Book Review: The Stranger – Camus

The plot of “The Stranger” revolves around Meursault, (the narrator) a person more concerned with physicality of existence than abstract values. (We need to realize that even though Camus differed from Sartre is many aspects, he was broadly an existentialist). The novel begins with the death of his mother, his travel to Marengo to attend her funeral, where she was putting up in a nursing home, his lack of any emotional feeling of loss (him smoking, having a coffee and dozing off while keeping vigil over her body). The very next day he meets his ex colleague Marie Cardona and they go for a swim, watch a motive together and then have sex. The other character in the novel is Raymond Sintes (rumored to be a pimp) who is Meursault’s neighbour. He invites him for dinner and requests him to write a letter to his mistress whom he wants to humiliate for having cheated on him. Meursault agrees to write the letter. Raymond’s mistress does come to him, but they have an altercation and the police is called. Raymond invites Meursault and Marie to join him at the beach house of his friend Masson. There they are is confronted with one of the Arabs – who is the brother of Raymond’s mistress, who stabs Raymond. The latter has a gun and wants to shot the brother but Meursault talks him out of it and takes his gun. After taking Raymond back to the beach house, Meursault goes back to the spring to cool himself where he again sees the Arab playing with his knife. Meursault shoots the Arab. He is arrested and in the court the prosecutor, magistrate and his defense seek to understand as to why he shot the Arab. Meursault argues that it was the heat that made him do it. Unable to accept this, the prosecutor argues that the accused lacks all moral values (he refers to his lack of grief shown at his mother’s death) and so is a threat to society. He is finally sentenced to death by guillotine. There are attempts by a chaplain to get him to believe in God but he refuses. Meursault initially seeks freedom, misses his women, cigarettes swim etc but gradually adapts to a life without them. Initially he wanted to appeal for his freedom but gradually he realizes that ultimately he has to die, so does it really matter if he dies early (by execution) or after decades by natural causes. He accepts death as inevitable and waits for it peacefully.

‘The Stranger’ basically deals with and elaborates upon Camus theory of ‘absurdity’, which can be explained as the conflict between what we want from the world/life (order, meaning, significance) and what we actually get (chaos, absurdity and meaningless existence). Camus argues that human existence has basically no rational meaning or order. However, people have difficulty in accepting this, and so they seek to create the illusion of an order in human lives and society. The ‘absurdity’ of Camus is thus this futile attempt of man, to create a rational order which basically does not exist. In the novel, the court room, the arguments of the prosecutor, defense, magistrate etc are symptomatic of man’s desire to create this rational meaning to his life and the world. For Camus there is no higher meaning or purpose in life, the only certainty being death. Camus had argued that ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy’.

The most interesting thing which I could relate to in the book was the interpretation of Meursault’s actions by the prosecutor and defense. Through their interpretations of his actions they actually ended up creating a person which he basically was not. Isn’t it funny that in the real world too, when one is asked of ones view on some issue wherein if the respondent is not sure/has self doubt, or has a radical contrarian view than the prevailing truth, the ‘thekedaars’ of morality/ self styled intellectuals/society’s conscience keepers etc pounce on him/her and attribute meaning to their views/actions which more often than not fundamentally incorrect. Such people are sure to be branded with ‘choicest attributes’ and are condemned to live with those sobriquets! Being regular then is so much more easy!

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