Theme of Absurdity in The Stranger by Albert Camus
Absurdity in The Stranger by Albert Camus is a vastly discussed topic, mainly because Camus has managed to bring on a subject of humanity that is not often discussed. Absurdity, in philosophy, is the conflict to find meaning to something that doesn’t have meaning, and ties its lines with existential nihilism. The argument in question is that life is meaningless, and has no purpose or intrinsic value. Albert Camus has made this claim as an existentialist philosopher, but the question at hand here is “What is Absurdism?” and a number of literary critics have taken a stab at analyzing Camus’s definition and use it to look the psychological aspects of The Stranger. Looking at this from an existential point of view, the point made by Albert Camus is very true, and The Stranger is a work of art in it’s ways to question the absurd, the psychological, and the philosophical aspects of “the Stranger” – Meursault – and the world around him.
Albert Camus defines absurdism as “an experience to be lived through, a point of departure, the equivalent, in existence of Descartes’ methodical doubt.” Methodic doubt, also known as Cartesian doubt, means to systematically search for an answer to something but being doubtful of everything. Regardless, the point Camus was trying to express through writing The Stranger was that life in itself is absurd, as life’s workings are meaningless; but it is even more absurd that humans try to find something meaningful from something meaningless. Ironically, though Camus states that there is no inherent meaning to life, he says that we should live it anyways.
In “Confronting the Absurd:An educational reading of Camus’ The stranger”, Aidan Curzon-Hobson mentions absurdity as the great educator and “the Stranger” as our means of going through this adventure to discover the meanings of absurdity: “Reading the absurd as the ‘condition’ to be confronted, which I believe suggests something educational, Camus is offering us the stranger as the vehicle for this type of transforming thought and action” (Hobson, 464).
There is an inner conflict at times with Mersault when he becomes conscious of his absurdism, which in turn, creates doubt. His failure in solidarity with the society around him causes him to question if he is in the right or wrong, but there will come pivotal moments where the character has a realization about his indifferences about the world around him. Absurdism, in that sense, would mean to have a disjunction between yourself and the world around you, creating a sense of strangeness between the both of you. Curzon-Hobson emphasizes on Camus’s characters in these situations as they usually find the absurd in normal situations, creating a feeling of strangeness in them. For example, the public’s reaction to Meursault’s absurdity put him in a position where he was essentially made into a stranger: “Meursault himself experiences a strong sense of strangeness as he becomes increasingly affected by the reactions and expectations of those around him” (Hobsons, 464).
Thus this sensation of strangeness eventually lead to his outburst in front of the chaplain in response to his demanding certainty on what his fate was, and it would cause him to understand clearly what it meant to be absurd. Camus’s definition of absurdism is clear in this realization, and all in all, he becomes calm and content. In The Stranger, the main character Meursault shows absurdity in almost every statement that he makes. In the infamous beginning sentence in the first part of the book; “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure” (Camus, 4). Right away, we see something strange about him- Meursault seems to show no feeling towards his mother passing away. In fact, he seems quite indifferent about everything in general. Meursault lacks a lot of the characteristics that supposedly makes someone “human”, like the ability to lie, cheat, play games, and to really empathize with someone else. It is what makes him “absurd”, so to say, and in all essence, he is who he is and is punished quite drastically for it.
As much as Meursault is a strange character, to say the least, the public’s reaction to his absurdity is what gives him doubt about his own nature. But what was incredible about Meursault’s trial all together ends up being that his absurdity got him there in the first place- everything that he had failed to see value in, such as love, work, friends, and most importantly, death was all used against him. He realizes this, but it also hits him that there is no point. He feels no remorse towards killing the Arab man, further stating that his death was as purposeless as his own death is going to be. “What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or 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” (Camus, 75). And as he is screaming at the chaplain that he’d rather burn than have prayers being wasted on him, Meursault no longer has any doubt. He realizes right then that he is in the right; that he has always been in the right.
Meursault is in the face of death and knows that any work that he had done, any relations that he had, and any religion he might have believed in no longer matters. Every bad deed will no longer bother him. Every good deed will no longer hang over him. He will die, and the universe will remain unchanged. And he is content. In the end, you have to admit that his lack of hope ironically gave him more hope, because now, he felt free and ready to start life over again. One thing that we constantly have to remember about The Stranger are its psychological aspects, and this is different from being able to analyze absurdity versus normality.
