Updated: Apr 13, 2022
In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, you are put in front of the immediate ambiguity of the world. The kind that you experience in ordinary details of life. Sun-soaked streets, your cramped room, every inch is cloaked in the harsh textures of ennui, absurdity, and ironic indifference.
I came across this beautiful quote by Tarkovsky that, I think, is a great way of understanding Albert Camus’s The Stranger and its world.
“Never try to convey your ideas to the audience- it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”
- Andrei Tarkovsky
It's necessary to look under every rock and explore The Stranger in greater detail. The Stranger portrays a colorful yet unintelligible, absurd, dry, and impersonal reality. And while the philosophy of the absurd is a lot more than that, it is mysterious and strange to read and think about afterward.
I would like to mention that there are two different translations of the same book. The Stranger which is the Vintage International edition. And The Outsider which is a Penguin Modern Classics edition.
I’ve read both translations at separate times, of course. Somehow because I intentionally left a significant gap between both readings, the story feels very cathartic. Because I read them during two very different stages of life.
With The Stranger, it feels as if you’re tapping into a mysterious well of ideas and knowledge. Exploring the finite dimensions of human nature and existence through the infinite.
There is an emotive significance, heaviness, to the story that I’m sure I still haven’t understood fully yet. I am most likely going to re-read The Stranger a few more times until I can turn the ideas and the philosophy inside out to better understand why it’s such a compelling read.
The Stranger is about a man whose name means “a plunge into death.”
It draws an amazing portrait of a person coming to terms with his mother’s death which takes place right at the beginning of the story. So the concreteness of Death as a lived human experience, an inevitable fact of life, sets the tone of the narration.
Everything that happens after he attends his mother’s funeral – even during – reveals so much about his character. The people that become a part of his life also play a part in tying up loose ends of the protagonist. And it’s so vivid and beautifully descriptive. The descriptions of a Sunday morning, a day spent on a beach, the view of the sea. This is what makes The Stranger so palpable and mysterious and provocative.
The individuality of Meursault can be understood on a moral, existential, absurd, and even a visceral level. You can think of the story as a study in existentialism, alienation, morality. It’s a narrative fiction about a man who is hard to categorize as being either good or bad. Who exists outside the realm of conventional human emotions.
The Stranger is a philosophical novel because it captures Albert Camus’s absurd, complex, and incisive understanding of human nature. According to him, man is his own end. And through that lens, it is inevitable that a character like Meursault who likes to keep his distance was to do something completely contradictory or despicable.
Another thing that struck me repeatedly, each time I read the story, was how direct and descriptive Camus’s words are. The title of the book “The Outsider” refers to this very alienation. But the most brilliant thing is that Camus handles the interiority and exteriority of this alienation. What a person does when he recognizes the futile appearance of the world.
I guess it’s fair also to say that, purely on aesthetic terms, not moral ones, that how you judge Meursault’s actions reflects how familiar you are with the philosophy of the absurd. It is a tragic story. It is written as a response to the insatiable nature of reality, so Camus has created a completely indifferent, passive but consciously aware character.
And if you read the ending of the book in the hopes that Camus will clarify why Meursault does what he does then be prepared to be disappointed. Because he offers no such explanation or clarification. But if you do read his essays, you’ll definitely get a sense of why a book like The Outsider exists. You can read Lyrical and Critical Essays to understand the absurd landscapes of Camus’s philosophy. I also highly recommend The Myth of Sisyphus.
Anyway, the big question remains, though, at least for those who haven’t yet read The Stranger. What does Meursault do that is so terrible? And does that change him in the end? The Stranger grapples with many serious ideas and asks its reader intense and absurd questions about the human condition.
For example, there’s this one sentence that portrays precisely the intensity of the story, so you know what to expect from it in your next read:
“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.”
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