the chaplain:
Then, I don’t know how it was, but something seemed to break inside me, and I started yelling at the top of my voice. I hurled insults at him, I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear. I’d taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in a sort of ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain. He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t even be sure of being alive. (74)
Contrast to shooting a guy, when Meursault presents as generally dispassionate and uncaring.
The theme of things being out of one’s control comes up during the trial. Meursault muses:
Quite often, interested as I was in what they had to say, I was tempted to put in a word, myself. But my lawyer had advised me not to. “You won’t do your case any good by talking,” he had warned me. In fact, there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings; I wasn’t to have any say and my fate was to be decided out of hand. (62)
At the end of the novel, Meursault accepts the judgement of the universe as it has been passed down, fully out of his control. He remarks:
It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope… I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy… For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration. (75-76)
This man embraces absurdity.
Now, were we to throw authorial intent out the window, a modern view of this novel could potentially focus on Meursault himself, and his many, many personality disorders. From this list of adult symptoms of autism, Meursault probably checks about half the boxes. His lack of concern for others and general inability to feel empathy may also point to some degree of sociopathy. This list actually seems pretty close to describing his character. When Camus wrote this novel, he most likely envisioned Meursault as simply embodying all the ideals of (his) Existentialist philosophy, taken to an extreme. Of course, if someone acted as Meursault did nowadays, we’d probably assume there was something wrong with them. Of course, this could play into Camus’ whole thing, as our (my) attempt to diagnose Meursault with some issue points to the existence of pernicious social norms. Maybe we seek to label this type of behavior as “wrong” or “different” because we don’t understand it, and it makes us uncomfortable. Or maybe being that much of an existentialist makes you a dick. Who knows?
The final way to view The Stranger, and my personal favorite, is to regard the book as commentary on toxic masculinity in France (and French colonies). Meursault’s constant refusal to display emotion, interact with people normally, and general lack of concern for others are all just him asserting dominance. Maybe “Meursault” was the 1940’s French equivalent of “Chad.”
In case this wasn’t already clear, Camus was a French author, and this novel was written in French, originally titled L’Etranger. Since I know literally zero French, I read the English translated version, the title of which I’ve been using throughout this review. One thing that comes through in the translation, and (so I’ve heard) in the OG, is the unique tone that this novel is written in. Meursault’s voice is cold, impassive, and has a certain brevity to it. The sentences are to the point— the narrator is clearly not interested in magniloquence (yes it’s a real word) for magniloquence’s sake. The novel does get a bit more verbose as it goes on. At the beginning, the writing’s very blunt, but near the climax, particularly over the course of the scene at the beach, the descriptions become more vivid. These points in the novel demonstrate the strength of Camus’ prose, despite their sparsity.
Also, since the book was translated, lots of parts come across as weird, awkward, and occasionally really, really funny. I compiled a few of my favorite quotes below:
The man was still screaming and Raymond still knocking her about. Marie said, wasn’t it horrible! I didn’t answer anything. Then she asked me to go and fetch a policeman, but I told her I didn’t like policemen. (25)
Meanwhile the girl went on sobbing and repeating: “He hit me, the coward. He’s a pimp.” “Excuse me, officer,” Raymond put in, “but is that in order, calling a man a pimp in the presence of witnesses?” The policeman told him to shut his trap. (25)
“If that’s how you feel,” she said, “why marry me?” I explained that it had no importance really, but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away. I pointed out that, anyhow, the suggestion came from her; as for me, I’d merely said, “Yes.” Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter. To which I answered: “No.” (28-29)
By far my favorite-written passage in the novel came at the end of the first chapter in part II, when Meursault remarks:
I can honestly say that during the eleven months these examinations lasted I got so used to them that I was almost surprised at having ever enjoyed anything better than those rare moments when the magistrate, after escorting me to the door of the office, would pat my shoulder and say in a friendly tone: “Well, Mr. Antichrist, that’s all for the present!” After which I was made over to my jailers. (45)
This book is basically The Catcher in the Rye for angsty French dudes, which is fine. I don’t know if it’s really that essential of a read from a literary standpoint, and there are certainly better ways to learn philosophy, but if you need a nice Quiz Bowl book that doesn’t take that much effort to get through and might make you look smart, it seems pretty OK. At the very least, reading this book is less of an investment than basically anything else in notable French literature (cough, Proust and his fucking heptalogy of unending sentences, cough), so you won’t waste too much of your time.
Good for: Attractive, philandering, soccer-playing Algerians
Bad for: Sophisticated French intellectuals
Bod R8s: 4.7/8