The Stranger

Albert Camus

 

BIOGRAM

 

Born in Mondovi, Algeria, in 1913, Albert Camus spent his early years in Algiers.  He completed a doctorate in philosophy, then worked at various jobs, establishing his own theatrical company in the 1930s.  At the age of 24 Camus became severely ill, a victim of tuberculosis.  During four years of convalescence, he formulated his existential philosophies and began a writing career.

                Camus spent the war years in Paris, participating in the French resistance with editorship of Combat, an underground paper.  He continued his career in journalism and literature after the war, working with the Gallimard publishing house and traveling extensively.  On 4 January 1960, Camus was killed in an automobile accident.

                Most of Camusí works are representative of the philosophy of existentialism.  Among them are four well-known fictional pieces:  The Stranger (1946), The Plague (1948), The Fall (1957), and Exile and Kingdom (1958).  He also wrote dramas, Caligula and Three Other Plays (1958), and two books of philosophical essays, The Rebel (1954) and The Myth of Sisphus (1956).  Camus, one4 of the worldís most brilliant thinkers and writers, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

 

CHARACTERS

 

                Meursault, the narrator of The Stranger, is an existential anti-hero.  Locked into the routine of daily existence, his life is a shapeless void without ideas, preferences, goals, or emotions.  Like a robot, Meursault responds to everything automatically, neither feeling nor caring.  When he is offered a job transfer to Paris, Meursault says he does not care where he works; yet he does not go because moving would be too much trouble.  His motherís death is met with similar lack of response:  he feels no despair or grief.  Occasionally, Meursault lacks motivation to do anything, so he spends the day sitting at his bedroom window, smoking cigarettes more out of habit than desire.

                Although Meursault is largely unaffected by the world around him, his isolation doesnít stem from a conscious intention to withdraw.  He merely drifts along without purpose, never facing or even avoiding a challenge.  Life is not worth the trouble of making decisions, and Meursault remains committed to nothing.

                The minor characters in the novel touch Meursaultís life but never penetrate his consciousness.  Marie Cardona, Meursaultís girl friend, is an attractive young woman, fond of life and aware of its joys.  She intends to marry Meursault, but when he is imprisoned for murder, his hopelessness finally dissuades her visits.  Her firm commitment to life and love amplifies Meursaultís lack of direction.

                Raymond Sintes, Meursaultís neighbor, is a disreputable man whose problems with women precipitate Meursaultís downfall.  Although Raymond insists that he works in a warehouse, he is widely reputed to be a pimp.  He views Meursault as a friend, but the feeling is not reciprocated.

                Other minor characters are a second neighbor, whose only companion is his mangy dog; and Masson, the owner of a beach cottage where Meursault and Marie spend a holiday.

 

SYNOPSIS          

                Meursault learns of his motherís death and travels to the Home for Aged Persons at Marengo, fifty miles from his residence in Algiers.  He spends a night vigil beside the coffin with ten elderly friends of his mother, all inmates at the Home.  Meursault, unaffected by the proceedings, refuses to look inside the coffin and sheds no tears.

                After a funeral procession and burial in the intense Algerian heat, Meursault returns home.  The following day, he meets Marie at the harbor and spends much of the weekend with her.

                The next evening, Raymond tells Meursault of his fight with the brothers of an Arab girl he was keeping.  Explaining that he wants revenge against the girl, he asks Meursault to help him write her a letter.  Meursault agrees.  Sometime later, Raymond beats the girl severely, and police question Meursault about Raymondís involvement.

                At Massonís beach cottage, Meursault and Raymond confront the Arabs who have followed them since the beating.  Raymond is injured and a second fight narrowly averted.  That afternoon, Meursault returns to the beach alone and encounters one of the Arabs.  Apprehensive and dazed by the extreme heat, he shoots the Arab five times.

                Meursault is jailed on a murder charge.  During the eleven months before his case comes to trial, he is interrogat4ed repeatedly by a magistrate who berates his atheism.  As Meursault gradually adjusts to prison life, he enjoys the interrogations and depends upon them for human contact.  He begins to yearn for freedoms he had never before appreciated.

                When Meursault is finally brought to trial, the prosecutor portrays him as a callous man, unmoved by his motherís death, and so quite capable of committing a senseless murder.  Although several witnesses testify in his behalf, Meursault is convicted and sentenced to death.

                Awaiting execution, Meursault becomes obsessed with finding a loophole in his sentence.  He stays awake at night, thinking about his appeal and watching for dawn.  When the prison chaplain visits him, urging repentance, Meursault angrily rejects the existence of God and an afterlife.  His violent outburst serves as a purgative, bringing him to a final confrontation with the inevitability of death.

 

THEME

                Basic to all thematic elements in The Stranger are Camusí hard-won existential philosophies.  In all existential thinking, the underlying assumption is the absence of a god and an afterlife.  Thus, there is no divine purpose for the universe or for human life.  Man, thought he shares a common existence with the lower creatures, is unique because of his consciousness, his ability to think and reason.  He alone can seek and create explanations for his own mortality.  Awareness of mortality, of purposeless death, is termed The Absurd.

                Most humans function automatically, blind to the absurdity of their condition.  Some, however, experience an awakening to absurdity, a sudden realization that life is meaningless.   According to Camus, this awakening is followed by either suicide or recovery.  Both actions imply decision.

                Recovery necessitates an acceptance of absurdity and a fundamental recognition of deathís inevitability.  Once a man faces his own imminent death, he realizes death is shared by all; it is the one sure human truth.  Ironically, the universality of death provides a purpose for living--love and compassion for oneís fellow sufferers.  Manís moral code takes life from these feelings.

                The Stranger is the story of Meursaultís awakening and recovery.  Early in the novel, he is unmoved by his motherís death because death itself holds no meaning for him.  After murdering the Arab, Meursault progresses by degrees to a full recognition of his own purposelessness and impending death.  During the long months of imprisonment, he slowly realizes that his former life was not empty.  He misses the freedom to make love to a woman, smoke cigarettes at will, or go for a swim.  These small joys, once meaningless, take on new importance when denied.  Meursault begins searching for the purpose of his existence but ends by creating one.  Finding the loophole in his sentence becomes his raison díetre.

                In spite of his rationalizations to the magistrate, Meursault does not finally reject God and eternity until the priest visits his cell.  In a single, violent moment of catharsis, he accepts lifeís absurdity and embraces his own death as a bond tying him to humanity.  Meursault awaits his execution, emptied of hope, yet calm and happy because he is no longer a stranger to himself.

 

VOCABULARY

1.  infirmity-illness

2.  retching-vomiting

3.  gaunt-haggard

4.  plaintive-melancholy

5.  voraciously-ravenously

6.  imperceptible-subtle

7.  taciturn-silent

8.  vexation-annoyance

9.  aversion-detestation

10.  elicit-evoke

11.  odious-offensive

12.  ingenuousness-innocence

13.  dubious-questionable

14.  inexorable-unrelenting

15.  execration-loathing