The Stranger

by Albert Camus

Published 1942 159 pages

Hot damn now that’s a stylish novel. Makes me want to go dress in black and wander around aimlessly declaring that neither X nor Y matters.

Meursault, the protagonist and world lens for the reader, is a curious case: totally disaffected, he floats through life almost totally disengaged with what's going on around him, until he finally kills a man, is thrown in prison, and (spoiler alert) is sentenced to death. Almost nothing means anything to Meursault—not his mother's death, not the rickety friendship he strikes up with Raymond Sintès, not the eventual guilty verdict. In the closing words of the novel, he opens him self to "the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again."

The conventional reading from the past 80 years of literary crit is that Meursault is condemned because he refuses to “play the game”, which is to say that he refuses to adopt the same value systems as the rest of society around him. Regular, correctly-wired folks have whole dictionaries of meaning and correlation that help us navigate the world and the relationships we have with others. It's not just a question of psychopathy, although you could probably make the argument that Meursault is a classical psychopath; it's a question of fundamental value. Psychopaths have values, even if they don't really align with a well-functioning society; Meursault has no values at all. The death of his mother—even psychopaths'd be upset about that—maybe too upset!—should affect Meursault, but his total detachment means he feels almost nothing at all.

That is to say: Meursault is put on trial for killing a man, but is condemned for not reacting to his mother's death. (For Meursault’s part, he doesn’t deny the murder—so the prosecutor has to go for something more dramatic.) The murder actually feels incidental: the dead man is never even named. Meursault, for his part, treats death as unavoidable. Since it happens to everyone eventually, the time and place are irrelevant, he tells a chaplain near the end of the book.

The implicit message behind this thesis being, of course, that the way we spend our lives in the interim is meaningless. I think that Meursault believes that, but I don't think that Camus does. I'm not super well-versed in existentialism but I think that the next step after the total un-subscription to value dictionaries is reconstructing your own value dictionary from scratch. I think that Meursault probably doesn't come to this conclusion before it's off-with-his-head time.

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