Three Themes in the Stranger by Albert Camus
In the novel, The Stranger, author Albert Camus confronts some important issues of the time, and uses the singular viewpoint of the narrator Meursault to develop his philosophy and effectively weave together themes of absurdity, colonialism, and free will. Through the progressive disruption of Meursault’s life and his characterization, Camus presents the absurdity of the human condition along with the understanding that a person can actually be happy in the face of the absurd. Camus also intentionally sets the story in the colonized country of Algeria, and hints at the racial tensions that exist between French-Algerians and Arabs.
Indeed, these issues of race and colonialism pervade the events of Meursault’s life and help lead to its eventual downfall. Camus also plays with the idea of free will by contrasting Meursault’s apparent indifference to the world around him and the social morality to which that world is bound.
The notion of absurdity is an ongoing theme throughout the novel and is manifested in Meursault’s unusual psychology of emotional indifference and his condemnation for it later by the courts.
The reader is immediately stricken by Meursault’s flat and unemotional response to the death of his mother: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-etre hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai recu un telegramme de l’asile: ‘Mere decedee. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingues.’ Cela ne veut rien dire. C’etait peut-etre hier.” (pg.1) Meursault’s characterization remains monotone throughout; his only pleasures are immediate, physical, and fleeting: the taste of a café au lait, the warmth of sun and water, or the touch of his fiancée Marie. In Meursault, Camus describes an absurd state of existence reduced to immediate sensations. One such sensation, consisting of exhaustion, a hot blast of wind from the sea, and temporary blinding by the sun, leads Meursault to fire a revolver at a man and “detruire l’equilibre du jour, le silence exceptionnel d’une plage”. (pg.30)
Later, he will tell the judge, without remorse, that he killed the Arab “because of the sun.” In truth, there are extenuating circumstances for his crime: the preceding scuffle with the man, the beginning of sunstroke, the lack of premeditation, the consumption of wine, the reflex action of pulling the trigger, and the defensive instinct taking over. But Meursault remains indifferent to murder, and fails to defend himself. Ironically, he is convicted as much for his psychological indifference, his selfish and anti-social behavior, and his lack of mourning for his mother, as for his actual crime. Somehow, when the prosecution was asked: “est-it accuse d’avoir enterre sa mere ou d’avoir tue un homme?” it was perfectly acceptable to assert: “j’accuse cet homme d’avoir enterre une mere avec un coeur de criminal.” (pg.47)
What is equally absurd is that Meursault remains passive and detached over the course of a year of interrogations, and despite the pessimistic nature of his situation, he is able to feel a sense of comfort and belonging within the system trying to condemn him. Ironically, those witness testimonies that sought to free him prove to be the most damaging, and the religious people who surround him and purport to love all men unconditionally persecute him for his lack of belief. Everyone is astonished that Meursault has no emotions about the murder –no sense of remorse or desire to repent. Most men in his position find God in a desperate attempt to cling to something, but Meursault flatly denies any belief in religion.
Indeed, he rejects all that the prison chaplain embodies: acceptance and submission to the injustices of the world, and blind faith in God and a better future. But Meursault is convinced that happiness comes not from searching for meaning in such an irrational world, but from living concretely in the here and now, without any false illusions. During his final day in court, he assesses his own happiness: “Pendant que mon avocet continuait a parler, la trompette d’un marchand de glace a resonne jusqu’a moi. J’ai ete assailli des souvenirs d’une vie qui ne m’appartenait plus, mais ou j’avais trouve les plus pauvres et les plus tenaces de mes joies: des odeurs d’ete, le quartier que j’aimais, un certain ciel du soir, le rire et les robes de Marie…” (pg. 51)
Camus intentionally sets the story around the city of Algiers, following France’s colonization of Algeria. While the theme of colonialism may appear to be a minor one, it is nevertheless significant in the events of Meursault’s life. This is clear in the novel’s predominance of French characters, despite their minority status there. Indeed, in his narrative Meursault only ever names and interacts with French-Algerians. Although Arabs are not depicted as socially inferior, Camus does not bestow names on them, nor does he grant them any appeal or dimension.
We are introduced only briefly to the deformed Arab nurse, and given too little insight into the nameless group of Arabs that follows Raymond and Meursault around. Even the abuse of Raymond’s Arab mistress is told with an air of indifference, and Meursault is quick to dismiss her with the observation that “quand il m’a dit le nom de la femme, j’ai vu que c’etait une Mauresque.” (pg. 16) However, the most significant evidence of Camus’ use of racial tension as a backdrop for the events of the novel, is in the senseless murder of an Arab man by a French-Algerian one, and not merely from a single gunshot, but four more besides.
Another theme that permeates the novel is that of free will. Meursault values his individuality and he rejects conformity because of his desire to be true to himself. It is evident that he will not compromise his beliefs or conform to the expected codes of conduct, even though some revision in his behavior could spare his life. Clearly, he is well aware of the social norms to which he is bound, as is evidenced by the expectation of condolences by his boss, the concession to wear the black tie and armband symbols of mourning, and his agreement to accept Marie’s marriage proposal, but he remains obstinate where it matters most. There are many wrong choices he freely makes that impact how he is viewed. Meursault shows no guilt or remorse for his crime, and this causes those who might have taken his side to resent him.
He also declines to view his mother’s body or mourn appropriately, and he turns down a promotion that would take him to Paris. He makes other damaging decisions, from catching a film the day after his mother’s funeral to agreeing with Raymond’s plan for revenge against his girlfriend. He also refuses to favourably misrepresent the details of his case as he is encouraged to. Most importantly, though, Meursault refuses to acknowledge the importance of religion and chooses not to seek salvation in the face of ruin. In essence, social morality is not tolerant of such open defiance. Camus also characterizes Meursault as a reasonably intelligent man, but he sets him up in a situation where he is dominated by the power of language rather than in control of it.
Lawyers play games with words, and Meursault’s rational thought process is no match for them as they independently decide his destiny. He can see the absurdity of the language, as when the prosecutor proclaims: “j’accuse cet homme d’avoir enterre une mere avec un coeur de criminal”, and he can see the futility of his own inadequate responses: “J’ai dit rapidement, en melant un peu les mots et en me rendant compte de mon ridicule, que c’etait a cause du soleil.” (pg. 50) Despite the corruption all around him, Meursault stands by his actions and accepts full responsibility in a society that cultivates deception and hypocrisy. Ironically, while he prides himself in these principles, he does not realize that everyone must depend on others to some degree and that the ideal of free will is actually a limited one.
Through the development of Meursault character and the series of events that impact his life, Albert Camus effectively examines the philosophy of the absurd with respect to the human condition and the limitations of free will under a backdrop of colonialism and racial tension. Using a simple plot and first-person narration by the most indifferent of men, Camus reveals Meursault’s unique perspective on the world he falls victim to and gives rise to an understanding of how forces beyond an individual’s control can severely impact a life no matter what a person’s core beliefs or true intentions may be.
Albert Camus, “L’Etranger”:
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