Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Week 18: The Stranger, by Albert Camus

The Stranger is one of those books where you realize, about halfway in, how brilliantly awesome it is. It was loaned to me by my friend Roberto, a philosophy major. I was not a philosophy major, so I’m sure that my thoughts on The Stranger are not nearly as insightful as those of others who have studied the book, but, here goes. The Stranger takes place in Algeria. The book’s narrator, Meursault, is a young man who has just lost his aged mother. She died at a home for the elderly that Meursault had placed her at. The story opens with his experiences as he goes through the motions of her funeral. The account is told with stark, direct sentences that seemingly mirror Meursault’s general affectation. Strangely, Meursault shows no emotion throughout the event, refusing to even see his mother’s body. Initially it is unclear whether his emotions are muted by grief or if this is simply his nature. After the funeral, we follow his interactions with various people in his life. The day after his mother’s funeral, he meets up with Marie, a woman that he once worked with, and strikes up a romantic affair with her. Throughout their affair he displays the same indifference exhibited at his mother’s funeral. Marie at one point asks him if he loves her, and Meursault simply replies that he didn’t think so. Raymond, another neighbor, befriends Meursault and pulls him into a drama concerning his ex-girlfriend. Raymond soon incurs the wrath of a few thugs, only described as “Arabs”, who seek revenge on Raymond for beating his ex-girlfriend. Raymond, Marie and Meursault are enjoying an outing at a friend’s beach house when they encounter the Arabs, and it results in an altercation. Subsequent to that, Meursault wanders the beach by himself, as Raymond is injured and being tended to. He stumbles upon one of the Arabs, who flashes a knife, and Meursault shoots him dead. The murder comes across as unnecessary, even gratuitous (highlighted by Meursault repeatedly shooting the Arab’s dead body). Meursault alludes to the intense sun and heat as being factors in the crime, emphasizing his lack of empathy. Meursault is apprehended and all of his ambivalent personality traits are stacked against him as evidence of his guilt. The fact that he is apparently devoid of any sort of basic emotional understanding portrays him as an abhorrent human being. It is brought up that he had his mother committed to the elderly home and failed to grieve after her death; that he callously became romantically involved with Marie the very next day. These details, brought up by the prosecution, paint an unflattering picture of Meursault and persuade the jury to convict him. A priest visits him in prison to offer religious comfort, but Meursault turns him away, his atheism bringing the priest to tears. I found it interesting that the original French title of the book is L’Etranger, a term that can be translated as “the stranger”, or also, “the outsider”. In a sense, The Outsider is a more appropriate title, as Meursault’s persistent inability to show any sort of emotion renders him as an outsider amongst society. The book strikes up questions as to what the value of life really is, whether there is meaning in anything we do and whether it’s even worth it to experience emotion. The priest finds Meursault’s atheism sad, but Meursault does not understand this. He simply finds God a waste of time. The closest we get to seeing Meursault long for anything is when he is in prison, recalling the summer weather and the evening skies. As the book concludes, the reader starts to wonder whether Meursault is really the outsider, or whether society’s norms and religions are merely frivolities. I really enjoyed this book, and I find myself still thinking about it, unpeeling its layers one by one. The Stranger is an accessible pathway into complex topics that are worth pondering.

1 comment: