“I said I saw no point in troubling my head about the matter; whether I believe or didn’t was, to my mind, a question of so little importance.”
Typically I read classics like this one because they are good for me—like vegetables are good for you: whether you like them or not, but with The Stranger, I read it almost in a single sitting because I was absolutely hooked. Albert Camus, whose life and philosophy I’ve written about before, reached out and grabbed me because I could relate to the central struggle over the meaning of life and the purpose of pain. Let me explain.
The book begins with a scene where the main character, Meursault, is receiving a telegram that his mother has died, and it ends with a scene where he is in prison, awaiting his decapitation via a French Guillotine. In the meantime, Meursault has lived a very mundane and passive life, up to the point where he kills a man for no apparent reason and is sentenced to death by said Guillotine. The story unfolds of his life in France with quirky neighbors, a lover (Marie), and focuses on the confusion that arrises from the death of his mother. The opening line of the book is famous for setting that tone:
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.
From that point on, Meursault struggles with the meaninglessness of life (and death, since after his mother died the world kept right on turning), because all the activities that make up life are simply distractions from death, and even death is simply another drop in the ocean of a seemingly impenetrable cosmos. He smokes and drinks, he plays in the ocean, he gets in a fight with some Arabs who have a beef with his friend, he shoots one of the Arabs for no particular reason, and he’s put on trial where he never even offers up a defense for himself. Ironically, he ends up sentenced by the evidence that he didn’t regret his own mother’s death. But it’s that murder and subsequent trial that finally jolts him awake to something really real.
The really real is his own life, his own death and non-being. His innate animal instinct not to die jerks him awake and he lashes out in anger at the Chaplain who has come to comfort him. In that jail cell he experiences the epiphany that explains the entire book. As he waits for his death, he begins to finally look back on his life and take apart the underlying philosophies he believed in and live for. To those ideas we now turn.
Critical Evaluation: Philosophy
The book is a philosophical novel, meaning it uses a story to put forward a certain way of thinking about life, and it’s the seminal work for absurdism. It’s about coping with death from the beginning (death of his mother) to the middle (his taking the life of someone else) to the end (his own death by Guillotine). And the overall theme is meaning. What does life mean? In the face of death and the unyielding force of fate in the universe, what can man do to find real meaning?
To him, love meant nothing. Imagine telling your girl this:
When she laughed I wanted her again. A moment later she asked me if I loved her. I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t. She looked sad for a bit, but when we were getting our lunch ready she brightened up and started laughing, and when she laughs I always want to kiss her.1
Love (and the meaning it implies) isn’t an option for him, only lust and the flippant emotions of the moment. The story covers a period of maybe a couple weeks, but in that time we get to see a microcosm of the absurdity of life Camus was known for, an absurdity he thought he found through his intellectual ability to rise above the mundane life of those flippant emotions everyone else seems bound to.
Camus wanted so badly to believe in a world that wasn’t mechanistic or determined. He wanted there to be something other than pure cause-and-effect driving Fate. As we know from his other writings, he’s yearning for God and the meaning that comes from existing in reference to an absolute Being.
Life (and Religion) as Prison
He looks at Meursault as the hero, and he uses the prison as a metaphor for life itself. Life imprisons us in its closed system, in all the things we can’t control, and it taunts us with the freedom we can never have. Intellectual enlightenment is the only hope he has for overcoming that imprisonment, but as the story ends we come to see the only good that can come from intellectual ability is to hope 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.”
The Chaplain functions as a symbol for Christianity which, to his mind, shirks these deep questions with the simple truth of the Gospel. He sees religious folk as committing philosophical suicide by appealing to and trusting in a God for meaning instead of creating it for themselves.
Meursealt blows up at the Chaplain at the end of the book and gives one of the most poignant diatribes of the book, and one of the most moving philosophical paragraphs on the problem of meaning in life. I’ll include the whole long paragraph in case you want to read the entire thing.
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 were worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t even be sure of being alive. It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. I’d acted thus, and I hadn’t acted otherwise; I hadn’t done x, whereas I had done y or z. And what did that mean? That, all the time, I’d been waiting for this present moment, for that dawn, tomorrow’s or another day’s, which was to justify me. Nothing, nothing had the least importance, and I knew quite well why. He, too, knew why. From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come. And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people tried to foist on me in the equally unreal years I then was living through. What difference could they make to me, the death of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; of the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to “choose” not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers. Surely, surely he must see that? Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alive would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn't cry at his mother's funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end? The same thing for Salamano’s wife and for Salamano’s dog. That little robot woman was as "guilty" as the girl from Paris who had married Masson, or as Marie, who wanted me to marry her. What did it matter if Raymond was as much my pal as Celeste, who was a far worthier man? What did it matter if at this very moment Marie was kissing a new boy friend? As a condemned man himself, couldn't he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future?
Everyone has a gospel they believe in, some final and ultimate hope for mankind, and Camus’s, as we see here, is the gospel of anti-certainty. He, and his fellow existentialists, all backlashed from the certitude of the enlightenment into a place where questions were more valuable than answers. And that should sound familiar because that is a central tenant of what we call postmodernism. It is pervasive in our culture even now.
Instead of seeking solutions to the problems of life, Meursault says over and over, “You get used to anything.…” We must simply adapt our expectations to fit reality and realize we can’t find ultimate meaning; we can’t secure our own happiness; we can’t ensure the decisions we make will result in good. And, since we can’t control those things, the best we can hope for is what Meursault discovered in prison. After a while, you get used to it, and “It ceases to be punishment.” In Camus’s worldview life is prison, a sort of punishment, and our best action is to embrace it and just get used to it.
Critical Evaluation: My Opinion
As I said before, I’m stunned at how relevant this book is for our 21st century American culture. Camus’s gospel defines our culture and it has creeped into our churches: a testimony to how successful Camus’s novel really was, to be sure.
The book is very well written, a masterwork of literature, and is really deep. I don’t pretend to understand it all yet (or to have written all that I found in it—that would take a book in itself), but so it goes with all great literature. Camus tells the truth about life in our fallen world, the truth about believing in a closed-system, an evolutionary universe where a loving and omnipotent God doesn’t exist. And it broke my heart because it showed me how much I’d believed in and invested myself into the lie of a meaningless world.
I recommend it to every thinking person, but I also recommend some help understanding it. It just so happens that Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, did a chapter-by-chapter analysis of this book on The Gospel Coalition’s website. Start with his introduction to Camus as an author, then his introduction to The Stranger, then read his in-depth analysis.
In lieu of a traditional summary here, I want to end with the final paragraph from the book. It’s of Meursault in his jail cell, his world about to come to a final end, the outside world still churning on in its indifference—the symbol for which is the steamer’s siren:
Then, just on the edge of daybreak, I heard a steamer’s siren. People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me forever. Almost for the first time in many months I thought of my mother. And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life's end she had taken on a"fiancé”; why she'd played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start a life all over again. 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've 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.