Note: This review was originally written back in 2016 as part of a personal "1001+ Book Challenge." I follow a Peter Boxall's 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die list and write about books I found particularly noteworthy. This post was edited recently to improve grammar and overall readability, but still reflects the views of a 23-year old me. My writing has improved since then, I promise!
The Stranger by Albert Camus Review
Albert Camus’s first publication, The Stranger, presents readers with a practical notion of “the absurd,” one’s search for meaning in experience and the inability to find it. In addition, the novel is widely regarded as being an essential existentialist text, though Camus himself rejected the label.
The novel takes place in French Algeria, presumably sometime after WWI and before WWII. The book features a first-person narrative style and presents the thoughts and feelings (or lack thereof) of monsieur Meursault, a somewhat apathetic young man. The story begins with the passing of Meursault’s mother and him, unfortunately, having to attend the funeral. I say “unfortunately” because throughout the chapter, Meursault often complains about feeling tired and hot. These complaints are consistent throughout the book as Meursault seems to frequently put his “natural” emotions and bodily desires above his “social” emotions and conventions.
Meursault spends most of his time eating, sleeping, responding to what other people say to him, and being indifferent to loss, friendship, marriage, and social life in general after that. He begins seeing his coworker, Marie and the two become intimate, he befriends his pimp neighbor, Raymond, eats at his favorite diner, and talks about his other neighbor, Salamano and his old dog. While several things happen in this section, Meursault doesn’t seem interested in them and most of them have little bearing on what happens later in the book. The first section ends with Meursault shooting a man after becoming mildly inconvenienced by the sun.
In the second part of the book, Meursault is arrested, and Camus’s theme of the absurd becomes more evident as Meursault exposes the strangeness of man’s obsession with law and religion. While being prosecuted, Meursault is more interested in observing his surroundings and wondering why everyone bothers with the performance of the trial. While speaking to a chaplain, Meursault wonders why he is wasting time speculating on the afterlife when he could be focused on his present state of being. While expressing hints of fear and desire, Meursault is generally passive and accepting of his fate, understanding that after all, he is, like everyone else, only human.
At first glance, the themes of apathy and the detached and minimal tone of the novel paint a pretty grim picture. After reading the novel, one might come to the conclusion that life is meaningless, or alternately, that Meursault was some kind of sociopath. However, like other existentialist works, the book carries an equally positive message. Meursault’s focus on his immediate circumstances at any given moment, his interest in food, drink, and women, and his helpfulness (though stemming from indifference) are all indicative of living in the moment. Camus advocated this philosophy in opposition to religious devotion. He suggested that life needs to be lived now and that one must embrace one’s fate and carry it out well as opposed to dwelling on social and institutional absurdities. We are all in this together and we must embrace each other and find meaning in "being" rather than project meaning onto nothingness.
In addition to this, the novel is dynamic and can be approached from various theoretical lenses. For example, a feminist take would be interesting as the lack of depth among the female characters in the novel is profound and suggests that either Camus did not know how/care to write about women, a shaky conclusion as I have not read much of his work, or that the novel presents the pervasive sexism of French society during the 1940s. Similarly, the novel lends itself to a psychological analysis, as Meursault’s behavior is clearly abnormal and his relationship with his parents is frequently alluded to, but oddly absent from his mind most of the time.
Overall, The Stranger is an interesting read, but most will likely find its meaning somewhat clouded if they are unfamiliar with Camus’s philosophy or have otherwise picked up a bad English translation. This is a good book to read to familiarize oneself with existentialist philosophy, or otherwise explain a particular idea featured in the text. I wouldn’t call this fun summer reading.
I give The Stranger a 6/10, a good book, a classic indeed, but a must read? Maybe not for everyone.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. 1st ed. New York: Vintage International, 1989. Print.