“I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world, finding it so much like myself.”
Albert Camus’ The Stranger begins with one of the most legendary opening lines in literature —
“Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
In a few words, Camus manages to sum up Meursault’s character and to some extent, the idea of absurdism. Meursault is the anti-hero. He receives the news of his mother’s passing with indifference. Instead of viewing the body one last time, he smokes and sips on his cup of coffee, right in front of the coffin.
The only thing that seems to trouble him is the sun and its blistering heat.
The plot is rather simple. Meursault, a French Algerian learns of his mother’s death. He exhibits no remorse nor does he spare time for mourning. He attends the funeral, out of a sense of duty but sees no need to shed a tear. To him, his behaviour makes perfect sense. This is how he feels so this is how he acts. He had shared no special relationship with his mother and so her death causes him no anguish.
He makes no effort to feign grief.
A day later he frolics into a relationship with Marie, a former secretary at his firm. He also befriends a pimp called Raymond and helps him get back at his mistress, whom Raymond suspects to be unfaithful. Meursault has no empathy for the girl. He admits that he is capable of only three emotions towards people — Interest, annoyance or complete indifference.
When Raymond assaults his mistress, Meursault testifies in court in support of Raymond. The woman’s brother and his Arab friends begin following Raymond around, hoping for revenge.
When Raymond’s friend invites him to his beach home, Meursault accompanies him with Marie. While at the beach, the Arabs return and one of them succeeds in injuring Raymond.
For reasons unknown, Meursault lifts his revolver and shoots at the Arab. He fires his first shot, pauses and follows it up with four more bullets.
Meursault is sentenced to death.
My summary tells you nothing.
On the surface, Meursault is a jerk. Psychopathic. Devoid of any meaning or emotion. At least that's what you’d take away from the plot. But the real depth lies not in the course of the events that conspire, but the words and actions of the protagonist.
As per Carl Viggiani’s analysis —
On the surface, L’Étranger gives the appearance of being an extremely simple though carefully planned and written book. In reality, it is a dense and rich creation, full of undiscovered meanings and formal qualities. It would take a book at least the length of the novel to make a complete analysis of meaning and form and the correspondences of meaning and form, in L’Étranger.
When asked to summarise The Stranger, this is what Camus said:
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
The most hard-hitting punch is delivered towards the end of the novel when Meursault, awaiting his decapitation finds happiness in the lack of meaning in everyone and everything.
“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.”
Albert Camus deals with a fundamental question, one we have all had —
What is the meaning of existence?
Camus answers that there is neither any meaning nor a source from which it emanates. The society we live in is manufactured. Nothing about it is preordained or has any inherent meaning, no matter what religions or other social constructs might tell us.
This need for meaning in itself is absurd. A complex trick of the human mind. Think about it. What exactly is the meaning of this meaning we seem to so passionately scamper after all the time? We are, after all, blobs of flesh on a spinning rock, in an absurd quest for meaning that doesn’t exist in the first place.
Through Meursault, Camus delivers this message without ever stating it outright. Meursault refuses to conform to society, not in pompous or a grandiose manner but rather in a matter- of- fact way. He sees life the way it is — without any meaning. He has built no stories for himself. He discards the crutch of religion, formalities and norms.
And this seems to the prosecutor more important than the murder itself. The onlookers are fixated on the fact that Meursault wouldn’t mourn for his dead mother while a heinous crime rests in clear sight. He is condemned for his apathy. His character is scrutinised more than his actions.
You can’t begin to empathise with Meursault. You can hardly begin to understand him. He is all at once a stranger, an outsider, an alien to the society he inhabits.
And society is a stranger to him.
Yet in this complete lack of meaning, Camus proposes that there is still a way to live meaningfully. Mersualuts constructs and finds meaning in his own indifference and more importantly, the universe’s indifference to his existence.
The Stranger, though a quick read as per the number of pages is the kind of novel that that lingers on forever. Admittedly, I still haven’t completed my pondering, neither have I found any answers to the questions it raises.
All I can firmly say is that it is a deeply fascinating read, one that will call upon you long after you have bid it farewell.