Albert Camus was clearly inspired by existentialist philosophers of his time, as well as the psychoanalytic advancements made by a variety of psychologists. One in particular mentioned in Psychological Interpretation of the novel The Stranger by Camus is Sigmund Freud; a psychoanalyst who focused his studies on the conscious and unconscious. R. Gnanasekaran says that the psychological aspects of Meursault match Camus’s, but manages to make The Stranger into a story that is not entirely about him. Camus uses his own life to make Meursault: “He was compensating for his relative lack of inventive or imaginative powers by picking out aspects of his own personal experience which fitted in with the mood and ideas he was seeking to communicate.” (Gnanasekaran, 82). But this is not to say Camus wasn’t creative.
According to Freud, the unconscious and creative processes are linked together, and this is likely what is happening. Many of the activities we perform on a regular basis is a product of the unconscious, or the Id. Basic, primal desires and experiences from the Id are repressed by the Ego and Superego, but this later on gets reflected within our dreams. What this means for Meursault as a character is that he has several layers of characteristics; the characteristics given by Camus consciously and the characters given by Camus unconsciously. R.Gnanasekaran also talks about neurosis in Meursault, and says it is possible that “The character Meursault is also to some extent suffers from this phobic neurosis” Which in essence means the avoidance of objects or situations that symbolize something to them, causing fear and anxiety within the individual. This would makes sense, but the emphasis would have to be put on “some extent”.
Gnanasekaran continues by explaining that he avoids the situation of facing human discussion and specific aspects of his humanity: “For an instance, after his mother’s funeral he says the following day. ”I slept until ten. After that I stayed in bed until noon, smoking cigarettes. I decided not to lunch at Céleste’s restaurant as I usually did; they’d be sure to pester me with questions, and I dislike being questioned. So I fried some eggs and ate them off the pan.” Thus he avoids the situation” (Gnanasekaran, 80). It is arguable that this is what makes him more human- his ability to fear, but he is very honest about his emotions, and that in itself is shocking. It is as if Albert Camus is speaking on natural fears and how to cope with them, and this becomes far more prevalent as we move forward. This would be the way Meursault would cope until he had nothing to hide behind anymore, and his strange nature would come into light.
Meursault’s social behaviours are of interest just as much as the psychological aspect in creating him are. It is important to note what Meursault thinks about, how he sees the world, and how he deals with intense situations. Through his narrative, it is easy to mistake Meursault as someone shallow. For example, whenever he’d talk about Marie, his love interest, he’d more often think about her physical appearance than the things she said or the way she acted around him: “She had a very pretty dress, with red and white stripes, and leather sandals, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. One could see the outline of her firm little breasts, and her sun-tanned face was like a velvety brown flower” (Camus, The Stranger, 24).
Looking at his more deeply, we see that in these moments, he seems happy. When he observes people, he is happy. Meursault is clearly not a social character, and R. Gnanasekaran briefs on his lack of social interest, “Meursault is perceptive of what occurs around him; he observes details of how people look and move, objects, and the natural world. He seldom, however, makes any logical connections between events. He never suggests what other people might be thinking or feeling, only what they do; he never judges others” (Gnanasekaran, 84). It is apparent that Meursault is a physical observer, and he doesn’t see this as a bad thing. He doesn’t’ feel the need to take in several aspects of a person to function as a person, and this is mostly because he sees irrationality and hypocrisy in their words rather than their actions. The connection between words and actions are illogical, and thus he never judges the tiny details that he observes in the world. In order to understand The Stranger as a philosophical work of art, we must understand The Myth of Sisyphus.
The Myth of Sisyphus is a philosophical essay by Albert Camus which explains the eternal punishment of King Sisyphus after making a fool out of the Gods. He was condemned to perform a straightforward task- all he had to do was push a boulder up a mountain. However, to his demise, just as he reached the top, the boulder would fall back with its own weight, causing Sisyphus to repeat the task of pushing and dropping over and over again, for an eternity. Camus notes that Sisyphus’s fate resembles man’s futile struggle to find meaning in life but this struggle only becomes tragic when the man becomes conscious of his tasks. ‘The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” (Camus, 23). He uses this to answer the question which is deemed the most important in philosophy: “Does the realization of the meaninglessness and absurdity of life necessarily require suicide?”. He will go on to answer that question, in which he says that it doesn’t require suicide- it requires revolt. It is through revolt or rebellion against meaninglessness that we can live the best life possible.
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