A classic of twentieth-century literature and arguably Albert Camus’ most famous work, L’Étranger, or The Stranger, is the perfect place to start if you are looking to get to grips with Camus’ distinctive brand of absurdist philosophy. While, on the surface at least, the novella seems to center on the psychology of a man incapable of feeling who commits an act of mindless violence, it is, in fact, a profound meditation on what Camus conceived to be a far more universal issue: namely, the inherent absurdity and insignificance at the heart of human existence. Here, we will explore this enigmatic work of canonical French literature and take a closer look at its critical reception, the history of its publication, and the philosophical ideas underpinning it.
The Stranger: Plot Summary
The Stranger centers on the first-person narrator Meursault, a French man in Algiers, Algeria, which, at the time, was a French colony. His mother has recently died, and, at the beginning of the novella, Meursault takes time off work to attend her funeral on an oppressively hot day. Meursault, however, seems unable to feel grief or loss as the other attendees of the funeral expect of him, nor does he pretend to feel them. He resents the implication that he should perform these emotions simply to appease others or to follow a social script.
The day after the funeral, he returns to Algiers, where he meets Marie, who used to work as a secretary in his firm. Despite the recent death of his mother, the two soon embark on a sexual relationship.
Meursault also agrees to help his friend (and rumored pimp) Raymond Sintès to exact revenge on his girlfriend, an Algerian woman whom he suspects has been unfaithful to him. Sintès asks Meursault to write a letter to the woman, inviting her to Sintès’ apartment so that, after having sex with her, he can spit in her face and throw her out. Incapable of feeling anything more than a mild interest in the situation, Meursault agrees to do this without compunction. However, when Sintès’ girlfriend shows up, he beats her, and the police intervene. At his friend’s behest, Meursault agrees to testify that the woman was unfaithful to Sintès, who is then let off with a warning.
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Meanwhile, Meursault has not only been offered a job at a branch the firm plans to open in Paris, but Marie has asked him if he would like to marry her. Meursault is willing to go along with both propositions to avoid disappointing his boss or Marie, though he himself has no strong feelings in either case.
The reader also learns that Meursault’s elderly neighbor, Salamano, has lost his dog. Though Salamano has treated the dog cruelly, he now finds himself seeking comfort from Meursault, whom he informs that their fellow neighbors criticized following his decision to send his mother to a retirement home.
Sintès invites Meursault and Marie to his friend’s beach cabin over a weekend, during which time they encounter the brother of Sintès’ now ex-girlfriend as well as another Algerian man. Sintès says that the two have been following him, and when the two men confront Sintès and Meursault, the brother stabs Sintès before fleeing. Later, having confiscated a revolver from Sintès, Meursault sets off along the beach alone, where he meets Sintès’ ex-girlfriend’s brother again. Meursault, disoriented at this point by prolonged sun exposure, fatally shoots the man when he sees him flash his knife in his direction. Even though the shot is fatal, however, he goes on to shoot him a further four times, apparently untroubled by anything more than the heat of the sun.
In the second part of the novella, Meursault has been imprisoned and is relatively unconcerned by the restricted freedoms now imposed on him. He spends a year waiting for his day in court, which he whiles away contentedly enough by making a mental list of all the objects in his old apartment.
When his day in court arrives, the prosecution weaponizes his inability to mourn or cry at his mother’s funeral as evidence of a more sinister criminality and lack of remorse, as Meursault does not deny that he killed the man on the beach. In his narration, Meursault admits that he does not experience regret or remorse for his actions but rather focuses on the present. He is then sentenced to death by public decapitation.
Meursault now focuses his mind on his fate, looking for a means of escape. He is visited by the prison chaplain, who tells Meursault that while his appeal may succeed in securing his escape from prison, it will not alleviate his feelings of guilt. Meursault then proceeds to harangue the chaplain, informing him that his own nearness to death has given him a greater authority on the subject than the chaplain possesses and points out that, as we all must die someday, the time and the manner of our death is ultimately of little consequence.
When the chaplain leaves, Meursault finds that he can now derive some comfort from the thought that he faces death now in a somewhat similar way to his mother, who was surrounded by the dying in her retirement home. He is now reconciled “to the benign indifference of the universe” and looks forward to being met by the baying crowd at his execution.
Publication History & Reception of The Stranger
Having finished work on the manuscript in 1941, Camus’ L’Étranger was originally published in France on May 16th, 1942. This meant that the publication of the novella took place during the Nazi occupation of France, and while it went to the publishers without having been censored by the Propaganda-Staffel, its printing run was restricted to just 4,400 copies. This effectively prevented it from being a best-seller.
After the end of the Second World War, however, it was translated into English and published in the United Kingdom in 1946. To avoid being confused with Maria Kuncewiczowa’s novel Cudzoziemka (which translates as The Stranger), UK copies of Camus’ 1942 novella are typically titled The Outsider. In the United States, however, the title The Stranger is used.
A year after the publication of an English translation in the UK, fellow French author Jean-Paul Sartre published the article “Explication de L’Étranger” in 1947. In Sartre’s article, he advanced a reading of The Stranger in light of Camus’ long philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, which was also first published in 1942.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explains his absurdist philosophy. According to Camus, the absurd lies in the conflict between humankind’s universal need to believe that life is intrinsically meaningful and, by way of response, the universe’s silence on that point. “The ‘absurd’ man,” writes Sartre, “is the man who does not hesitate to draw the inevitable conclusions from a fundamental absurdity,” and, according to Sartre, Meursault is just that sort of man. Neither “good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral,” Meursault is simply an absurd man who comprehends the fundamental absurdity of life. And, having comprehended it, he is at peace with it.
For Camus, realizing the absurd does not vindicate suicide. As Sartre explains:
“The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusion, and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the ‘divine irresponsibility’ of the condemned man.”
And this, of course, is just what Meursault does at the end of The Stranger.
Such sentiments chimed with a post-war readership struggling to make sense of the devastation of World War II. In the wake of the horrors of the Nazi regime, Camus’ notion that life had neither intrinsic purpose nor redeeming meaning struck a chord with those who also found post-war reality to be somewhat absurd. The question – for Camus as for all those living in the aftermath of the Second World War – was to find a way of living with this new sense of absurdity.
The late great American literary critic and queer theorist Leo Bersani, however, has dismissed The Stranger as “mediocre” with pretensions towards being a “‘profound’ novel,” though he did also call it an “impressive if flawed exercise in a kind of writing promoted by the New Novelists of the 1950s.”
Despite Bersani’s dismissal of it as an artistic failure, The Stranger is widely considered a classic of modern European literature. Through the central character of Meursault – the archetypal “absurd man” – Camus sets out his own absurdist view of the world and, in turn, our own insignificant place within it. While this absurdist view of the world is distinctly Camusian, it also spoke to a pervading sense of alienation and existential meaninglessness that gripped Europe in the wake of the Second World War – a sense that arguably persists to this day.