Lyceum — The Stranger

I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.

– Albert Camus, January 1955

The Stranger by Albert Camus is the story of the narrator, Mersault, an ordinary man who becomes entangled in a murder. The book is often cited as one of the prime examples of Camus’ theory of the absurd. The overarching plot can be summarized in a single line

A man shoots and kills another and is hanged for his crime.

A simple plot on the surface, it’s the philosophical context and arguments which makes the book different.

Since the book is narrated in the first person and chronicles the journey of the narrator himself, it’s imperative to try and understand who he is. In his own words,

a citizen of France domiciled in North Africa, a man of the Mediterranean, a man of the south, yet one who hardly partakes of the traditional Mediterranean culture.

Mersault is detached and indifferent to others feelings and emotions. He rejects the general notions of morality and social conduct as is clear from his making friends with people and doing things that are usually frowned upon. He sees no problem in acts that otherwise are branded as heinous and is unassuming and non-judgemental. His emotional detachment is clear from his indifference to his mother’s death, Mary’s marriage proposal, and the murder of the Arab. He is truthful and objective when talking internally, as well as conducting himself outside. An outlier when it comes to general behavior.

Camus’ philosophy of absurd is based on the belief that life is meaningless. We try to find meaning and purpose in life and are faced with the reality of a chaotic, meaningless, and irrational universe and absurdity in the existence of both simultaneously. The only common inevitability of all human life is death. Mersault is the fictional representation of an Absurdist. He doesn’t care about conforming and conducting himself according to the norms of society, because he truly believes that they don’t matter, the most important thing for him is living in the present.

The trial and the consecutive religious conversation between the priest and Mersault were the most interesting parts of the book.

Mersault’s trial, concerning whether he killed the Arab in self-defense or not, veers and then shifts to his character, particularly accusing him of not crying at his mother’s funeral. Society cannot accept that sometimes, things happen out of chance, coincidences, and random occurrences. For the harmony of it’s core beliefs everything has to have a moral, ethical, and logical explanation. Both the defense and the prosecution tries to attribute an explanation to his irrational behavior. They both – and we can argue, society together – try to manufacture rational order. His actions challenge their core beliefs of living, and as such he poses a threat to them, so he is sentenced to be executed.

Following the verdict, we see the Mersault grappling with the notion of his life coming to an end. He wants to live longer and walk the streets, like a free man again. Interestingly enough, he only comes to the conclusion that the authorities are punishing him by taking away his freedom after the jailer explains it to him. He hopes that his appeal will come through and he’ll get to live for a little longer. But you see the epiphony that he comes to after the conversation with the priest.

The priest is absolutely sure that any man, in Mersault’s situation, no matter his beliefs, will turn and look for solace and comfort in religion. Sure you can play the atheist when you have time to play fidget with the idea of their being no God, but surely in Mersault’s case, he would eventually look for the divine. Mersault answers the question in the following way,

Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?" “Yes,” I said.

His conversation leads to him finally coming to terms with this execution. He believes in nothing, that it was all absurd, so why care if your die after 30 years or in 5 days, death is inevitable and is the only logical conclusion to the absurdity of existence, be happy for the time you have left and live in the present. What follows is the final dialogue by Mersault,

It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, 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, and that I was happy still. 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.

It’s a short read and I would highly recommend that you take the time to read it.